Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood are sitting outside, enjoying the hot London summer. Paul has shuffled under the shade provided by the table umbrella. Next to him, Prue is splayed out glamorously across her chair, soaking up every ray of sunshine she can.
Since taking over from Mary Berry on The Great British Bake Off last year, Leith says that the most frequent question posed by faithful viewers who stop her in the street is, “Why don’t you bronze up a bit so that you don’t look like a pale judge next to the perma-tan prince?”
“That’s why you’re always sunbathing, is it?” Hollywood asks.
“Yes, I’m nearly there,” Leith bats back, closing her eyes like a cat and angling her face towards the sun.
The duo are about to return to our screens, in varying shades of perma-tan, to front the ninth series of Bake Off. It will be Leith’s second stint inside the bakers’ tent after the programme moved from the BBC to Channel 4 last year, in what was quite possibly one of the most controversial moments in our national history.
There was a collective outcry over Hollywood supposedly “selling out” when he announced his intention to carry on being a judge. Mary Berry and presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc all stepped down, the latter two claiming in a statement they were “not going with the dough”.
Leith was baffled by all the fuss.
“I hadn’t watched Bake Off. I had no idea it was the nation’s favourite programme… It just didn’t cross my mind that I would be in it. And so it wasn’t until I was cast that I realised – and started reading all the press stuff – that this was a highly dangerous thing to be doing. I was about to be the cause of the nation’s grief!”
She’s joking, of course, but it’s true that no one expected Channel 4 to do so well with the show – in the event, 7.7 million viewers watched the 2017 final, the channel’s highest overnight ratings since the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012. Neither of them watched the BBC’s attempt at creating a rival show, Britain’s Best Home Cook, fronted by Claudia Winkleman, with Mary Berry becoming a judge (a second series has recently been annouced).
“I caught a snippet of it,” Hollywood says.
“I didn’t watch it,” adds Leith.
It seems that Bake Off has retained its peculiar magic on Channel 4. It is still an oasis of gentle nostalgia in a world that is otherwise spinning off its axis.
“It feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers,” Hollywood agrees.
He says he was relieved when Leith came on board, along with the new presenters, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding, “because they diluted all the stuff I was getting… I’d been copping it for six months.”
“That was so unfair,” Leith says, soothingly.
“All you’d done was stay loyal to the programme.”
“I hadn’t left anything!” Hollywood insists.
“I know,” Leith repeats, in the manner of a capable nanny tending to a toddler’s grazed knee. “But you were the villain.”
It’s clear they get on well. When I ask them each to compare the other to a baked good, Hollywood replies, “Prue is a sachertorte – just as sweet on the inside as she is on the outside,” while Leith counters with, “a Krispy Kreme doughnut. He has got this crisp exterior but absolutely a soft middle.”
Hollywood says the two of them will often have dinner and a glass of wine after a day’s filming and “put the world to rights”. In fact, they have become such good friends with Toksvig and Fielding that the four of them are going on a mates’ minibreak to Copenhagen in December. “To see the Tivoli Gardens at Christmas,” Leith says.
Gosh, I say, you’ll cause quite a stir on the Easyjet flight over. “No one will know us when we’re there,” Hollywood replies. “We’ll hide.”
Before that, there’s the business of Bake Off to be getting on with. This year, the tried-and-tested format of a dozen bakers in a tent trying their absolute hardest to get their ganache to set on their layered Opéra cakes remains the same. But Leith reveals they’ve introduced a vegan week and some of the vegan cakes were so good, “I was personally shocked”.
She is not a natural fan of the recent trend for “clean eating”. “It’s surrounded by a lot of pseudo-science and I really hate all that because I think it makes people frightened of food and begin to be neurotic about diet and that leads to anorexia and all sorts.
“Food goes in fashions and this [clean eating] became a very, I would say, London-centric, fashionable, yummy-mummy obsession.”
Hollywood, meanwhile, claims never to have heard of it and goes off on an unanticipated riff involving a meringue made from lamb’s blood that he tasted in Iceland.
“It’s grey, not red. You could eat it yourself and go, ‘That’s delicious.’ And then you’re told, ‘It’s made with blood.’ And you go, ‘What?’”
Prue frowns. “That would not do for vegans,” she says sternly.
“No, we couldn’t have used it that particular week,” he replies.
When Bake Off 2018 airs, there will be no bloodied meringues, says Hollywood, but we can look forward to “great characters and unique baking, which has never been seen before… And the heat, which has been draining for the poor bakers.”
“It was certainly the hottest Bake Off we’ve ever had,” says Hollywood.
“Worse for the bakers than for us, because we just come in briefly and go out,” adds Leith diplomatically. “They’re in there all the time.”
