It's all gone a bit James Bond during heat’s recent Zoom interview with Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood. While Paul was sitting in front of a plush sofa in his Kent home stroking his giant Maine Coon cat like a bread-making super-villian, all-round food expert and restauranteur Prue was sitting in her office like the unflappable Q, multi-tasking at her desk and stopping to answer questions like a seasoned professional.
We chatted to the duo in the run-up to the 13th series of the ever-popular Great British Bake Off, which for anyone who doesn’t own a telly is a show where amateur bakers compete against each other to win a coveted cake stand trophy.
Paul, 56, has been a judge on the show since it first hit our screens in 2010, while 82-year-old Prue took over from fellow foodie Mary Berry in 2017, and they’ve proved to be a winning duo since day one.
From baking disasters to dream guests, we wanted to hear all about it. On your marks, get set... answer!
How did filming go on the new series?
Paul: It was amazing and being back in Welford [where the show is usually filmed] after two years away was a big thing. The standard has gone up and up and up and the baking was exceptional. The bakers seemed to relax a lot more as well, so it was a very good year all round.
What’s been the worst bake of all time?
Paul: John Whaite [the 2012 winner] isn’t going to like me for this, but he put salt instead of sugar into his rum baba and it was pretty awful. I saved Mary from eating it, because it was so bad. On the celeb front, Nick Hewer’s choux was bloody awful, as was Jonathan Ross’. Also, Dame Edna Everage’s biscuits were so hard I had to use wire cutters to eat them.
You’ve had amazing stars on the celeb versions. Do you know in advance who will be appearing?
Prue: We do, but only a day or two before.
Paul: We’ve had some really big names. Richard Dreyfuss wasn’t the best baker in the world, but I mean, he is an Oscar winner!
Prue: He really loved it, too, as did his wife.
Have you got a hit list of celebs who you’d love to come on to the show?
Paul: I’d like to have Michael Palin and [Led Zeppelin singer] Robert Plant in the tent. I’d also like to see Kate Middleton take part. Maybe with William as well?
Prue: I would like to see Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters in the tent – I guess, because they’re from my generation. I would love to see a solid female tribe of stage actors do it.
Paul: We could do an octogenarian version.
Prue: You wouldn’t be allowed to judge it, though, you’re too young. We’d have to get Mary Berry back instead.
Boris Johnson is going to have a lot of time on his hands...
Prue: It would be fun to do an ex-prime ministers and politicians’ special for Stand Up To Cancer. No one would be able to refuse, because it’s for charity.
Paul: That would be fun. We’d have to get Obama, too. Imagine that!
Prue: Theresa May would probably win it, I reckon. Mrs Thatcher would have been very good – she prided herself on her technical knowledge of baking, because she was a scientist. I remember her doing a demonstration in the flat in Downing Street. She wet a ball of flour and squashed it and explained about the stretchiness of gluten. She knew her stuff.
Paul, you studied sculpture at art school. Does that help with baking at all or is that a bit of a stretch?
Paul: It maybe helps with the shaping something, but it’s not something I’ve fallen back on to be honest. [Laughs.]
Prue: It’s maybe helped with the design?
What’s the most unusual-shaped loaf of bread you’ve made?
Paul: [Shakes his head.] I honestly can’t say.
Prue: Is it too rude?
Paul: Yes. I did something for a couple of friends of mine, because they asked for it and you can probably imagine what it was. I once did the Prince of Wales (King Charles III) and the Duke of Westminster’s Coat of Arms, which were quite fun to do.
Paul, are your handshakes reserved for the tent or does, for instance, your local publican get one if he pulls a good pint?
Paul: I reserve them solely for the tent. Some people try to press their hand on me for a handshake, but I’ll usually use the COVID excuse, or something. They’re reserved for people who have done very impressive bakes.
So, basically, the only way we could get one is by baking something amazing?
Prue: Yes, you have to work your way up to a Hollywood Handshake. That’s the only way.
