Behind the scenes at the Great British Bake-Off
‘There’s nothing hidden and no cynicism,’ Perkins adds. ‘Mel and I want to make sure the contestants are having a laugh and are properly represented, and Paul and Mary’s job is to judge them.’
The first series, which aired in 2010, saw the cast and crew move from town to town each week (following a theme – so, for example, bread baking would take place in Sandwich). Since then, though, the team has wisely decided to stay in one location for the whole series. Filming takes place mainly at weekends to allow contestants, who are known by their first names, to continue with work or day-to-day commitments, though they quickly discover that being on Bake Off is not a part-time duty. ‘They did warn us that you won’t do anything but bake, but it totally dominates your life,’ Danny, 45, a doctor in intensive care, says. ‘This is the most stretching addition to my life, ever.’
‘It’s a lot more intense than I imagined,’ says James, 28, a medical student from Shetland who is passionate about sourdough, and also about to sit his end-of year exams. ‘You’re working a 15- to 16-hour day.’ And how is he juggling filming around his academic commitments? ‘Er… I don’t think I am. I practised one bake last week, and that’s it.’
The cost of being a contestant has also surprised them. ‘You can’t do this if you haven’t got spare dosh,’ Danny says. ‘It must have cost a couple of thousand pounds to get to this stage – the expense of getting to all the auditions, the ingredients.’ Another contestant, John, 22, a law student, admits to practising his recipe only twice as ‘the ingredients cost £25 a go’. The expenses are met of contestants who make it through to the final 12, but before that they have gone through a tough selection procedure.
‘Every person who makes it into the marquee has passed a rigorous series of tests,’ says Anna Beattie, the executive producer and originator of the Bake Off concept – she came up with the idea after talking to a friend who had seen ‘bake-offs’ in America. The tests include a lengthy application form, a 45-minute telephone call with a researcher, bringing two bakes to an audition in London, a screen test and an interview with a producer. If they get through that, there is a second audition baking two recipes for Berry and Hollywood in front of the cameras, and an interview with the show psychologist to make sure they can cope with being filmed for up to 16 hours a day.
In the studio, much of the tone is set by Perkins, whose tomfoolery and comic observations are rapid-fire even when the cameras are off, especially when it comes to teasing Hollywood. (‘Look at his hair!’ she exclaims, patting the well-gelled spikes as they wait to film a ‘walk-in’ slot. ‘It’s like a million tiny javelins.’) Food producers hover between takes, ready to give a hand to flagging contestants – perhaps advise on a recipe or bring fresh ingredients. (‘We help the bakers to a certain degree,’ Faenia Moore, the programme’s home economist, says. ‘We do show the disasters, but you don’t want to set anyone up for a fall.’)
The challenges of filming 12 contestants all baking at once are obvious, and little dramas are played out everywhere – a cameraman straining to get his angle scatters a pot of baking-beans across the floor. A contestant, noticing the bouncing ceramic beans, realises too late that he has forgotten to put his own baking-beans in his pastry case and whips it out of the oven – far too late to save it. Soggy pastry slumps across his tart tin; he grimaces and starts again. Meanwhile, in a corner, another contestant waiting for his creation to finish baking discovers in cold-sweat horror that what he thought was sugar is actually salt.
But aren’t these the best amateur bakers in the country? Isn’t it a bit odd that they are making this kind of basic mistake? Perkins is quick to defend them. Unlike baking at home, she says, here there are multiple distractions, from cameramen and lighting to the stop-start rhythm of filming. ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve tried it at home, because at home you’re not shaking with a silverback gorilla staring at you saying, “I don’t like this,” she says (Hollywood has a reputation for harsh criticism), ‘and Mary’s cornflower-blue eyes drilling into you expecting perfection, and someone like me pawing at you and licking your boiling butterscotch. So we do up the stress ante here.’
Hollywood and Berry’s good-cop-bad-cop routine has long been at the centre of the show’s appeal. They avoid the amateur dramatics of other reality shows (there is no Simon Cowell mock-astonishment here, nor anyone giving it 110 per cent). Both offer detailed and accurate criticism of the bakes, but while Berry’s approach is gentle and encouraging, Hollywood can be devastatingly blunt (he was referred to by one critic as a ‘pastry-fixated terminator’). ‘It’s not personal,’ Hollywood, who began in his father’s bakery as a teenager and has been the head baker at a number of hotels in Britain, insists over lunch. ‘I’m judging the product, not the person.’ Nevertheless, his presence sends shudders through contestants. ‘I was talking to Danny and she said, “You really intimidate me,”‘ Hollywood continues, laughing in astonishment. ‘I mean, it’s ridiculous. She’s an intensive care doctor dealing with life and death!’
‘Paul’s a cuddly bear, really,’ James says. ‘He’s probably quite shy, though he makes up for it with a massive ego… He’s really nice, which must make it all the more difficult for him to portray the image of Mr Nasty to the nation.’
Berry, meanwhile, with her 70 published cookbooks (five million copies sold), years of experience and reputation for producing infallible recipes, is quietly revered by the contestants. ‘Mary is no fool,’ Danny says. ‘She’s a shrewd owl. Her tips are top and they work. She is utterly reliable. When Mary says something we all listen.’
