Sweet? Mary Berry’s a wild one!
Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc on what life with her new best friend is REALLY like
Mel Giedroyc is half-dreading, half-craving the day when the curtain comes down on her TV career. ‘Who knows when it will be?’ she says chirpily. ‘It could be next year. If I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s that you never know.’
When it does stop, though, she thinks she’ll slip effortlessly into the role of a TV has-been. ‘I’ve been there before,’ she says. ‘When you have kids everyone thinks you’ve died in TV.’ So, she says, she’s already had one resurrection, and if she ‘dies’ again she’ll at least celebrate the wardrobe choices ahead. ‘I shall wear hideous mismatching clothes, and have hairy legs and a massive midriff. I’m rather looking forward to it.’
Isn’t she – alongside her longtime sidekick Sue Perkins – already one of the few women on TV who could look like the back of a bus, and dress to match, if she so desired? ‘Oh no, you’re not allowed to,’ she says. ‘They come with their make-up and clothes and make you put them on.’
She’s joking, of course. One of the joys of The Great British Bake Off is that it put comedy partners Mel and Sue – women known for their wit and warmth rather than their ability to fill a wiggle-dress – on prime-time TV. Just as it was looking like every woman on TV had to resemble Beyoncé, there they were, in their trainers and (gasp!) jeans. The fact no one tried to shoehorn them into sequins was, and is, significant, says Mel. ‘It’s important we aren’t made to wear 6in heels. It’s important we don’t look as if we’re from another planet, that we aren’t orange. We’re a reality series, after all. The contestants don’t have make-up artists, so for us to be all glammed up would be just wrong.’
And I wouldn’t like to be the wardrobe assistant charged with getting these two into a slinky dress. ‘Well, they wouldn’t ask. The thing about Sue and me is that people think they know us and what we stand for. They’d believe we’d sold out if we tried to be something we’re not. I suppose this is our way of tapping into something that’s... honest.’
What’s interesting is that when they were picked for the show, Mel and Sue – presenting stalwarts, but not obvious choices for a show about baking
Tough as old boots, last one at the bar, Ibiza clubbing queen – life with Mary isn’t quite what you’d expect, reveals Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc.
– were seen as the cheeky contrast to the rather prim Mary Berry. That idea seems to have gone rather awry. ‘If anything, Mary’s the rebellious one now,’ says Mel. ‘She’s certainly the last one standing at the bar. And she’s been clubbing in Ibiza. It’s embarrassing, actually. I’m a lightweight these days when it comes to partying. Sue likes to paint herself as a bit rock ’n’ roll, too, but she’s a wuss when it comes to the booze.’
If the blessed Mary Berry is an unlikely drinking buddy, she’s also an unlikely role model – and friend. ‘She’s become that, very much so,’ says Mel. ‘I don’t think I expected that. But if
‘Sue and I were chancers, comedy was our only hope’
you want an example of someone who has infinite grace, kindness and strength, it’s her. She’s a highly intelligent, motivated icon, very unflustered by her fame – and she’s incredibly famous now. She’s the face of Bake Off – and rightly so. Becoming a friend of hers has been one of the best things about the show.’
She admits that, pre-Bake Off, Mary seemed a very one-dimensional character to her. ‘I only knew her through her books. We’d moved into a house with an Aga and my mum had panicked and gone out and bought a Mary Berry book.’ The real Mary was infinitely more interesting. ‘She’s not a sweet old lady – she’s tough as old boots. She’s been working since she left school. Sometimes we all think she overworks. We all say, “Mary, stop doing so much!” Her schedule is insane.’
And they aren’t as chalk and cheese as many expect. ‘We’re quite similar in many ways. She’s a combination of old-fashioned values and a very sharp, funny, on-the-ball modern outlook. She’s not starchy or judgmental. I want to grow old like her, because we all have a tendency to get stuck in our ways, and she isn’t. She’s a one-off.’
What did Mel think of the interview Mary gave where she insisted she wasn’t a feminist, though? She clearly disagrees. ‘I think she’s a feminist through and through. Maybe she didn’t want to affiliate herself with the term, but in my book she’s totally a feminist. In the Sixties she was out there earning money while raising kids. If that isn’t a feminist, I don’t know what is.’
