Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding: Being a double act is like falling in love. You can’t choose who you end up with

The new Great British Bake Off presenting duo talk about their height difference, shedding tears in the tent and how Prue Leith is a septuagenarian sex symbol

sandi toksvig noel fielding

Sandi Toksvig has a breezy response to any criticism that came her way for taking on Bake Off. “It’s a bit like being at the seaside on a stormy day and the tide’s coming in,” she says. “You know it’s going to go out again.” Which is easy for her to say, as it was Noel Fielding’s appointment, in their straight double-act swap for Mel and Sue, that caused national outrage.

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The tabloids and social media demanded to know how Fielding, with his sneery face, Mighty Boosh mop top and eyeliner, would do mainstream television. It turns out Channel 4 had checked first. “One of my tests for the show was to go into a garden centre and chat to people,” says Fielding, who isn’t sneery at all, though he is wearing eyeliner. “At the end of the test, they were like: ‘You’ve got to stop now, we’ve got to finish, it’s dark.’ I’d made friends with two ladies, it was brilliant.”

Nonetheless, Fielding, a 44-year-old stand-up comic and actor from the dark side of light entertainment, admits he was surprised to get the role. “I’d always been a fan of Sandi, but when they were saying, ‘Do you want to do a test for Bake Off?’ I was thinking, ‘I’ll never get this, not in a million years’. I told them I don’t know much about baking, and they said, ‘If you don’t understand, ask.’ That’s why, when you watch it, I’m always the one going: ‘What does that mean exactly?’ And I’ve learnt a lot – Paul says he’s going to teach me to bake a sourdough loaf that will change my life.”

Toksvig is a self-confessed “cheese monster” who makes cheese scones at home. She says, “The most challenging thing has been the camera crew trying to get the two of us standing next to each other in one shot.” Fielding, 5ft 11in to Toksvig’s 4ft 11in, concurs. “I have to crouch, my knees are shot to pieces, and I go barefoot. We swap shoes and Sandi’s on a box. We think we’re quite funny in the same shot, like Bert and Ernie in Sesame Street.”

bake off presenters judges shoot

The two have appeared (sitting down) on television together before – Fielding is a regular guest on QI, where Toksvig replaced Stephen Fry as host in 2016. “When Sandi’s presenting QI and holding it all together and I’m one of the guests it’s hard to know if we’re a good double act,” he says. “But when it was just the two of us together it was great. You can count on one hand the people you can be in a double act with; I have chemistry with Russell Brand and Sandi. It’s quite a rare thing. It’s like falling in love. You can’t choose who you fall in love with.”

Toksvig, 59, was born in Denmark. I ask if Bake Off, as the show’s full title implies, is a very British phenomenon. “You can go anywhere in the world and people’s faces light up when they put delicious food in their mouths,” she says. “The Danes love their pastries, the same in Italy, France, Greece. Food is an international language, an expression of love.”

“If Bake Off were a family,” says Fielding, “I’d be the dog.” I ask Toksvig who she’d be. “The badly dressed one. Prue would be the sexy one.” There’s a snort from nearby, where their co-star is sunbathing. “Really, sweetheart,” says Leith. “The septuagenarian sex symbol!”

Although Toksvig and Fielding both like Hollywood, they really love Leith. Success, says Fielding, is knowing Leith is happy. “I love it when we make Prue giggle,” he says. “If I’m making Prue laugh, I’m doing my job, because she’s 77. You see, I do know what Bake Off needs. It’s a charming, feel-good show, you need to be light and it needs to be nice and fun. Just like being the host of a party.”

paul hollywood prue leith

And it’s also, when cakes don’t rise and buns burn, about offering on-screen comfort to emotional bakers. “We’ve both had a lot of wet shoulders at various points,” says Toksvig. “I think there’s a sort of cynicism today that people can watch television and think the emotion being portrayed may not be real. It’s very real. It’s painfully real. And these are not wealthy people. To some of them, just buying the ingredients to practise at home has pushed them to the limit in terms of their finances. Maybe that’s not something that gets talked about.”

Superficially Bake Off is the warmest of family shows, but at its heart is a singular cruelty – people get kicked out. Toksvig is businesslike on this point. “It’s not deliberately cruel,” she says. “Nobody’s ever set up to fail.” But Fielding admits he found it difficult to say goodbye to bakers. “There were a lot of tears. You literally are just trying to get through it and not cry too much. I’ve never had to fire anyone! When you’re in the tent with them and they’re trying hard and Sandi and I are getting on fine with them and you have to say goodbye, it’s horrible. They know it’s not us, fortunately, because we’re not judges, but we still have to deliver that news.”

They haven’t, despite rumours, been specifically asked not to talk about soggy bottoms. “It’s really hard to explain,” says Toksvig. “They trusted us. I don’t think they would have hired us if they didn’t. Nobody ever sat us down and said, ‘You may say this, you may say that, you need to wear this, you can’t do that.’ They hired us to just get on with it, to be ourselves.”

Interview by Michael Hodges

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The Great British Bake Off begins on Tuesday 29 August at 8pm on Channel 4