“It was roasting and some of the challenges…” Hollywood trails off.
Leith, as she often does, completes his sentence: “Chocolate.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Chocolate week suffered a little bit. Caramel sugarwork suffered a little bit. Although bread week, when it was slightly cooler, ironically enough…”
“They could have done with the heat,” Leith jumps in. “But compared to last series, when it was so cold at the beginning… In fact it was freezing and rainy, so we were wearing wellies to get to the tent and I was wearing a heavy overcoat and we were holding hot-water bottles. That seems amazing now.”
Bake Off tent stress (Channel 4)
This year the two of them had to cool down by applying iced chamois packs to their necks once the cameras were turned off. Still, they got through it with aplomb.
As it’s filmed so far in advance, one of the hardest things is knowing who has won for some time before the programme is aired. Last year, Leith almost triggered a state of national emergency by inadvertently revealing the identity of the winner, Sophie Faldo, before the final had been shown on television. Newspaper headlines accused her of “ruining” the show and she was trolled on Twitter by furious fans.
“It was very scary at the time and horrible,” she says now. “I had so many people saying, ‘You ruined my life, how could you?’”
She had been on holiday in Bhutan with her husband, and she’d got the time zones muddled up. The production company had sent her a message telling her to remember to congratulate the winner after 10.30pm.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s after 10.30.’ And so I immediately tweeted. And of course it was five hours out or something.”
The tweet (below) was up for 89 seconds before Leith’s personal assistant noticed it and deleted it. “But it was too late,” Leith says, her face collapsing. “Two people had retweeted it, saying, ‘How disgraceful, she has given away the secret.’ And then they gave it away!”
She shakes her head at the stupidity of her own mistake. What was her husband doing throughout all of this?
“He was fast asleep!”
I ask Hollywood where he was when he found out, in the same way that one might ask someone where they were when JFK was shot.
“I think I was having a bacon butty and a cup of tea in a bikers’ café. And I went, ‘Pffft!’, and my tea went everywhere.” He laughs, clearly relaxed about the whole thing.
“Oh darling,” Leith says, looking aghast. “I’m sorry.” She cannot stop berating herself. “Stupid,” she mutters. “So stupid.”
Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith in The Great British Bake Off 2018 (Channel 4)
As Leith has discovered, it’s a feature of Bake Off that anyone who appears on it becomes more newsworthy simply by association. Hollywood, who in 2017 split from Alexandra, his wife of 20 years, has recently been the subject of much tabloid speculation over his relationship with a 22-year-old barmaid. How does he feel having his love life…
“I don’t want to answer,” he says, before I even get the question out of my mouth.
A few days before we meet, former Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain has also made the headlines by criticising the sugar tax. What do Leith and Hollywood make of the Government initiative to force manufacturers to pay a levy on fizzy drinks?
“The sugar tax alone won’t do it, but I think it’s a good idea,” says Leith. “I think that the most important thing is to teach children to cook at schools. And not only to cook but to understand about where their food comes from.” She says it should be part of the curriculum, as it is in Finland.
“The end goal is making children want to eat healthily,” Leith says. “And it’s just like maths, you know? The parents can’t say, ‘This is none of my business,’ [because] it’s Government money that has to pay for the obesity crisis… I had this argument with Michael Gove when he was education secretary. I said, ‘If you made it part of the curriculum and part of the schools’ responsibility to address the lack of children’s knowledge on food and eating… you can justify that.’”
She is warming to her theme now and is quite formidable. Such is the force of her utterly reasonable personality that if I were Michael Gove I would institute everything she describes immediately.
“I would be quite draconian about it and I’d ban lunchboxes,” Leith continues. “I think however well-educated a parent is… very few parents really give their children healthy lunchboxes because of the pressure from the kids.
“The kids say, ‘I get that, and Lucy gets that and Emily gets that, why can’t I?’ In Finland they don’t let any children bring anything into school and it’s confiscated if they see it. So they all sit down, have a proper meal, learn. Lunchtime is a lesson during which the kids should be learning to share and respect each other, by which they mean table manners. They should learn to play nicely and share, and they all help in the kitchen and they clean up.”
Our time is drawing to a close and Leith has not only redrawn the national curriculum but has almost topped up her tan to satisfactory levels. The two of them potter off to have their photo taken. They’re looking forward to the new season and confident that it will be even more successful than last year’s.
“Although I’m getting nervous as we’ve now done the final, so I’m a liability,” says Leith. “I think I should have my phone taken away from me.”
For the sake of our national morale, could someone please ensure this happens?
The Great British Bake Off airs on Tuesdays at 8pm on Channel 4
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