While Mel and Sue provide the laughs (and innuendo), and Mary provides the gravitas, Paul Hollywood provides the eye twinkle (not to mention the odd eye-wateringly stern criticism). ‘We aren’t four people you would automatically put together, but it somehow works. We call ourselves a dysfunctional family,’ she says.
Mel’s TV career hasn’t exactly followed the traditional model. She and Sue met at university where they bonded over a mutual love of ‘not studying too hard and laughing at our own gags’. She pooh-poohs the idea of them as any sort of intellectuals. ‘Listen, we were chancers. In a way, comedy was our only hope because when you have a low 2:2, nobody’s going to give you a job with a briefcase and pay you.’
She and Sue hit the comedy circuit, performing at Edinburgh, writing for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. They were absolutely not an overnight success. Indeed, she says today that
she vividly remembers them discussing quitting the industry completely. ‘We’d been on the comedy circuit for seven years and it had become clear we weren’t going to get a sketch show from the BBC. We were up to our eyeballs in debt. I’d borrowed money off my brother; Sue off her dad. I remember sitting on the sofa in her rented flat saying, “I don’t think we can carry on,” and her replying, “You’re right. Let’s call it quits”.’
Then came the call asking them to audition for Light Lunch – a Channel 4 chat show/cookery hybrid. Even to them, it sound- ed mad. ‘We said, “Are you kidding? We’re stand-up comedians.” To us, daytime TV was cheesy, awful. We went to the audition and took the mickey out of each other and out of the format – not really taking it seriously.’ But they got the gig – and Mel still can’t believe it. ‘Those were the days. Sue and I howl with laughter when we talk about it now. I don’t know how we got away with it. We had an hour live every day – who the hell gets that these days? It was ridiculous. I remember the first contract was for two weeks. They could have called us off the air at any moment, and I’m surprised they didn’t. It was exhausting, exhilarating, brilliant.’
What was the secret of their partnership? ‘I think it’s that we were friends first. That’s very rare on television. Ant and Dec have it, but not many others. I’m not sure you can fake it.’ However mad it was, Late Lunch stood them in good stead. Years later, when Bake Off was mooted, someone ‘remembered this pair in the annals of the BBC who did telly with food’. The rest is history.
By this point, Mel’s life – never the most meticulously planned, she admits – had run into difficulties. Marriage and motherhood (her girls Flossie and Vita are now 12 and 10 respectively) had taken her out of TV land just at the point where she and her husband, Ben, had taken on a £500,000 mortgage. Mel’s profile sank quicker than the proverbial soggy-bottomed sponge. When the plug was pulled on a lucrative ad campaign, bankruptcy was a real possibility. ‘It was terrible,’ she says of that time. ‘We had a very close shave. We were lucky – we managed to sell our house – but it taught me a vital lesson about cutting your coat according to your cloth. Now I’m all about cutting that coat.’
When it came along, in 2010, Bake Off was their financial salvation. ‘Oh, I’m completely upfront about the fact I did it for the money. Neither Sue nor I thought it would work – because it didn’t, on paper. A show about baking? What?! It’s a big lesson about TV. You can go into something that should be the most amazing show you’ve ever done – and it’ll be the biggest bloody flop. Then
‘I’m completely upfront about the fact I did it for the money’
you go into something you think will be lambasted and never see the light of day again – and it surprises you by being a hit.’
Bake Off has led to myriad other TV offers too. Her latest project is a series called Vertigo Road Trip, which sees Mel guide five people who have a crippling fear of heights through something called ‘exposure therapy’. ‘It’s not as rude as it sounds,’ she laughs, explaining that it involves making them confront their fears. ‘We have them up in cable cars, working in a high-rise restaurant with glass walls, and – even I was petrified at this, and I’m generally okay with heights – up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.’
Just as in Bake Off, funnily enough, the challenge produces lots of tears, much calm reassuring from Mel, and much air-punching at the end. ‘It’s my niche now – empathy TV,’ she says. And the madness she and Sue unleashed on Late Lunch may soon be revisited. Plans are afoot for a live TV project with the pair at the helm. ‘It’s very exciting and a little scary, what with the way TV has changed now. There’s high definition, for a start. I think we’ll need a lot of Vaseline on the camera lens.’
Mel stirs things up with Sue Perkins on Bake Off (above) and the pair with co-presenters Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (above left)
Sue an and Mel in their Light Lunch days