I have never been starstruck by a tent before, but then, this isn’t some damp old pop-up that’s been rotting at the back of the garage for a decade. This is the tent. The Great British Bake Off tent. The Great British Bake Off tent, during bread week, and I step inside its hallowed canvas just as a selection of ambitious showstopper challenges in unthinkable shapes have been taken out of the oven. I take a step, starting to salivate at the smell of baked dough and spices, and the floor creaks unnervingly. Someone with a clipboard shouts: “Don’t walk near the bakes!” The middle of the tent, down which the contestants make the long procession to the judges with their offering, is wobbly and uneven. I tiptoe, suddenly petrified that I’ll be responsible for destroying four hours’ worth of intricate bread work with one dodgy footstep.

On TV, you get a sense of what it must be like to be in there – the chocolate-melting heatwave days, the sweaty pressure of tight time constraints and unfamiliar ovens, the kind of gentle chaos that led to baked alaska-gate, when the nation stopped to pay witness to a woman accidentally removing someone else’s ice-cream from the freezer. But you can’t get any idea of how delicious it smells, all that bread, spiced and hot and buttery, desperately trying to stay upright in positions never attempted by baked goods before.

There have been eight series of Bake Off so far and, during that time, it has grown from adorable BBC2 curiosity to smash hit and tabloid-bolstering phenomenon, in which every crumb of potential controversy becomes instant front-page news. The show’s production company, Love, moved the competition from its original BBC home to Channel 4 last year, putting its reputation at risk and losing three of its original four presenters in the process (only Paul Hollywood stayed, and the bright blue Lamborghini parked outside his trailer today suggests the move was not financially damaging). As an authoritative voice in the world of food, with decades of experience, Prue Leith seemed like a reasonable choice to replace Mary Berry, but when it was announced that QI’s Sandi Toksvig and The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding would be taking over from Mel and Sue, even dedicated fans were concerned that it just wouldn’t be the same. They were right. It isn’t. But to the surprise of many viewers, it worked. In a different way, as you’d expect from different ingredients, but nevertheless, it was still Bake Off.

The tent lives in the grounds of a country mansion in Berkshire. It’s unseasonably cold today so, in the grand library of the main house that doubles up as a green room for the presenters, an open fire is crackling. Toksvig sits by it in an armchair. The night before we meet, she missed a presenters’ night out, instead picking up a lifetime achievement gong at the British LGBT Awards. The others, busily spread around the room, are thrilled about her new status as what Hollywood calls “the best lesbian in the whole country”; Fielding says he’s still hopeful that he might get it next year, though “if they give it to Clare Balding, I’ll go fucking mad”. Trying to talk to all four of them at once has the feel of a particularly tricky technical challenge. They riff off each other, and delight in each other’s silliness; Hollywood is funnier than he seems on screen, and they all seem to like each other. When I arrive, Leith is on her laptop. Fielding decides that she’s writing racy fiction, much to her mock disgust. Toksvig takes charge. “Put it away, Prudence!” she insists. “I’m very sorry,” says Leith, chastened. “I thought all this banter was white noise.”

Do you all feel more relaxed this year, now that it’s more familiar?
Noel Yes. Last year we were under an enormous amount of pressure to not ruin this sacred show that everyone loved, so we weren’t as worried about the bakers, we were just trying to make sure we didn’t destroy our own careers. [Laughs]
Prue I thought, will this be my swansong?
Noel We were like, let’s get in, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll set fire to the tent and leg it.
Sandi We also all know each other much better.
Noel Nice bunch of bakers this year. Every year they seem to get a bit better.

You seem very close to the contestants already this year.
Sandi It was quick this time. Even Prue can remember all their names.
Prue Prue remembered them all, day one.
Noel Not mine, but theirs.
Prue Who are you?
Noel I don’t know. I think I’m one of the bakers but I’m in the wrong tent.

Some people have suggested the challenges might be getting too hard…
Paul This year we have gone back to basics on a couple, because we were getting a bit over-complicated. Sometimes it’s not just about the bakers in the tent, it’s about the people in the UK who watch the programme. We want to encourage the viewers to bake. And it’s worked, thus far. Everyone’s got the baking bug, at some level.

Noel and Sandi, how do you work out the comedy bits? Do you just mess around and hope for the best?
Noel We make it look like that.
Prue They do work incredibly hard at it. I was very amused the other day because we were talking about this whole scandal about what we’re paid. I said, I have such an easy time…
Noel Do you get paid, you guys?
Prue All I do is walk on, eat, say what I think, and walk off again. Sandi said: “So if it were worked out minute-for-minute, how much work we actually do, you’re the most overpaid person here.”
Sandi I just like to speak as I find.
Prue These two have to write the stuff, they then have to learn it and rehearse it, then get it through the production company, who might not think it’s quite as funny as they think it is, or it’s too risque.
Noel Most of the stuff in the tent, we just muck about.
Sandi My joke about muffin-diving should have made the edit.

