Before The Great British Bake Off, these four amateur bakers were a debt collector, a childrenswear designer, a student and a retired NHS practice manager. But winning the biggest show on television changed everything.
“In one breath it feels like it all happened years and years ago,” says John Whaite, who won the third series in 2012. “But then on the other hand when I look back at it and I think of the happy memories, it all feels like it was just yesterday. I can’t believe how quickly five years has flown by.”
It’s clear that entering and then winning GBBO was a transformative process for each of them. Edd Kimber, who was working as a debt collector when he applied for the first ever series of the then-BBC2 baking show in 2010, sees his life in two distinct parts, before and after Bake Off.
“It’s getting on to eight years since I actually applied to the show. But the show felt very different back then – it was a lot more simple and twee.
“I always used to say that actually there’s the ‘before’ and ‘after’ Bake Off,” he says. “It feels like a different person for me. It gave me a lot more confidence, and it kind of gave me a kick to actually do what I really love to do.”
Nancy Birtwhistle applied to the show when she found herself feeling “a little bit bored” after retiring from her job in NHS management.
“I wasn’t really enjoying my retirement,” the series five winner explains. “So Bake Off was a godsend, because I became a working person again, but doing something completely different.”
The journey to lifting that hallowed glass cake stand wasn’t an easy one for any of them, though. With highly-respected judges to impress, strict time constraints on bakes and roving cameras ready to capture every collapsed cake for an audience of millions, understandably the bakers found the pressure in the tent immense.
The Bake Off experience is described by series four winner Frances Quinn as being “the best and the worst experience” of her life.
“Only because I have never known stress levels like it!” she says. Nancy agrees: “You see yourself doing some stupid things when you’re under pressure,” she laughs. John meanwhile had the extraordinary added pressure of doing a law degree at the same time.
“I’m not going to lie. It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done in my entire life,” laughs John. “It was a really tense period. But I only look back on it with fond memories. A lot of the other bakers in my series were all sat around moaning because obviously it’s television there’s a lot of waiting around. But I just enjoyed the whole process. If I could do it all over again, I definitely would.”
The tent, John says, is an “absolute vortex” and he found it hard not to get too carried away with the competition.
“In the enriched bread dough week, Paul said that my Chelsea buns were tasteless, so I actually cornered him in the field afterwards when the cameras had stopped and said ‘what are you on about? You’re talking rubbish. They’re not tasteless – try it again,'” says John.
“And that’s when I looked at myself and thought ‘Oh God – this just isn’t worth it. Just go home, have a good night’s sleep and just let it go. It’s just baking!’ That’s what we used to say to each other. We used to say IJB – it’s just baking. If anyone was getting stressed just lean over to each other and just say ‘IJB, babes!'”
But after being force-fed a Chelsea bun, did Paul Hollywood still say they were tasteless? “Oh he did. But he smokes like a factory chimney, so what does he know!” jokes John.
“I remember getting through to the final and not really feeling much at all, because I was so absolutely knackered,” says Nancy. “People said, ‘Are you excited to be in the final?’. ‘Well, frankly, no, not really.’ I just saw it as the end of the tunnel, because it was just relentless.
“I remember in July [after the final] feeling a real anti-climax and thinking, ‘Now what are you going to do with yourself? Is that it?’ Because Bake Off had occupied every bit of my time for months.”
Frances recalls being “just absolutely exhausted” during the week of the final and was “emotionally drained” after winning in 2013 before going back to her job as a childrenswear designer the next day.
“I was sitting there, getting emails about how the vending machine’s out of order and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I just won Bake Off and I can’t say a thing!’” she laughs.
After winning, Edd went back to Leeds and wrote what he now thinks would be “quite a pretentious and self-indulgent resignation letter” from his job as a debt collector. “I’d love to read it again,” he laughs.
Looking back, he reflects that it was probably “a silly decision”, because he quit his job just two days after winning – but three months before his victory actually aired.
“Basically, I had no money,” he says. “I just sat there at home, doing nothing, going, ‘OK, something’s going to happen’. I moved to London two months after Bake Off finished and I went and lived on a friend’s couch with no money, no job, no nothing.
“So I set myself a deadline. I very specifically sat myself down and thought, ‘OK, if by the end of the year I’m paying my rent and I’m happy and I like what I’m doing, I’ll stick at it.’”
Being the winner of series one, the attention and scrutiny Edd faced was nominal compared to recent winners. As Bake Off has ballooned from attracting 3 million viewers to becoming the biggest show on TV with 13 million people tuning in, the media hype around it has become phenomenal.
“The last couple of seasons, a certain amount of press has been really negative and personal against these members of the public who just want to make cake,” says Edd, as he ponders whether he would be have been put off from applying to the show now, given how big it’s become. “I find that quite stressful. I would love to say I would [still apply], but I think if I was the same person I was when I entered, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
It’s not surprising. Now, the winners find themselves catapulted to the front of papers and the top of news bulletins the moment the nation discovers they’ve won.
