The Great British Bake Off is back – and it's still great
Joe Nerssessian speaks to The Great British Bake Off's new-look line-up about the show's prospects as it returns for a ninth series on its new home at Channel 4.
IT WAS one of the biggest television controversies in recent years, decried and probed by politicians, slammed by the press and ditched by 75 per cent of its on-screen talent.
The Great British Bake Off's move to Channel 4 arrived in the middle of a fairly quiet news cycle and prompted a bitter public row between two of Britain's publicly-owned broadcasters.
The battle has continued ahead of the new series, with the BBC shifting its Bake Off replacement, The Big Family Cooking Showdown, from Tuesday to Thursdays in response to Channel 4's "cynical" scheduling of the revamped show.
However, after the jokes about spending £75 million on a glorified tent and attacks on Paul Hollywood subsided, Love Productions and Channel 4 have prepared a programme which feels remarkably familiar.
Arriving at the grand stately home where filming has taken place for the past three series, the inside of the vast white tent looks the same. Rows of workstations, busy bakers, Hollywood lurking – what was all the fuss about?
But of course, look closer and there are differences.
Sporting an extraordinarily loud lime green jumper, Noel Fielding bounces across the set, hopping from station to station in silver platforms. Sandi Toksvig strolls past wearing a wide smile.
She laughs with the bakers before filming a quick link. "Half an hour to put that welly in your jelly," she bellows. One has to blink a couple of times before realising it isn't Mel or Sue.
It's the same show, same format, insists Hollywood, as the new line-up of talent, including co-judge Prue Leith, sit inside the house after filming.
The 51-year-old thought it would feel a little strange, arriving back without Mary Berry or Mel & Sue.
"But then we turned up in the tent and do you know what it hasn't even crossed my mind," he says.
"I expected it too but it just didn't, it feels like I've been working with these guys for ages and it actually feels like I've known them for years."
Six weeks or so into filming, the three newcomers look fairly relaxed.
Fielding says the first day was like "going back to school" while Leith was relieved Hollywood was not the "scary guy" she expected.
The veteran cookery writer and chef admits to immediately wanting the job after learning of Berry's departure.
Preparing for her second audition, she was determined to prove her worth and decided to impress producers by taking along a Gugelhupf, a rich Austrian dessert cross of bread and cake.
"By now my blood was really up and I really wanted the job," Leith says.
"I thought I'll turn up with a perfect Gugelhupf and they'll be so impressed that I have bothered to make one and it's going to be the best Gugelhupf they've ever seen."
"So I made one and I turned it out and my husband came and had at look it and went 'That would never pass Paul Hollywood'.
'Why what's the matter with it?,' I replied and he said round the side there was a little nick.'
"So I never took it," she says before Fielding interrupts, "That was his lunch taken care of", and the four fall about laughing.
A puzzled reaction greeted the left field appointment of the Mighty Boosh man, a response which didn't escape Fielding himself after he was first called in to audition.
"I said 'have you got the right number'?," he laughs.
When he eventually got the call informing him he'd landed the job, Fielding was dressed as Alice Cooper for a Sky Arts episode of Urban Myths which also featured David Suchet as Salvador Dali.
"I was sitting there looking puzzled and David asked what's wrong and I said 'I've just been offered Bake Off'. And he's a method actor so I forgot he stayed in character and he said 'what does your gut tell you?'
"I went 'It's telling me to do it' and he went 'it is God's barometer'. Two weeks later he went 'you know I was Salvador Dali when I gave you that advice'."
His co-stars once again burst into a fit of giggles and there can be no argument of a lack of camaraderie from this new-look line-up. Fielding and Toksvig have natural chemistry but whether the foursome can transmit that through the television is a different matter.
"It's a tricky situation because the original team had such good chemistry and it obviously worked," says Fielding as the three newcomers reveal it will pain them if they are judged poorly by viewers once it arrives on screens.
"It's a wonderful show and it's much loved and you wouldn't want to wreck that," says Toksvig while Leith adds: "If they say not good enough then I'll mind a lot."
With 16 million viewers at the end of the last series, any changes to one of Britain's most popular TV shows are going to be heavily scrutinised. So, to publicly lose three-quarters of your line-up and shift from an ad-free format into the world of sponsorship is always going to be difficult.
But in terms of talent, the new additions are certainly behind making the show work. Fielding, in particular, has visibly fallen in love with the show.
He says he keeps finding himself offering advice he didn't think he knew, "that's the wrong kind of gelatine", while Toksvig jokes they have "learned a whole new language".
"We talk about crumb now, don't we?" she adds, turning to Fielding and saying: "I heard you say the word compote the other day. It's insane."
The pair also admit to worrying about the bakers, and Fielding quips with no irony they are the "magic ingredient".
"They are always the stars of the show," he adds.
"We were quite surprised at how quickly we cared about them. On week one we were like 'I love them'. They are like our children."
"You fall in love with them, you absolutely do," continues Toksvig.
"We feel like we really know them, it hurts when someone leaves, it's painful. The whole story is about them."
Hollywood describes this year's batch as the "best we've ever had" while Toksvig adds: "What's really lovely is how well they get on with each other.
"You become a big family, " she says, "It sounds a bit soppy but you do. A large dysfunctional family ... well Noel's the dysfunctional part."
"I'm the dog," he says to the familiar sound of laughter filling the room.
:: The Great British Bake Off begins on Tuesday August 29 on Channel 4.