Sweet? Mary Berry’s a wild one!

Bake Off’s Mel Giedroyc on what life with her new best friend is RE­ALLY like

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenny John­ston

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

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