“One of the strangest parts of it is the three months between the final and the first episode being broadcast,” adds Frances. “I remember I had got the trophy and I just kept it hidden under the bed. The week before the final, I remember I needed my radiator draining. So the plumber came around and I remember being downstairs, making a cup of coffee, going, ‘Oh s**t, he’s going to see it!’”
Nancy describes it as a “difficult time”, too. “It’s a nice secret to know, but you have to be so careful because it’s such a big programme. I think it’s amazing that there’s never been spoilers.”
Nancy describes the day after her final aired as “just crazy”, and Frances recalls walking through London and being constantly stopped the day after her win was televised. The endless TV and radio interviews were “like being on a rollercoaster”.
“And then sitting next to Joan Collins on The One Show after having had no sleep whatsoever,” laughs Frances. “It was just some weird dream – like I’d overdosed on sugar.”
John says he had “about 3,000 emails” on his phone the morning after he woke up from his Bake Off win.
“It was weird – I was whisked off here and there. Down to London and then back up North and everywhere in between doing media interviews. It was just really, really exhausting. I don’t know what they do now, but in my series we never got any media training or anything like that,” adds John. “You get thrown into it. I didn’t anticipate the level or the severity of interest from the media at all.”
Nancy says that although local journalists were “desperate” to know if she had won in the lead-up to the final, Love Productions, who make the show, were “very good” post-Bake Off at managing the media. However, John did suffer some intrusion.
“Some reporters turned up at my mum’s house one day and were asking for pictures,” says John. “And because my mum’s so kind and excited she invited them in for coffee! Luckily the girl who was doing the PR for the Bake Off at the time rung the journalist immediately and told her to leave the house straight away, and she did.”
For Frances, too, she quickly learnt about how the media worked after incorrect rumours started swirling from nowhere about her apparently having signed up for I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! “You can never ever believe what you read in the press,” she says. “You’ve got to take everything with a humungous pinch of salt.”
John is also keen to stress the realities of winning the show. “People think if you win the Bake Off you walk straight into a big book deal and all of this but it isn’t like that,” he says. “You’ve still got to work really, really hard – probably harder than before – to make the right connections, to tour with brands, to discuss opportunities and negotiations. It’s a really difficult and quite stressful period coming out of the Bake Off.”
With offers flying around, the next steps needed to be carefully considered. Owing to the fact her dad owned a book shop, Frances didn’t want to be too hasty with rushing into a publishing deal.
“I wanted to do a book that I felt was a reflection of my illustrations and my design side,” she says. “If I look back now, I may have taken more of a strategy and approach to it all.”
John agrees. “I put my hands up – my first two books, while the recipes I’m really proud of – the design and the style of them wasn’t me at all. It wasn’t who I was. I was this very naïve, grateful Bake Off winner and I plodded along with it.
“I sort of got pushed in the wrong direction – not out of any malice or anyone trying to take advantage. But just because I didn’t really know who I was. I was only 23! You’re very, very vulnerable. I think even if you were 50 and you won the Bake Off you’d still be vulnerable to the forces that control the industry.”
Until recently, John was a regular chef on Lorraine and presented two series of competitive cookery show Chopping Block on ITV alongside Rosemary Shrager.
“To be honest with you, right now I’m taking a little break at the minute,” says John. “Chopping Block won’t be coming back. I loved making it and I loved working with Rosemary and the time on Lorraine has been the most fun, but things have to come to an end.”
While he might be taking a break from TV, John is certainly not having a rest. He’s opened an eponymous cookery school in Lancashire and is just about to release his fourth cookbook, Comfort: Food to soothe the soul.
“I think writing books three and four and the cookery school have been really great successes and my most proud achievements,” says John.
Frances, meanwhile, says she’d love to do some more books – possibly children’s books – to draw on her love of illustrating, while Edd is pleased to have found a “best of both worlds” between being well-known and baking.
Edd admits he was “incredibly shy” and had “very bad self-confidence” before appearing on the show, but recalls a formative chat he had off-camera with then-Bake Off host Sue Perkins that helped bolster his self-esteem.
“We had this conversation about the fact that I was gay and I had these confidence issues,” explains Edd. “I just wasn’t excelling in my life, really. So she basically said to me, ‘Well, this is now the time you have to kick that. This is an opportunity to effect change in your life.’ I took that to heart.”
“After going through that, Bake Off sort of almost prepares you for anything,” says Frances. “Being in front of the media, doing demos or stuff on telly – it just doesn’t daunt me in the same way it would have if I hadn’t done Bake Off.”
