THE JOYS OF BAKING BEDLAM! Sandi does GBBO
She’s become an expert on cake crumb since joining The Great British Bake Off. GH columnist Sandi Toksvig gives us an exclusive view of life inside the tent ILLUSTRATION CLARE MACKIE
My father was Denmark’s most famous TV presenter, and I grew up spending my time behind the scenes in studios and on location. I think being allowed to see how a crew put together a show is still my favourite part of the work I do. It’s a bit like being allowed to learn the secret to a huge magic trick – on screen, everything ought to look effortless, while off screen, dozens of people race to make it happen. I’ve known this all my life, yet I’m not sure even I was prepared for how busy the Bake Off tent is. I knew there would be cameras; I had no idea there would be so many. I knew there would be producers: again, it was the numbers that bowled me over. The secret to the success of this wonderful show is, of course, the brave bakers – and at all times they are everyone’s focus. At the beginning of the series there are 12 of them, each one determined to make a good impression. No one on the production team wants to miss a moment. There are cameras everywhere, sound operators, eagle-eyed producers, home economists fetching ingredients, runners running with all manner of things, make-up, wardrobe… I’ve seen busy TV sets before, but nothing
like this. My first day at work was less about working out what I had to say than making sure I stayed out of everyone’s way.
I don’t think either I or my fellow presenter, the brilliant Noel Fielding, were quite ready for the number of people who would need to brief us (I now know more about cake crumb than I thought possible), keep us up to speed about each baker’s progress and make sure we have an eye on the time. It is a competition that everyone takes seriously and there is no messing about where the start and finish times are concerned.
The kitchen stations are on either side of the tent with a wide empty space up the middle that, as presenters, you quickly have to learn to negotiate. You need to be on camera exactly when requested, but out of the way at the precise moment that an oven door falls off or a spectacular cake construction collapses. Above our heads, a mini camera zooms back and forth on a wire, while at the end of the tent a small crane is grabbing pictures and could take your eye out if you’re not careful.
It seems ridiculous now, but neither Noel nor I had quite prepared ourselves for how involved we would get. We make one episode a week, so end up spending two and half months with some of the contestants. That is long enough to feel a real sense of kinship. We laugh and cry in equal measure – some days go well in a lazy haze of dappled sunlight, while others are windswept and cold as the rain lashes down on the canvas. Whatever the weather, the baking and the drama go on. No one enters Bake Off halfheartedly.
Hidden at the back of the tent is a full kitchen where all the ingredients come from. Here the home economy team makes sure that what is being asked of the bakers can be done, and I sneak down there each mid-morning to beg a small piece of cheese. We start each day about 6.30am and often finish late, so cheese has become my secret sustainer.
The tent stands in the garden of Welford Park, a classic English country estate of spectacular beauty. In our breaks, Noel and I and the two judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, are allowed to sit in the library lined with leather-bound books. We quickly fall into a routine. Paul has half an eye on some sport on the TV, Prue is writing another book, and Noel chats to me while I knit or, on the chillier days, take charge of the open fire. I cannot think of a time in my life when four people have been more companionable or at ease with each other. But we never have long in that lovely room. A runner dashes in – ‘Time to launch the next bake!’ they cry and off we go, back into baking bedlam. Heaven.
Bake Off buddies: Sandi, Noel Fielding, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood. ‘There is a sense of kinship with the contestants. We laugh and cry in equal measure’