Prue Leith has the toughest job in television this summer. How could anyone replace Mary Berry on The Great British Bake Off?
Forget quirky trailers, ad breaks and Sandi and Noel instead of Mel and Sue. Continuing Bake Off without Mary Queen of Cakes is the greatest challenge facing Channel 4 as it prepares to re-launch the biggest show on television.
That said, of all the changes wrought on the GBBO presenting line-up, the hiring of Prue Leith could be the most prudent decision of all. If anyone can fill Berry’s blazers, it’s Prue.
Food first, TV second
Aged 77, Prue Leith will become one of the most prominent older women working on TV – Mary Berry, five years her senior, will return to the BBC next year.
Her longevity is no accident. Like Mary, Prue proved herself a formidable force in the food industry well before breaking into TV. She opened her first restaurant, Leith’s, in 1962. The restaurant went on to earn a Michelin Star, before Prue founded her own cookery school, Leith’s School of Food and Wine, in 1975.
Prue Leith photographed outside her restaurant in 1969
Two years ago Prue wrote a column for Radio Times praising Mary Berry’s long career. “How many of her ten million viewers know that she has a lifetime of food writing behind her, with more than 70 cookbooks to her name?” she wrote.
“She was professionally trained (catering college and the Cordon Bleu school in Paris) then did recipe testing and cookery advice for consumers for years, did thousands of cookery demonstrations and taught hundreds of students,” Prue continued, celebrating the person she is not set to replace.
“It’s not an accident of telly that she seems to know her onions – or millefeuilles or ganache. She really does. Unlike many bestselling foodies, she is the real thing, a serious writer, not just a telly star.”
As is often the way with column writers, Prue could just as easily have been writing about herself. She too trained at the Cordon Bleu, taught hundreds if not thousands of future cooks through her cooking school, and is a serious writer to boot.
Both, too, have made it in an industry traditionally dominated by men.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com in 2015, Prue described some of her earlier experiences working in kitchens, and tried to explain why so few female chefs are able to reach the highest level.
“The way kitchens used to be was horrific,” she said. “They were worse than the Army, there were terrible initiation ceremonies. In fact I’ve got this in my trilogy [she is a successful fiction author too]: there’s a scene in the Savoy which is true. A young lad is put into a big, greasy stockpot, forced to sit down in it, and then they pretend to turn the gas on.
“There’s another scene where a girl gets locked in the fridge. She doesn’t know she can get out, but to be locked in a walk-in freezer is very frightening. Awful initiation stuff used to go on.”
That toughness could stand her in good stead for the ‘initiation’ Bake Off is bound to go through on Channel 4.
From Great British Menu to The Great British Bake Off
All of this doesn’t really count for much on Channel 4, of course. Bake Off is not a writing, teaching or even cooking job – it’s a TV job.
Luckily for Love Productions, Prue isn’t exactly short of experience here either.
For 10 years, she was the judge on BBC2’s teatime food competition Great British Menu, tasting – and occasionally tearing into – food made by the country’s top chefs. TV chef Tom Kerridge, MasterChef’s Marcus Wareing, Michelin star holder Tom Aikens – all of them have had to impress Prue.
Yes, Great British Menu is fancy and up itself, the French macaroon to Bake Off’s Melton Mowbray pie. But that doesn’t mean that Prue can’t adapt to fit her new role.
Prue Leith with fellow Great British Menu judges Oliver Peyton (left) and Matthew Fort (right)
In Great British Menu, she was part of a trio of judges, sitting in between plummy food writer Matthew Fort and svelte restaurateur Oliver Peyton. “My job is to be the bossy nanny in between them, telling them to behave,” she said.
And she did. Prue cut through the overdone flimflam of the chefs’ high class menus and made sure you cared when they did something that tasted good. When she loved something she told you, and when she didn’t you could tell without her even opening her mouth. All she needed to do was peer over her spectacles at the plate before her and you knew. Remind you of anyone?
And – another plus in the Berry succession box – she enjoys a good boozy dessert, as this clip from Great British Menu shows.
Let’s not get carried away. Prue Leith is not Mary Berry: on TV Prue is more brusque, less suffering of fools, quick to spot a flaw rather than give a reassuring wink. But that could be because in Great British Menu she dealt with professional chefs who should know better, rather than amateur bakers who just want to give their best.
Furthermore, Paul Hollywood may be the senior partner these days in the Bake Off tent, but don’t bet against Prue giving him short shrift if the baking ‘silverback’ tries to mansplain his way through the new series.
“The truth is with a lot of the television macho stuff, Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White used to always behave very badly on camera,” Prue said in 2015. “And they did, when they were young, they both behaved quite badly. They grew up.
“Partly it was, if you’re young and you’re not used to being the boss, and you suddenly find yourself in charge of a big brigade – it’s like teachers who shout at the children the whole time – It’s usually because they haven’t got the control and the authority to rule quietly.”
Cooking knowledge, TV experience, calm authority: whisper it quietly, but Mary Berry might not turn out to be such a catastrophic loss to The Great British Bake Off after all. Prue Leith could yet prove a worthy substitute.
Then again, one perfect ingredient doesn’t guarantee a recipe for success.