Soggy bottoms! Paul Hollywood’s eyes! The controversial move to Channel 4! For years, The Great British Bake Off was pitched to multiple channels, but no one wanted it. Not long after it was finally picked up, however, it became one of the most successful British TV shows ever.
Now, as its 14th series nears, its creators and stars reveal how an innocuous show about making cakes and biscuits became a global phenomenon.
Richard McKerrow, co-creator of Bake Off and co-founder, Love Productions: We were conscious that baking competitions are held all around the country at fetes, but no one had done an amateur baking show before. We found out why pretty quickly. Even though we loved the idea, people just said: “Come on – baking? It’ll be like watching paint dry.”
Anna Beattie, co-creator of Bake Off and co-founder, Love Productions: In those early days, it was much more of an “X Factor for baking” idea. We had visions of people queueing around the block with their cakes.
Richard McKerrow, the co-creator of Bake Off, and Janice Hadlow, the former controller of BBC Two. Photographs: Sarah Lee/Graham Turner/The Guardian
McKerrow: I had a very good relationship with Danny [Cohen] at BBC Three. He said: “It’s a bloody good idea. Why don’t you send it to me and I’ll walk it over to Janice [Hadlow] at BBC Two?”
Beattie: Then we spent hours in the office role-playing how it would work until we had the choreography nailed – gingham altar and all.
Janice Hadlow, former controller, BBC Two: It was the perfect subject. There is something quite magical about the idea of home baking.
Beattie: But it was deemed technically impossible. The show we were proposing was a big setup: a dozen people baking in real ovens. No one had ever tried to do something like that. Eventually, our amazing technical and outside-broadcast teams worked out a way that we could do it all in a tent, with enough power and water and without the sound team having a heart attack every time it rained. Meanwhile, our brilliant casting team were meeting the first bakers applying to be in the show.
Miranda Gore Browne, runner-up, series one: I’d always said there should be a MasterChef for baking. If only I’d come up with the idea, I’d be sitting in a multimillion-pound house.
Edd Kimber, the first winner of the show. Photograph: Rex
Edd Kimber, winner, series one: I had no desire to go on TV or be well known. I applied because I didn’t think I would get on.
Beattie: I remember being at home when I first saw Mary [Berry]’s tape; it just felt like we couldn’t make the show without her. She was so natural – of course she was, she had been baking and broadcasting for ever – but it was the forensic forthrightness with which she spoke about baking.
Paul Hollywood, judge: They opened up a bag of muffins and bread and tipped them on to my kitchen counter and said: “Judge them.” So I did. And I was quite brutal about it, if I remember, because they were terrible. They said: “Brilliant!” And then they put them back in the bag and left. I thought: “Well, that was odd.”
Beattie: Mel [Giedroyc] and Sue [Perkins] were suggested by Janice, I think. It was a really big risk for them. This was an unknown show and it was a more straightforward presenter role than either of them had done before.
Sam Montague, cinematographer: I think most of us thought: “This is never going to catch on.”
Kieran Smith, creative director, Love Productions: We were pleased to have what could be a returning series, but we were all a bit embarrassed about doing a baking show.
Andy Devonshire, director: The first series was really hard work. It was like being part of a – I don’t want to say war, because that sounds wrong. It was like a massive travelling commune, where you were all in it together. It was like touring U2.
Kimber: I don’t think I’m being critical by saying nobody knew what they were doing. Production didn’t know that baking takes time. In the first week, we did the washing-up.
We were pleased to have what could be a returning series, but we were all a bit embarrassed about doing a baking show
Kieran Smith, creative director, Love Productions
Tom Howe, composer: Now, shows are all set up to be “everyone is nice to each other”, but around that time that just wasn’t the case. All the stuff on TV – Dragons’ Den, Hell’s Kitchen – had people shouting at each other. You get to episode 10 [of Bake Off] and all the people that have been eliminated come back for a tea party.
Hadlow: Contestants might be disappointed, but they were never humiliated.
McKerrow: What they [the commissioners] hadn’t realised was that it could be profoundly dramatic. When you’re a baker, it’s not a competition between you and someone else; it’s a competition between you and the oven.
Kimber: After they finish filming, the crew just demolish all the bakes; you know who is going to do well because the crew come up to you and say: “Oh my God, everyone ate your thing.” The week after, I was told that my bread had been taken home by Paul and served to a dinner party. I was told that he claimed he’d made it.
Hollywood: Sorry, I don’t remember that one. That sounds like a myth and a legend.
The first series didn’t get glowing reviews, but millions of people tuned in – enough for the show to be recommissioned by BBC Two.
McKerrow: The crucial creative changes came between series one and series two: the introduction of the star baker; the technical being blind.
Beattie: We sharpened up the format, making the differences between the challenges clearer. We gave the showstopper a name.
Urvashi Roe, contestant, series two: They [the producers] did stir up trouble. We were microphoned up from 6am until the end of the day, including when we went to the toilet. As soon as you made a mistake, they were there.