Evidence of this comes as the filming progresses. Berry, Hollywood and Perkins are interviewing one of the bakers, Manisha, 27, a nursery nurse, as she begins her show-stopper recipe, a delicious-sounding combination of butterscotch, banana and meringue. Listening carefully as the ingredients are listed, Berry looks concerned. ‘Anything else?’ she asks, trying to nudge a response from Manisha. As the take ends and she walks off-camera, she mutters to a member of the crew that the pie will not work. ‘There’s no setting agent in it,’ she says.
Three hours later, as the final dishes are unveiled, it is clear Berry’s prediction is bang-on. Butterscotch glop seeps through pastry cracks on to the cake stand and the table. Despite Manisha’s frantic patching up, the offending pie is sliced on the tasting table in a flood of banana and meringue.
The judging itself is fascinating to watch. During a technical bake (the round in which contestants have no prior knowledge of the recipes), the finished products are lined up on a table anonymously, while the bakers themselves sit on stools facing away from the bakes. It looks contrived, but it ensures no one can influence the judges. Meanwhile Berry and Hollywood make their way along the table, commenting and tasting as they go. ‘This is over-baked,’ Hollywood complains. ‘Structure’s all wrong.’ ‘Pastry’s lovely on this one,’ Berry says, breaking through with her fork. Decisions are swift and definite. It isn’t always like this, though. In this series, Hollywood says, the calibre is so high that he has had to judge contestants according to professional standards. ‘At first, it was really hard to separate them – I was struggling to find problems. Then we made the challenges harder and they began making mistakes, making my life easier.’
All who work on the show agree that the skills and inventiveness of the contestants have increased exponentially since series one. Not only are bakers now aware of techniques seen on previous shows (such as rolling out pastry with clingfilm to make it paper-thin without sticking), they are also aware of the judges’ likes (banana for Hollywood, alcohol for Mary – so the show’s running gag goes).
Dissent between the judges occasionally delays filming. Though they claim to agree ’99 per cent of the time’ (according to Berry), Giedroyc remembers a classic disagreement from series one that ran for four hours: ‘Miranda’s cupcakes. Basically, Paul insisted that Miranda’s cupcakes were not fanciful enough and Mary said they tasted delightful. Four hours. It was like waiting for a new pope.’ Miranda eventually made it through to the final. The two judges also differ in what they are looking for in a champion. Coming from the baking industry, Hollywood’s interests are in contestants maintaining consistency over mass numbers; he insists that the standard should be close to professional. Berry is more interested in flavour and range. ‘The winners should be the country’s very best home bakers,’ she says. ‘That means they can do everything from bread and meringues to little tarts – the all-roundness is key. That’s difficult for some people.’ ‘You’ve got to be really good at cooking, rather than just baking,’ Danny agrees. ‘You have to understand spices and flavours and savoury things. If you’ve spent 20 years baking only cupcakes you won’t get far.’
Both the judges and presenters agree that the show’s aim is to inspire people to bake again. It has had a ripple effect across the home-baking industry: sales of bakeware spike after each series as viewers try out the recipes at home, and Hollywood says that the show has reversed the trend for bakeries to close – six months ago, he says, there was a net increase in the number of bakeries opening across the country. ‘Before that we were losing 50 a month,’ he says. ‘It’s the preservation of skills that have been in this country for hundreds of years and have been dying off – all we’ve done is rejuvenate it, brought the product back to life again.’
‘When you are a kid one of your most visceral memories is putting a spoon in the mix and eating it, and then you forget about baking for the rest of your life,’ Perkins says. ‘What we’re trying to do is make people carry on. We want there to be a connection between then and when you’re an adult, to come back to it and think, it’s still great to lick the spoon, and I can make a beautiful cake or a pie and have my mates round. Everything about it makes sense – it’s better for you, it’s more economical, it’s more convivial.’
The rain is still beating down outside, turning the grounds of the country house into a muddy ganache. A couple of contestants are slip-sliding their way inside to warm up and grab some food (they are encouraged to take half-hour breaks when their baking schedule allows). Ryan, 38, a statistician-turned-wedding-photographer, is hanging out in the holding room, trying to relax, but all the bakers are slightly on edge.
The judges are making their deliberations; the next time they are needed back on set will be for the elimination. A newcomer to the culinary world, having been baking (and, in fact, cooking generally) for only a year, Ryan has beaten thousands of other amateur bakers to be in the top 12. Like all of them, he has his eye on the final, not least because he would like to set up a baking arm to his partner’s festival catering business. But he’s trying to stay calm. ‘I might not win, it doesn’t matter. As long as I try my best. At the end of the day, it’s only baking.’
Despite the pressure of the occasion, Berry, on her way out to the judging, is in agreement. ‘My thing is to encourage people to do better and seek perfection, and if the side cracks, well, things like this happen. Let’s just get on with it.’
‘The Great British Bake Off’ returns at 8pm, August 14, on BBC Two. ‘The Great British Bake Off: How to Turn Everyday Bakes into Showstoppers’ is published by BBC Books, £20
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