Is it a straightforward handshake, or are there secret codes in it like the Masons have?
Paul: No, there’s no secret!
Prue: You had better keep your handshake pure, because there are all sorts of little symbols that could be misunderstood. [To Paul] You need to be careful, or you could be expected to do a lot more than just give a handshake.
Prue, you need your own signature move, so we thought of the Leith Lunge, where you drop down into a dramatic lunge every time someone produces a brilliant bake...
Prue: People have often said to me I should have a “Prue Pat”, but I think the Hollywood Handshake came about naturally, so I wouldn’t want to invent something just for TV. I’m not sure lunging would be that good for me. [Laughs.]
We’re very pleased Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding are back. They love pushing the boundaries. Are you ever like, “That was a bit close to the mark”?
Prue: Sometimes they say things that we all know will get cut in the edit. Whereas, I’ll say something I instantly regret and it will end up on Extra Slice. They do like to send us up, and it often comes back to haunt me.
Paul: Both Matt and Noel get away with murder. They’re both very funny and charming, so they get away with more than other people would.
What do you two bicker about on set?
Paul: Nothing, really, to be fair. It’s pretty straightforward and we agree on most things.
Prue: We score people privately, but we don’t tell the contestants. It’s to help us remember how everybody is doing. What amazes me is that we almost always come up with the same score. I’ve never, ever known us to be wildly apart with our scores. We think the same things without even discussing it.
You only tend to eat little bits of the bakes on the show, but are you secretly wolfing down more when the cameras are off?
Paul: [Laughs.] Yeah, especially if it’s something savoury. The problem with that is you’re making it obvious how much you like something and it’s not fair on the other contestants. Having said that, sometimes I’ll ask someone to keep a bit of something aside for me for later.
Prue: I’ll occasionally ask someone to keep me a bit of something nice for lunch or tea or something, or afterwards I’ll ask the contestant for the recipe.
Paul, you're not a huge fan of selfies and you had a great excuse not to do them when COVID was raging. Is it harder to avoid them now?
Paul: Well, I’ve always done them – I’ve never said no to a selfie, ever. It’s part of the job. Unless you’re in a situation where you’re with close family having a meal, but even then I’ve had people tap me on the shoulder and ask for one. I will always do them, though.
Prue, you’ve said you quite like them?
Prue: I think Paul is more of a private person, so he’s more likely to avoid them, but I also think a lot more people stop him than me. I quite enjoy it, because I’m an egotist! My husband, John, is usually with me at events and he’s very good, because he’ll take the pictures for me. He hates people taking the pictures themselves, because he says all you can see are four nostrils. Sometimes, he’ll point out that I’m not wearing any lippy, so I have to stop and put some on before I have a photo taken.
Do you have any cunning disguises for when you’re out?
Paul: I’ve got a motorbike helmet with a blackout visor. I mean, fair play if you still recognise me and catch up with me on a motorbike. If you do that, you deserve a selfie. But safety first, obviously.
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve been asked for a selfie?
Paul: Just quite recently I was asked for a photo at the top of the Empire State Building. I did it and the view was great!
Prue: One of the most reluctant selfies we’ve had was when we were in the hotel we stay in Welford. There was a wedding on and everyone was very drunk and the bride and groom got really enthusiastic about the fact that we should be in their wedding pictures. It was really difficult to refuse, because you don’t want to ruin somebody’s wedding, but you also don’t want to spoil all of their pictures! I kept saying,“You don’t want pictures of us!” They’ll be showing those photos to their grandchildren in years to come and they’ll be saying, “Who are those strangers in your pictures?” But they were so plastered, they insisted – so we did it.
Paul: There was also a hen night in the same hotel one evening and, as I got out of my car and walked to the door, it was like everything went in slow motion when they realised who I was. There were suddenly about 15 of them running after me and there was no escape.
The Great British Bake Off starts at 8pm on Channel 4 on Tuesday 13 September.