Congratulatory handshakes from judge Paul Hollywood, pies with “soggy bottoms” and a bunting-festooned tent will all reassure fans of The Great British Bake Off that this year’s series contains all its usual ingredients – despite being filmed in the shadow of coronavirus.
Kelly Webb-Lamb, Channel 4’s deputy director of programmes, told the Observer that while the show “doesn’t look or feel any different”, behind the scenes she and the makers, Love Productions, went to extraordinary lengths to pull off creating the usual Bake Off amid the restrictions caused by the pandemic.
From moving the usual location from Welford Park in Berkshire to Down Hall Hotel in Essex in order to create a “biosphere” bubble for the cast and crew to live in, to all 130 people on site being tested three times before filming began, huge changes were made to ensure the show, which starts on Tuesday, could go on safely.
In previous series, the bakers filmed mostly during weekends over the 12 weeks of the competition, going home in between and carrying on with their day jobs. But this year, the only way to make the show look normal and comply with Covid-19 protocols and government guidance was for everyone involved to live together and film it over six weeks instead.
The bakers had already been chosen when lockdown was imposed in England in March. Love Productions creative director Kieran Smith explained: “Initially, we were thinking we’re not sure we will be able to do it this year.”
But by April, when he and C4 realised that many of the freelance crew they usually use would not be eligible for the government’s furloughing scheme, they were keen to make something work.
Smith’s colleague, Letty Kavanagh, suggested they house the entire production in one of the many UK hotels lying dormant because of Covid-19, although that was thrown into doubt when the government said hotels could re-open in July.
Down Hall, an Italianate hotel set in 110 acres of parkland, agreed Love could use it exclusively on a self-catering basis, retaining 25 staff to help run the place. “The next question was how do we move people? We have bakers who had children. There was the whole legal and compliance issue. The filming was sort of the easy part,” said Smith.
“The whole point of the bubble [was] being able to be close to each other or pat people on the back, or it wouldn’t be Bake Off.”
In May, the bakers were asked if they were able to relocate with partners (if they wanted), children (if they were sole carers), and even their dogs: chaperones were provided for children during filming and a dog pen built. Although flour was in short supply at the time, most ingredients for the show had been pre-ordered from wholesalers so, before they joined, bakers were sent “care packages” with which to practise at home.
Before moving into the bubble, everyone isolated for nine days and took three tests, said Smith.
The crew and cast had their own wing, garden, dining hall and bar separate from the contestants, so the latter did not feel constantly under pressure from the judges but were able to mix and “it wasn’t a case of us and them”.
Individual kitchens were created for the 12 bakers in a structure in the hotel car park so they could practise and a team of cleaners used disinfectant and UV light to clean everything that came on site.
For entertainment, football matches and cinema and bingo nights were held – one hosted by new presenter Matt Lucas.
Smith said: “He’d been shielding prior to coming in so for him it was quite liberating. It was a good atmosphere on set. People had been staying in their homes, the majority of them loved it… it was an opportunity to be normal. We had fun. It was a long time but it had a special atmosphere to it this year.
“We thought we were in the safest place in England by the time we were a week in and no-one was showing signs.”
So it was a shock when one of the hotel staff then showed symptoms and had to isolate. Filming was paused for a day until she was tested. Thankfully, it was negative and the show wrapped in August.
According to Smith, the main changes viewers will notice are the “slightly different surroundings and different wildlife and we allude in the opening episode and occasionally to [being] in this strange little bubble”.
Former contestant Michael Chakraverty, who is co-hosting the Guardian’s weekly Bake Off liveblog, said that the key difference between this year and when he took part last year was: “We got to go home and experience the support of our families and friends. We had that emotional support and [could] cry about soggy bottoms.”
“This batch have lost their support network but had a little bit more time to practise their bakes as, on their days off filming, they have nothing else to distract them. It doesn’t mean the pressure and intensity of the cameras will not lead to disasters though!”
But he added: “That immersive experience created a really strong bond between the bakers. Paul was doing pizza night in his oven, Prue was doing flower-arranging. It sounds like the best summer camp in the world!”
The changes inevitably added to the show’s costs, which are undisclosed. But Webb-Lamb said C4 and Love wanted to bring it back, “for the good of the nation but also it was important to get people working; if production stops that’s people’s jobs”.
Although protection measures were added, such as makeup artists and crew wearing masks on set, “we wanted it to feel exactly the same and so we had to work out a way of getting a protocol to make that happen”.
There will also be the usual Bake Off festive specials, and Webb-Lamb confirmed that “theoretically, there is no problem at all with a Hollywood handshake”. For millions of viewers under threat of another lockdown over the coming weeks, the prospect of that handshake will take on an extra resonance.