2 17 SEPTEMBER 2020
Bake the world
a better place
As The Great British Bake Off returns, Prue Leith,
Paul Hollywood, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas tell
Katherine Hassell about ping pong, pizza and how
to produce top telly in a pandemic
The Great British Bake Off has long been a
balm for the nation. Not just an entertaining
diversion, it has also inspired millions of us to
roll up our sleeves and bake. And then came
coronavirus. Frankly, GBBO could have been
prescribed by the NHS for the good of the
country’s mental health (if not its waistline).
“I noticed within three weeks of lockdown
that everyone was baking,” says judge Paul
Hollywood, 54, via video call from his Kent
home. “Flour and yeast were difficult to get
hold of. I had some villagers saying, ‘If you
make me a loaf, I’ll give you my flour.’ I was
negotiating,” he laughs.
“Baking became my escapism and I was
getting the same feedback from the public,”
he adds. “They were watching series after
series of Bake Off and getting this baking
buzz. I didn’t realise,
but baking is now in
Britain’s DNA. It was
there before, it’s just
been highlighted by
shows like Bake Off.
It’s amazing to see.”
Noel Fielding, 47, to finally start baking. “We
made banana bread,” he reveals. “We made
oat and raisin cookies. And we got a breadmaking
machine, so we make bread every day.
I’ve got a granary on the go as we speak. It has
taken me four years, but I’m getting into it.”
In the midst of a pandemic, a panacea of
pies, pastries and petit pain was needed more
than ever. How, though, could they film the
longed-for new series when social distancing
rules asked us to keep two metres apart? How
could they guarantee nobody would fall ill?
The answer: create a bubble – a very big one.
Everyone had to self-isolate for nine days
and take three Covid tests before entering
their ‘household’ for the next six weeks –
Down Hall Hotel in Hatfield Heath, Essex.
Set in 110 acres of landscaped gardens, woods
and parkland, the hotel played host to
130 people in its self-contained biosphere.
Camera operators, sound recordists, home
economists, producers, presenters, judges,
hotel staff, bakers (and even some children
and dogs) moved in for the duration.
“I never felt safer,” says fellow judge Prue
Leith, 80. “It must have been the safest place
in England. And so, when we were in the tent,
we could behave absolutely freely. There
were no masks. We didn’t have to be socially
distanced. If Paul felt like giving a handshake,
he could. It was just like ordinary Bake Off.”
Apart from the fact everybody lived on site.
Since filming was two days on, two days off,
12 practice kitchens were built for the bakers
to perfect their signatures and showstoppers.
There were additional tents for production
staff and make-up, a Winnebago for wardrobe
and shepherd huts for green rooms.
Rounders games, football matches and
a tennis championship were organised.
“There was yoga,
Pilates, keep fit
classes… all sorts,”
“I’m very good at
watching with a glass
in my hand. That’s
my speciality,” says
Prue. “I loved it
because we were allowed to bring our dogs.
So I had my two mad spaniels who turned out
to be escapologists. Although, when they
escaped, I didn’t worry. I knew they’d be on
somebody’s lap. Paul brought his ping pong
table. It was like a Butlin’s holiday camp.”
“And I’ll tell you what was a highlight,”
reveals Noel. “Paul brought his pizza oven
and made pizza for everyone. That was
delicious. I was supposed to help, wasn’t I?
And I forgot. Never been a good sous chef…”
Comedian Matt Lucas, 46 – who replaces
Sandi Toksvig as copresenter – had an
absolute ball. “Well, I was obviously happy to
be out of the house,” he chuckles, “but I just
had the best six weeks. It was scary being the
new kid in the tent, but Noel, Prue and Paul
were so welcoming, kind and happy to play.”
Matt joining the gang of four was literally
a dream come true for Noel. During the search
for a new co-host, he had an epiphany in his
sleep. “You want it to be someone big and
someone great, but you also want to surprise
people. I had this weird dream it was Matt,”
he grins. “I’m a witch, is what I’m saying.”
Little Britain star Matt wasn’t a regular
viewer of the show. “I hadn’t seen a great deal
because I’d been living in America,” he says.
And, despite offers, he wasn’t looking to
move into presenting. “I wasn’t sure it
was something I’d be any good at,” he says.
“But I have been hosting shows on BBC
Radio 2, so I had a bit more confidence.”
His top secret audition, though, couldn’t
have gone better. “I went to this garden centre
where all the auditionees had to go and talk
to customers,” Matt reveals. “The first lady
I spoke to said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said,
‘We’re doing a show about horticulture.’ She
said, ‘You just walk around garden centres
talking to people?’ I said, ‘Yeah…’ And she
said, ‘That’s a bit of a comedown for you.’”
He laughs. “It became very clear, very
quickly, that I don’t know anything about
horticulture. People were a bit baffled by
what I was doing there.”
Noel laughs, “The gardeners could smell it
a mile off. He’s not exactly Monty Don, is he?”
“Exactly,” chuckles Matt. “We were filming
near Tottenham and I’m a big Arsenal fan.
One of the customers we were talking to, this
lady, was a Tottenham fan and we had some
really good banter back and forth. I just had
fun. There wasn’t any pressure because
I didn’t think there was any chance I was
going to get the job.
“That afternoon, I tested with Noel,” he
says. “Again, I just had fun. We laughed and
laughed. That was the Tuesday. On the
Thursday, it was my birthday. That’s when
I got the call offering me the job. It was the
best birthday present you could have.”
“Hard to wrap,” quips Noel. “Straightaway
you could tell. He was very funny. He’s the
only person who’s worked in the Bake Off
tent and the Tardis.”
‘In the midst of a pandemic,
a panacea of pies, pastries
and petit pain was needed
more than ever’
Cover Photography: Mark Bourdillon/ Love Productions, Myles New, Gary Lake