The sun always shines in the world of The Great British Bake Off, an Arcadian land where the currency is compliments, innuendo and pie. It is an unseasonably hot day when I visit Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood on the set of the sixth series of the biggest programme in Britain, and the tent smells of sugary sweat. It sits in the shadow of a grand country house in Welford Park, Berkshire, home to a family clearly still bemused by the presence of a camera crew, and home temporarily to the presenters’ green room too – the library, now well stocked with Twix bars.
They hug, quite a lot. The hugs, though, range in quality, from Paul’s gentlemanly arm around Mary’s shoulder, to Sue’s massive bear-hug-from-behind, to Mel’s intimate earlobe caress. When I sneak from the main house into the tent, I see the contestants, all perched expectantly beside their warm bakes.
Last summer, the bakers worked through 22kg of chocolate and 307kg of sugar. But balancing the sweetness is the knowledge that 13 million people were watching, and surely – surely – the pressure is mounting to keep it growing, from the comforting family show it once was, beyond even the monolithic TV hit it has become. Can the show maintain its gentle appeal, when a melted baked alaska becomes national news, and its presenters are some of the most famous faces in Britain? Suddenly, Sue halts filming. Is she storming off? Has somebody died? I peer over the cameras, through the pastel anxiety, and I see Sue walking towards me, fast. Outside, Mel is making daisy chains for the bakers. I’m not meant to be inside the tent, I know that. I also know that I can slip through a gap in the sheeting and be out on the road in under four minutes, if I sacrifice my jacket. Sue approaches as I’m reaching for the untied tent flap. And she hands me a slice of frangipane tart. “You HAVE to try this,” she says, grinning.
During a break in filming, I join Mel and Sue in the drawing room, boarded up to protect the antiques. I realise later we were whispering, as if nervous the house would overhear. Outside in the garden, a lone cameraman films squirrels.
This house is quite something, isn’t it?
Mel Next door, there’s a dining room with a table laid for 24. Permanently.
Sue We came in after the election really distraught, to find two huge union jacks flying at the front.
Mel They’re lovely, the family who live here, but they were very worried about the mansion tax. The worst thing about the election is all the people who promised to leave if Labour came in are still here.
Sue I’m desperate to be in the same room as Katie Hopkins. There are a few things I’d like to say to her, really calmly. I’d just like to put forward a case for her to integrate the “her” that she pretends to be on TV with the “her” she is as a real person. You can say a lot of things about me but I own my own opinions. They’re not for sale.
Mel But there are lots of people who have to play the pantomimey villainey role. Paul has to play the villain in this!
Sue He’s no Katie Hopkins though. Sorry Eva – would you like to know about “the structure of Bake Off and how it’s jolly good fun and how we’ve been doing it for six years and we’re like a family”?
Yes please. I want to talk about niceness. And normalness. How can you maintain your famous normalness when you work on the biggest show on TV?
Sue We’re the same people we were when we met as teenagers. We’ve had lots of ups and downs, so we don’t link our career success to our personal happiness. You learn how to do that when you lose everything and become very badly unemployed, as we did.
Mel It helps having extremely grounded families.
Sue The idea that you’d get high falutin’ or media-ey – you’d just get scythed to the ground.
Mel The piss would be ripped.
Sue My mum has recorded all my programmes and not watched one. My dad says he finds it embarrassing.
Mel They do like Bake Off though, because they’re all in love with Mary.
Sue: No matter what age, what gender, everybody feels a deep heart and groin yearning for Mary. Mary validates everything. The kite-mark. In the twilight of our usefulness, Mary comes along and everything’s all right. Another thing I get is, “Hello Mel.”
Do you always sit in the right order, like Ant and Dec? [Ant McPartlin always stands on the left of the screen]
Sue We don’t need to, because we answer to either, which means you can’t get too much of an ego. I was doing a very pretentious piece to camera in Cambodia [last year Sue filmed a BBC2 series about travelling along the Mekong river], about religion, and right in the middle of it someone walked by and shouted, “Bake!”
