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
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