That’s one for the blooper reel.
Noel The only problem with improvising is that occasionally you’ll get in a fridge. And then you’re in trouble. But I’m only working with the tools I’ve been given. There’s a lot of fridges in that tent. At some point, someone was going to get in one.
Sandi We discovered that Paul’s got the most natural comic timing.
Paul [Smiling] I’m not sure you have discovered that.

How were Noel and Sandi put together?
Noel I kept coming and meeting Sandi, and going: “That was great fun, I have no idea what they want.” Because they didn’t say. I’m a child. I’ll go anywhere. “Do you want to go and meet Sandi?” “Yeah. Love Sandi.” We got on immediately. They were so scared at that point, having moved to Channel 4, and they were being quite cautious. So they made us meet again about five more times.
Sandi I just kept going, it’s Noel, it’s Noel. It’s got to be Noel.
Prue Did you meet other people?
Sandi I did, yeah.
Noel How to make someone feel special! There was a long queue.

The Great British Bake Off judges, presenters and contestants in 2017.
The Great British Bake Off judges, presenters and contestants in 2017. Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4 Televi/PA

You seemed to be a risky choice at first…
Noel It was quite a big thing. If you read the Daily Mail, [hiring me] was just a ludicrous decision. The thing is, me and Sandi have great chemistry. Paul and Prue have great chemistry. The four of us have chemistry. That’s kind of rare. There’s something special here.

Paul and Prue, how often do you agree, when it comes to judging?
Paul 99.9%.
Prue You have to be careful about not letting your prejudices interfere. I suppose one of the reasons I’m quite confident is that I had these schools of food and wine, and every year there would be 96 students whose exams depended on mine and the principals’ tastebuds. I’m used to tasting a lot of things and still concentrating. When you taste wine, I can’t taste more than eight in a row…
Paul Could’ve fooled me last night. [They all cackle]
Sandi I can’t believe you all went out and I missed it.
Noel Paul bought me a piña colada.
Paul I wanted it to have sparklers and everything.

Is the show reality TV?
Prue Of course it is, in the sense that these are real people and we’re watching them and seeing their journey and all that stuff. But what makes it different from most reality shows is that the results are not cooked by the producers. They genuinely just film what happens.
Noel It’s filmed like a documentary.
Prue No one wants to humiliate them, they’re not chosen in order to be laughed at, there isn’t a desire to set people up for a fall.

Do you think that’s what’s given it such a long life? The niceness?
Prue I think so. I think the whole world needs a comfortable place which is not aggressive and scary and tiring and stressful.
Noel A happy place.

Do you have an idea early on about who might win?
Prue I don’t. Because, I’ve only had one season so far and I changed my mind three times about who I thought could win. This time I have no idea.
Sandi If you do know, don’t tweet it. Just saying. [Prue accidentally tweeted the name of last year’s winner a few hours early]
Noel We need to keep Prue in the dark until the last minute.
Prue [to Sandi, joking] You shut up.
Sandi I get no respect.
Noel The thing about Paul is, he’s very fair. He’s never going to say it’s great if it isn’t. He’ll go: “This tastes like rubber.” And you can see them dissolving.
Prue When you get the Hollywood stare, you never know what he’s going to say, whether it’s “it’s terrible” or whether he’s going to put his hand out and give them a handshake. Recently, one of the contestants was really crying, because everything had gone wrong and it was terrible. And Paul said the flavour was fantastic, it was a really imaginative thing, well done. Then he said: “But it was shite.”
Sandi The bake was shite.
Prue Instead of crying, they started to laugh.

Innuendo was such a big part of Bake Off…
Sandi Not any more.
Noel Apart from the muff-diving.
Sandi Diving for muffins was funny.
Noel It won’t go in the show.
Sandi We don’t do very much innuendo.
Noel It’s not really our thing.

But it’s still there.
Noel It’s not really your style or my style, is it? But we don’t reject it. If it’s happening, we go with it. Sometimes we make Paul giggle. Often Prue naively says something which sounds sexual and we giggle like schoolchildren.
Prue I don’t know what they’re talking about.
Noel When we first got here, there was a Bake Off way. It was tricky for us because we didn’t want to come in and try and change it too much. We wanted to slot in and still retain our own style.
Sandi Possibly we’re being a bit naughtier this year.

The show is so popular, and so big, that everything is scrutinised in a way that I imagine none of you had experienced before. How do you deal with that side of things?
Paul [smiling] I don’t know what you’re talking about. No idea.
Noel Do you know what I love? When you come here, it’s a bubble. It’s flowers and trees, we’re in a tent, people are baking. It’s like a dream. We’re in a library, with a fire.
Sandi Don’t touch my fire.
Noel Sandi is top lesbian. Prue writes porn.
Prue I do not write porn!
Noel I just want to say, for the record, Prue does not write porn. Prue writes novels.
Sandi Erotic novels.
Noel You don’t have to worry about anything in the real world. It’s a really nice place.

The Great British Bake Off returns next month on C4

Source link