Nancy’s win also gave her the confidence to feel comfortable on screen. “I can do after-dinner speaking. I’ve done demonstrations in private kitchens and at big food shows,” she says.
“To me, the idea of being famous is a bit grim,” continues Edd. “I don’t think I could ever have dealt with the attention Nadiya [Hussain, Bake Off’s 2015 winner] gets, because it’s intense and ongoing,” he says. “I’m very happy with my career. I’m very happy with the balance I’ve managed to achieve. The fact that I have a bit of a halfway house is really nice.”
His book Patisserie Made Simple comes out in paperback in November and he also makes a podcast called Stir the Pot, in which he interviews people from the food world. “But basically,” he says. “I’d say my job now is as a working food writer.”
Nancy, meanwhile, has embarked on what she’s calling her #365Challenge. Every day for a year, she’s sharing a recipe, video or tip for in the kitchen or around the house, from making the perfect focaccia to how to clean the bottom of a decanter.
“I’m hoping a publisher will take an interest in it and I’ll get a book out of it,” she says. “But we’ll see.”
The winner of series 8 will no doubt face even more scrutiny than Edd, Frances, John and Nancy as people look to weigh up whether the first outing of Bake Off on Channel 4 could be deemed a success.
From humble beginnings on BBC2, it would’ve been almost impossible to predict the furore that would erupt six years later with Channel 4 swooping in with a reported £75 million offer to Love Productions for the rights to broadcast the show.
“I think the fact that people have instantly dismissed Sandi and Noel is a little bit silly. You have no idea what that relationship will be until we see it on air,” says Edd. “I have this distinct memory of doing my very first audition and someone telling me that Sue and Mel were possibly going to present it.
“People in the room were like, ‘Wait, what? Comedians?’ Because no one had done that before. So I’m really excited to see what it’s like. Although I was sad that Sue, Mel and Mary Berry left, because I do think they’re a massive part of the show.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by John. “I think it’s very sad that Mel and Sue have left the show,” he says. “But I think the wholesome feel to the show will maintain because it’s still Love Productions. I don’t think they’re going to want to diversify or stray too far from the show that we know and love.”
The proof of the pudding will be in the viewing, but Nancy is also mellow about the move. “I’m actually really excited about what it’s going to be like,” she says. “Because nothing at all is forever in life. I know lots of people are saying, ‘It won’t be the same’. Well, it won’t be the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Frances, meanwhile, has a neat way of summing it up. “I always say that every year it’s like the Bake Off family’s getting bigger, and it feels like this is a different type of family,” she says. “It’s like your dad’s got married to someone else, so you’ve got new siblings and they’re not part of the original flock. But they’re still your siblings.”
“After it’s finished I’d say there is an opportunity if you want to pursue a career in food,” says Edd, as he offers his advice to the winning baker. “It’s tough, and I also think this year it’ll be even harder because the viewing figures will be smaller.
“If you look at Channel 4’s top end versus BBC1’s top end, there’s a difference of 10 million. So the show’s going to change a lot. But I think there’ll still be a lot of interest. If you want a career in food, you can go for it. You just have to be willing to hustle and work.”
Staying authentic is something Frances is keen to emphasise. “It’s almost having your own USP, because there’s so many books, there’s so many bakers,” she says. “Although it’s a saturated market, there is an audience out there. It’s just trying to carve out your own destiny.
“But just stick to your guns,” she continues. “It’s having a belief in what you’re wanting to do. I came in for a lot of criticism with the whole ‘style over substance’ thing, but if I decided to just completely go against coming up with the ideas and the concept, I may as well have left the tent because I wouldn’t have been true to myself.”
John, who laments some of the “cheesier, corporate” jobs he did after winning, thinks that the victor shouldn’t be afraid to say no to offers that will inevitably come their way. “Whoever wins it this time, I will say don’t let the publishers just force a Bake Off-branded book down your throat,” he says.
“Also, know your value and your worth,” he offers. “Not just financial worth, but self-worth. If something doesn’t sit with what you believe in, then don’t do it. Also, don’t be anyone’s puppet”. It’s something he felt in danger of slipping into at the time.
“Luckily I have a really strong family who said ‘no, don’t do that, that’s not who you are’,” John explains. “And I think surrounding yourself with people who know you the most and love you the most will ensure that you don’t get too big for your boots – or that you don’t get carried away with people who don’t really believe in you and just want to make money from you, because that is a danger.
“Luckily I escaped that and I had a really good agent so you’ve just got to be careful. Make informed choices, I think. It sounds very boring doesn’t it?” he laughs. “It sounds very cynical!
“But this is someone talking with five years of experience. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I always offer a phone call and a text message to the winner, and I’ll be doing the same this year as well. And if any of the contestants wants to come and have a coffee with me, they’re more than welcome to!”