Ic­ing on the cake

The tent and the for­mat are the same, but Paul Hol­ly­wood and his new co-stars say that the much-awaited Chan­nel 4 ver­sion of Bri­tain’s most pop­u­lar show will serve up the best ban­ter – and bak­ers – yet

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - NEWS -

Of the two bomb­shells, it’s hard to say ex­actly which was the more ex­plo­sive. When the BBC an­nounced last Septem­ber that The Great Bri­tish Bake Off – the most pop­u­lar pro­gramme on TV and the jewel in its crown – was mov­ing to Chan­nel 4, its army of fans were bereft. But when Chan­nel 4 then re­vealed the show’s new line-up six months later, with Noel Field­ing – the edgy comic with a sur­real sense of hu­mour and a rather che­quered past – as one of the two new pre­sen­ters fol­low­ing Mel and Sue’s de­ci­sion to leave, there was a na­tional out­cry.

How would the Mighty Boosh star cope in the fa­mous white tent with QI host and women’s rights cam­paigner Sandi Toksvig as his co-host? Or, for that mat­ter, for­mi­da­ble cook­ery school leg­end Prue Leith, who’s re­plac­ing Mary Berry as a judge along­side GBBO stal­wart Paul Hol­ly­wood, the only one of the orig­i­nal BBC line-up to move?

To­day, how­ever, you’d think they’d known each other years.

All four are in the tent at Welford Park in Berk­shire, where the show has been filmed since 2014, and the can­vas is rip­pling with laugh­ter and ban­ter, the ca­ma­raderie be­tween them clearly un­forced. There have been re­ports of clashes dur­ing film­ing, but with a show so nec­es­sar­ily shrouded in se­crecy those sorts of ru­mours are in­evitable. Now it’s time to ad­dress them.

‘I must say when I read that I was quite up­set,’ con­fesses Prue, who it was said had told staff she couldn’t stand co-judge Paul. ‘I texted Paul and said: “I didn’t say any of that!” He came back with: “Don’t be stupid! Of course I knew it wasn’t true!” I sup­pose I’m less used to those kinds of sto­ries about me...’

‘Whereas me and Paul are sea­soned pros!’ says Noel, mean­ing they’ve both made their fair share of head­lines.

Paul chips in: ‘Ac­tu­ally, at the end of ev­ery week’s film­ing, the chances are you’ll find the four of us in the bar drink­ing un­til quite late. You don’t spend time with some­one out­side Bake Off if you don’t like them. This year I’ve drunk more and done more so­cial­is­ing than I ever have.’ It must feel odd to step into the tent with three dif­fer­ent peo­ple af­ter seven years, though?

‘Strangely, no,’ he says. ‘It feels like I’ve known these guys for years.’

‘He hasn’t called me Mary once!’ laughs Prue. ‘He’s called Noel “Mel”, though, which is wor­ry­ing,’ Sandi says. ‘It sounds soppy, but you do be­come like a large dys­func­tional fam­ily.’

What about the fans’ re­ac­tion to the line-up?

‘They’re only anx­ious about him,’ jokes Prue, nod­ding to­wards Noel. ‘And with good rea­son.’

‘It’s like find­ing a spi­der in a packet of fon­dant fan­cies,’ says Noel.

Noel, 44, is a big Bake Off fan, hav­ing been urged to watch by his pal Serge Piz­zorno, from rock band Kasabian.

‘I watched one, got hooked and then watched them all in a week­end,’ says Noel. ‘I was think­ing, “that’s quite a good job, I won­der if I can bump off Mel or Sue...” Then a month later they were of­fer­ing me the job.’

It turns out Chan­nel 4 had been look­ing for a ve­hi­cle for Noel for some time. ‘A show that’s not out-and-out com­edy, but where I can be charm­ing,’ he says. Prue snorts. ‘And when are you go­ing to start be­ing that?’ she asks.

‘I thought it was an ad­min er­ror at first,’ con­tin­ues Noel. ‘I kept laugh­ing, think­ing it would never hap­pen. Then they said, “would you like to come and do some­thing with Sandi?” We’d done QI to­gether and it had worked re­ally well. We got on like a house on fire im­me­di­ately, but I never thought I’d get the job.’

Mel and Sue, of course, are a hard act to fol­low, hav­ing been friends and com­edy part­ners for more than 20 years. The chem­istry be­tween them is in­nate, but it seems Sandi and Noel’s abil­ity to im­pro­vise to­gether was pretty in­stan­ta­neous.

‘You can’t teach some­body to do that, and it’s rare,’ says Sandi, 59.

‘Noel and I have fallen into a kind of show­biz mar­riage.’

‘What they’re look­ing for is a spark,’ con­tin­ues Noel. ‘And if you don’t have it, it won’t hap­pen. I’m not Mel and Sandi’s not Sue, so we have to try to find our own way. We’re always mess­ing around.’

Sandi adds: ‘What I’m pleased about is that the male/fe­male dou­ble act is re­ally rare. We’re like The Krankies with­out the sex­ual fris­son.’

And what of Prue and Paul’s part­ner­ship?

The first thing Paul said about his new co-judge was she re­minded him of his mother-in-law.

‘I thought, “oh, great!”’ says Prue. ‘But it turns out he likes his mother-in-law.’

‘Af­ter film­ing you’ll find all of us in the bar till late’ PAUL HOL­LY­WOOD

Paul laughs. ‘I do. It’s been amaz­ing. Prue’s very easy to get on with. Her knowl­edge is ex­ten­sive and the chem­istry was there straight away. Her restau­rant won a Miche­lin star, she knows her stuff... you don’t get much higher cre­den­tials.’

We’re both hon­est, fair and kind,’ says Prue. ‘One of the things that at­tracted me to this show is that it’s never out to hu­mil­i­ate the bak­ers.

‘At the end of the day,’ says Paul, ‘we’re judg­ing cakes, we’re always go­ing to have a smile on our face.’

The line-up may be dif­fer­ent, but the show is the same as ever. It still has that bak­ing-tent-at-the-vil­lage­fête feel, and the for­mat hasn’t been tweaked.

‘Look at it like a factory,’ says Paul. ‘If you change the staff, the ma­chin­ery still works. The ma­chin­ery is the bak­ers. And the bak­ers are the best we’ve had by a mile. I’ve never seen any­thing like it. New tech­niques, new flavours, new ideas, they’ve re­ally gone to town.’

‘It’s very emo­tional and peo­ple are do­ing their best un­der tremen­dous pres­sure,’ says Sandi. ‘I’ve no idea why they’d put them­selves through this. You fall in love with them. It hurts when some­body leaves. It’s painful. We hate be­ing the ones to send them home.’

‘That’s the worst part,’ nods Noel. ‘I’ve said it’s prob­a­bly best if I’m the one to send peo­ple home, as I look like the Child Catcher. I’ve got noth­ing to lose.’ The Great Bri­tish Bake Off re­turns this month on Chan­nel 4.

‘We got on like a house on fire, we are always mess­ing around’ NOEL FIELD­ING

Bond: Paul makes a point to Prue, Noel and Sandi as they mull over the day’s events

From left: Noel Field­ing, Sandi Toksvig, Paul Hol­ly­wood and Prue Leith

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