Mel and Sue – how their names trip off the tongue mellifluously – have been bosom buddies for coming on three decades. They are the winning court jesters who have cleaved themselves to the affections of the nation, with the rise and rise of Bake Off. It’s a measure of the show’s success that there is no need for any surnames here.
Now they will be enlivening our living rooms, Monday to Friday, in their own eponymous teatime telly show – as they once did, long ago, with their Channel 4 series Light Lunch, which was first broadcast in 1997 and featured celebrity chefs and an audience who brought in their own “light lunch”. I apologise for not having seen the show and Mel laughs: “Don’t worry – few people did.”
The show will be live with an audience of 60 people, a couple of celebrity guests, and live music, as members of the audience are invited to re-create a favourite dish. And if it all goes wrong, no matter – they’ll send out for pizza. “We just want to create an oasis of calm, sweet chaos,” Sue says.
What has changed since they did Light Lunch, 17 years ago? “We’re older and tireder, mainly,” Mel says. “It’s certainly not trying to repeat the same thing twice,” says Sue. “I think that would have an air of the tragic about it. The same thing done by older people is never going to be better.”
“I was going to say that I don’t think people do intrinsically change that much,” Mel smiles, “and I think the spirit of what we did then will come out in this. In the sense that we’re old pals, we know each other really well, and we like to have a laugh and make people feel welcome – and I don’t think time changes that.”
Like a long-established couple, they reply to questions symbiotically and in unison, habitually finishing one another’s sentences. Old photographs show them wearing more or less the same clothes as today: “No one’s ever going to call us stylish,” Sue says, in jeans, T-shirt and trainers, with a tomboyish vibe and a Tintin tuft of sooty hair; Mel, with her soft fawn-blonde flop.
The latter uses down-to-earth, sometimes quaint lingo, regularly addressing her old friend as “mate” and responding to questions with “bless you”. Sue is more formal, making an effort to search for the precise word. Mel is a year older, at 46 to Sue’s 45, but neither of them give a fig about ageing. “On Mel & Sue, you will be able to see us ageing on a daily basis,” Mel says. “And I don’t feel remotely weird about getting older.”
“I love it,” says Sue. “I think age is a huge consolation – you feel happier with yourself and your eyesight fades to the point where you can no longer see what you look like in the mirror, so it’s a win-win.”
“This is going to sound really cheesy,” Mel says, “but I still feel there’s a part of us that is forever 19.”
Sue: “I’m 17… no, maybe 19 – because then I’d know you.”
So the two of you are frozen in aspic at the moment you first met?
“Yes, but with very old faces!” says Mel. They were at Cambridge in the late 80s and were both in Footlights, but in different years and never performed together. Mel had graduated and was travelling around Europe in a coach when she first met Sue – “I’d slightly turned my back on things and was doing shaven-headed cross-gender productions,” she says; “King Lear in urine-coloured pyjamas,” adds Sue.
It was a chance meeting. Sue was doing an improvised stand-up routine as a bet, and Mel happened to be back in Cambridge and saw it: “So we met, drunk, in that smoky clubroom and we just thought we knew each other,” Sue recalls. “You meet people very infrequently in life, where you believe you have met them before and there is…”
“…a connection,” Mel finishes. “We became friends immediately.”
There were some years working together as a double act on the circuit: “I say ‘the circuit’,” Mel cracks, “but we weren’t cool enough for ‘the circuit’ – we did do our own sketches out and about.”