Leith, Hollywood and co-presenter Noel Fielding watch Peter Abatan at work in series eight. Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4/PA
Hollywood: I never really thought that the handshake was a thing. It was just a way of saying “well done” and I’m not quite sure why it took off the way that it did. I think someone said in the press: “Oh, it was quite misogynistic, giving someone a handshake,” and I’m going: “Misogynistic? Whaaat?”
Smith: We took the shackles off around series three. I remember doing pieces to camera and Sue fell down a hole and we kept it in. I started looking at it more as an entertainment show rather than a baking show. That’s when it went from being a popular show to being a really popular show.
Beattie: It was a bit crazy – we were getting more viewers than the football.
In 2017, the show moved to Channel 4 – but not before a huge media furore, with Hollywood staying, but Giedroyc and Perkins leaving, along with Berry.
McKerrow: The beginning of the fallout with the BBC happened three years before we moved to Channel 4, when the BBC made a copycat series which we were legally advised was a blatant case of format infringement. The BBC went into denial. Eventually, they conceded and a settlement was reached. Then, a year later, the same thing happened again. We never wanted to leave the BBC and we never intended to leave the BBC. But we felt we had no alternative. At the time, the BBC sought to portray the move purely as financial, which was a false narrative.
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc presented the show on the BBC before it moved to Channel 4. Photograph: Des Willie/Love Productions/BBC
Jay Hunt, former chief creative officer, Channel 4: All anybody knew was that it was the biggest show on British television at the time.
Hollywood: When Mel and Sue came out with: “We’re not going with the dough,” that hurt me a little bit, because that felt like a direct dig at me.
McKerrow: There were plays to get some big-name talent – Miranda Hart and Michael McIntyre. In the end, we went to see Sandi Toksvig and she was one of the few people up for doing it.
Hunt: Noel Fielding was my idea and it was a very risky decision.
Hollywood: The last time I saw Noel, he was acting like a fly.
I never really thought that the handshake was a thing. It was just a way of saying ‘well done’
Paul Hollywood, presenter
Noel Fielding, presenter: I said to my girlfriend: “Oh my God – I feel like I could do this job.” I went into the audition; I think I had a homemade David Bowie chair and some vegetable signed by David Suchet.
Smith: Probably the most important thing for presenters is: how good are they when they just wander in and chat to bakers? I thought gardeners are quite similar to bakers, so we took Noel to a garden centre [for his audition]. We would spend about two hours there and get him talking to eight, nine people.
Fielding: I was playing Alice Cooper [for Sky’s series Urban Myths], so I had a wig on and a false nose. I was just very lucky; I think there were a couple of old ladies who were really funny and one of them asked to marry me.
Smith: Then we did it with Matt Lucas. He went up to this woman and she goes: “Oh God, your career’s gone down the pan, hasn’t it?”
Prue Leith, judge: I watched Paul and Mary judging a Christmas episode and thought: “I could do that.” I wasn’t so excited about it – until I got in the tent. It was February; it was absolutely freezing cold. I was in a kind of velvet jumpsuit and moon boots. It’s the best job in the world: you just walk on, eat cake, say what you think, walk off, get paid.
Hunt: The scale of the risk – for me reputationally, for Channel 4 – was epic.
Steven Carter-Bailey, runner-up, series eight: We were up at 4am, ferried over in blacked-out limos, bodyguards everywhere. There were drones flying overhead; helicopters; checking into hotels under a different name. I’ll never forget I used my mother’s maiden name for 12 weeks.
Now a colossus of a show with more than a dozen international iterations (including Brazil, Kenya, Uruguay, Greece and Australia), Bake Off attracts the occasional controversy – as well as increasingly savvy contestants who know the show could make them world-famous.
Sandro Farmhouse, a runner-up in series 13, applied several times before being successful. Photograph: Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4/Love Productions
Smith: We did “Japanese week” and members of the Japanese community were like: “That’s not a traditional bao bun.” We’ve identified that there is a tension between the signature challenge and national bakes.
Kimber: As the show has got older, it’s become more about personality rather than talent, necessarily.
Sandro Farmhouse, runner-up, series 13: I always knew that Bake Off was destiny for me. When I applied the second time, I got as far as the in-person interview. I had 17,000 followers. I was like: I’m freaking great, I know how to bake and I’d be good on TV. Why not have me? I seemed to have been too popular on Instagram for the show. They didn’t tell me that, but I had it in my mind that that’s what it was, so I deleted all my followers. Every day, I removed 100 people.
Beattie: I think the show has, in its small way, got more people baking over the last 13 years. I love that families can watch the show together – that an eight-year-old can watch with an 80-year-old.
Hollywood: I’ve always said it’s like a framed picture. The picture itself is the bakers, and the bakers change, so the picture changes. The framework stays the way it is. And we are, as the hosts and the judges, the framework of Bake Off. The bakers become the stars of the show, however transient that is.
Fielding: It’s almost like public property. You have to treat it with respect. It is a real collision of elements that somehow come together. Baking is done with love. It’s about sharing, ultimately, and it’s about someone making your day better.
• The Great British Bake Off returns to Channel 4 on 26 September