Let us be clear from the outset, I don’t insist upon stroking the hair of everyone I meet. If I did I would be writing this on pieces of tracing paper that I had secreted under the mattress of the bunk in my cell.
But when you meet Paul Hollywood, Starsky to Mary Berry’s Hutch in The Great British Bake Off, you can’t help yourself. It’s like giving in to the urge to tweak the cheek of an alabaster cherub in a museum, or stroke the delicate folds of the ballet skirt on a Degas ballerina, which I did once in an internationally renowned art gallery, thus setting off a security alarm and startling me into intense mortification.
Hollywood is a nice chap, so he obediently bowed his head as he gave in to my request. His immaculately groomed hair, by the way, feels like the bristles on the brushes you get in dustpan sets. Then he barked like a dog, gave me a kiss and was on his way back to the Bake Off tent, where judging in this week’s puddings round was about to get under way.
Yes, I spent a day at the Bake Off in the grounds of a Somerset stately home, such a fantastic perk of my job and such an honour that just about everyone I know either could not, or refused to, hide their envy while demanding that I BRING BACK SOME CAKE. That’s the effect that GBBO has on people, quite sensible people who wouldn’t know a croquembouche from a garden fence. And I didn’t bring back any cake. I ate it all.
It was bucketing down, of course, absolutely pouring (and you thought the Bake Off took place only in sunshine, like the best memories of your childhood, which are always bathed in a golden glow). But so what. There was Mary! Actual Mary Berry! And the actual Mel and Sue! All as chatty, kind and confidential off-camera as they are on.
We all know why we love The Great British Bake Off. It’s a spongy pocket of civilisation both on television and in life. You don’t need to hide behind a cushion, no one is going to get beaten up with an iron bar and no one will die because their tarte tatin doesn’t work out. There are occasional tears from contestants when things don’t go as planned, but these are modest little interruptions after two long, tense and tiring days during which the amateur bakers face the signature, technical and showstopper bakes.
I’d be howling, too, if my meringue collapsed. If a contestant reaches the final, that’s two days a week over a total of ten weeks in which to sweat and sob.
So what happens to the food, you are probably wondering. It gets eaten – all of it. We were guests so we had first dibs after the judging. We had second dibs, too. Maybe some of us had third dibs. Which was why some of us felt just a little bit queasy on the train home. Queasy, but happy. Bake Off does that to you.