Mel [shaking head] Reduced to one word.
Can you imagine ever wanting to escape from that?
Sue The hard thing is resting double entendres after six years. Now we go for the single entendre, and say things like, “That baguette looks a bit like a cock.” There’s no nuance now.
You need a little moleskine, to write rude ideas…
Mel No, I’ve just started recycling them.
Sue I can see her brain working, like ticker tape.
When you hear them come out of your mouth do you hate yourself a little?
Sue Listen, I’ve hated myself since I knew my own name. But Bake Off has simply confirmed to me what a bottom-feeding halfwit I am. So I see Mel’s mouth move like a ventriloquist’s dummy and it makes me lose my legs laughing.
What does it mean when a baked alaska gets on Newsnight?
Sue It means that important news stories get relegated, and that causes pain. I could tell you the stories that were prominent that day, including Syria and the Middle East, things that people needed to know about. It felt like the show is so genuine that people can’t bear it, and look for lies.
Mel Kirsty Wark agreed it felt pretty surreal.
Sue It was a non-event in the tent. Most of our work isn’t done on camera – it’s pastoral care, all about trying to make people look good. So it’s a bit painful when that’s undermined. But I understand headlines need to be made.
Mel I don’t do Twitter, but I found it odd that people cared enough to make peoples lives, like Diana’s [Bake Off’s eldest contestant, who quit the show] quite difficult.
Sue That’s the thing about the niceness of the show – you can have a Twitter storm about something like a fallen cake. Except, at the end of every Twitter storm there’s a woman being abused. This time it was a 69-year-old woman, nice as pie, WI, wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Mel … and her name was Di. That was good, mate!
Sue Sorry, it was like the worst mc-ing ever. I can feel Jay-Z’s wrath.But I also see lots of positives about the democratisation of the world through Twitter. With everyone having an opinion, there will always be some that are unpleasant and hurtful.Our job is to keep it small and treat people well.
Why do we respond to the show?
Mel Because there’s not enough kindness around. It’s so arch out there. It’s all uber irony.
Sue It’s slower too. You have to remind yourself sometimes that you’re going to chuck someone out. I endlessly quote Stewart Lee but there’s a quote I have of his on my wall that I think about a lot – “The last taboo is doing something simply and doing it well”. That idea of purity of intent. Sometimes it’s ludicrous: watching someone make a 17-tower Victoria sponge in the shape of Douglas Carswell, you think, “This show is insane.” But actually the intent is pure. It’s about craft and family.
Mel Of course some people hate it.
Sue Something needs to puncture the saccharine. You don’t want it to feel too much like a warm bath that you need to wee in.
How has the show affected your friendship?
Mel Friends before work.
Sue Absolute pure love.
Mel I really look forward to hanging about and titting around.
Do you watch Bake Off?
Sue It’d be like a dog returning to its own vomit. Some shows have a symbiotic relationship with the tabloids, the Strictlys, the big floor shows, but we can’t really conceive of this show being one of them. We really are trying to make a show about finding the best baker in Britain, with a few very nice visuals of some lambs’ testicles romping in a field. And providing work for a couple of perimenopausal women.
Will that always be enough?
Sue That’s a good question.
Mel We say every year, “Can it really be a success again?”
Sue When you start guessing what people want from it then you’re finished. For as long as it lasts, which might only be for this series, we’ll keep doing it. It’s a relief doing a show where you don’t have to be horrid. I’m not as hatchet-faced as I looked – sometimes it absolutely kills me. You know how much these people want it. A lot of people, women particularly, have come to this programme to find out who they are. They’ve spent a life doing things for other people, they’re mothers, daughters, and now it’s time for them. To see that spark of independence and self-worth is really something. I don’t want to be too meta about it, because it is just a show about cakes, but…
Mel …it means a lot to people.
Sue It’s the antithesis of that kind of Britain’s Got Talent honk. We hug the living shit out of them.