Ready, steady, bake!
Mary Berry is convinced her fellow Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood’s steely glare “puts the fear of God” into contestants.
For a fortunate few, the icy gaze is a decoy, followed by a grin and a wave of praise for the goodies in front of him. More often than not, though, it’s the prelude to his takedown of the bake.
But underneath the grizzly image lies an ever so slightly soft centre.
“No one chastises themselves more than the contestants, and that’s been the case this year,” says 50-year-old Hollywood, casting out an unblinking look.
“They get really down about it. Nadiya [Hussain, last year’s winner] recently said she got upset about one of her bakes, and I’d whispered to her, ‘It’s only a baking show, it doesn’t matter’.
“I’ve done that this year as well. The big, horrible person that I am, what you don’t see is I’ll go and have a word with them quietly.”
But with over 14 million viewers tuning in to see Hussain crowned winner of the BBC One series, a reported 19% increase in the number of people baking (according to Waitrose), and cooking essentials flying off the shelves as each episode’s credits roll, evidently the Bake Off is more than just your average TV competition.
Now back for a seventh series, both judges feel this year’s batch of contestants are more nervous than ever.
“They were slower to settle down this time, because all the people that enter have watched the previous years,” explains 81-year-old Berry.
And if it doesn’t look like the contestants are feeling the pressure, her co-judge is only too happy to help.
“About three or four programmes in, I played the theme music for Bake Off on my phone,” he says with a chuckle. “So as they walk in the tent, I play it and it freaks them out. It suddenly dawns on them where they actually are!”
There are no shortcuts to curry favour though.
“The contestants always look at what recipes both of us have done, because they think it will favour them in the judging,” says Berry resolutely. “But it doesn’t.”
Jittery as the bakers are, comedy is in ready supply, courtesy of in-tent hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc’s rapid-fire innuendos.
“The first challenge we did, the first thing out of Mary’s mouth was, ‘Nice crack’,” recalls Wallasey-born Hollywood, creasing up. “That set the tone. It was hilarious.”
“I have real trouble,” adds Berry. “This goes on the whole time. I try and gather them up but all three encourage each other. I try to keep them all level and say, ‘Come on, let’s get on with the job’.”
Neither host seems distracted by all the tempting treats lying around the tent, either.
“No training, no gym, no anything,” notes Berry. “I walk, I play tennis and I do watch what I eat. I eat all the things that I love and cake is very important to me, but it’s size of the slice.”
“I’ve never been on a diet,” says Hollywood, with a scornful shake of his head when the word is mentioned. “I’ve never said I’ve been on a diet, never been on a diet, never will go on a diet. I’ve been training because I race cars now, so I’ve been doing a lot of weightlifting and boxing.”
Much is made of the almost mother-son relationship between the Bath-born grandmother and the father-of-one, helped in no small part by the latter’s admission that Berry has been known to iron his shirts during the series.
Like family, the two are quick to poke fun.
“I was walking through Naples recently,” begins Hollywood, who’s married to cookery author Alex.
“As you do,” clucks Berry with a wink under her heavy black eyelashes.
“…And some woman came up to me and started babbling on in Italian. I was like, ‘English?’
“Then she said in broken English, ‘Bake Off very good’.”
“Are you sure you were walking through Naples and not driving around in a posh car?” quips the glamorous octogenarian.
Hollywood’s teenage son Josh, keen baker though he is, is less impressed by the series.
“He comes along to Bake Off every year, threatened with no pocket money for 10 years if he says anything [at school about the winner],” he says.
“A lot of people want to talk to him about Bake Off, especially when it’s on, but he just says, ‘No, not interested’.”
And when it comes to seeing his dad at work, his son isn’t always enthusiastic.
“‘Oh I’m going to Bake Off [again]’,” says Hollywood, adopting a bored tone. “It’s funny the way kids react.”
At home, Berry’s grandchildren are all keen bakers, and their famous gran is often recognised and approached in bakeries, shops and even on a recent holiday to the Canary Islands. Her snappy dress sense has been widely emulated, with both Zara and M&S selling out of the bomber jackets she’s sported on screen.
Though she’s “busier than ever”, she’s keen her life remains normal and neatly turns down the suggestion of a live road show.
“Leave my family and go off on the road? No thank you,” she says crisply.
“I love the BBC Good Food show, when the two of us are on that stage live, it’s tremendous and we have enormous fun, but that’s a one-off as far as I’m concerned.
“It’s a great strain being away from home. Going to Bake Off is like joining the family.”