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BAKE Off judge Prue Leith has admitted advice from Mary Berry and joining in with ‘innuendo devil’ Paul Hollywood has helped her settle into the Channel 4 show.
The 77-year-old revealed in a Q+A with Happiful Magazine that she was initially daunted by the Great British Bake Off tent, following the hugely popular show’s switch from the BBC.
Viewers can catch the show's finale on Tuesday at 8pm on Channel 4.
South African-born Prue also opened up on life with her second husband John Playfair, and confessing they have only had ‘two or three tiffs’ in their six year relationship.
How did you prepare yourself for this huge change in your life? And what changes have you noticed already?
Well, everyone warned me that it could be a problem. I’d heard how Paul [Hollywood] was harried by the paparazzi, so I asked Mary Berry and she said that, yes, people did recognise her, but they are nearly all nice and she found it flattering! I’d always thought I had just the right amount of fame – that is, not very much – when doing the Great British Menu, but I have to say GBBO Is in another league. I just had a fortnight holed up in a village in France to get some writing done, and whenever we emerged into the local cafe, some Brit would ask for a selfie.
Do shows like Bake Off help to tackle the nation’s diet by encouraging the baking and cooking of good food? I haven’t got the stats to prove it, but I suspect many people come into cooking by the baking route. They see someone making a cake and they think: “Maybe I could do that?” And what is proved, and well documented, is that people who cook tend to care more about what they put into their bodies, to eat less junk and more veg, for example. My attitude has always been there are no bad foods, only bad diets, and a bit of what you fancy...
The point is, it should only be a little bit!
Bake Off has a reputation for cheeky innuendo – do you plan on bringing a bit more sauciness to the show?
I’m not a prude, far from it, but at first I thought I’d be rather disapproving of feeble puns and bad jokes. I mean, how many jibes can you make about a soggy bottom? But it’s catching, and I now find myself joining in. Paul is the devil.
He will see something rude in the most innocent remark, and once he starts laughing on camera, we all do. I’m afraid innuendoes are here to stay.
What’s the secret ingredient that brings the whole family together to watch it?
I think the secret is cake! We all love a bit of cake and watching people baking cake is the next best thing to eating it.
But it’s also such a wholesome show, with not a mean streak in it. No one is out to humiliate the contestants or make them cry or watch them make idiots of themselves for the sake of compelling telly.
Everyone, the judges, the team, even the competitors, want all the bakers to do well. And because the bakers are chosen for their skill, and are all driven by the same obsession with baking, they make engaging, real, fascinating viewing.
We get to care about them, root for them, and we are miserable when they are eliminated. And since so many people share the experience of watching, it gives them something pleasant and safe to talk about, to neighbours, colleagues, strangers, or your family.
You married the designer John Playfair in 2016, who you affectionately call your “toyboy”. How would you describe your relationship – fun and playful?
It’s certainly fun and we laugh a lot. John can be very funny. But we also read chunks of whatever we are reading to each other, swap books or articles, and share an interest in politics, business and art – though not always the same view.
We’ve been together for six years and have only had two or three tiff s in all that time, always because when I get stressed I get bossy and peremptory, and John feels taken for granted.
How are your tiff s usually resolved? It’s amazing how much you miss someone you love if they just go quiet on you. What advice do you have for couples who struggle to make time for cooking together?
If you have time for watching telly (and the average adult watches four hours a day) then you have time for half-an-hour a day to make supper, or a couple of hours once a week to make a delicious Sunday lunch for the whole family.
Does physical affection become more enjoyable with age, or is it about one’s state of mind?
I’ve no idea. I used to see old couples holding hands in the street and imagine they did it to hold each other up. Now I think it’s more likely to be affection. Anyway, everyone likes to
How do you keep mentally positive?
I think it’s more luck than anything. I’ve always had a glass half-full attitude, and a pretty cheerful disposition. If things don’t work out, I don’t feel a failure. I tend to think: “Ah well, let’s try something else,” or “Damn it, that was a good idea, let’s give it another go!” Spilt milk and crying spring to mind.
Have you ever sought counselling?
Only once when I was so overwhelmed with work I was having to turn down stuff I badly wanted to do. And someone suggested this “personal life strategist” could help. She made me list all the things I wanted to do in the next 10 years. I found myself saying things like, “Learn to sing; write a novel; go on hols with my grown-up children, one at a time; see the Grand Canyon.” Then she made me write a list of what I spend my time on, all the jobs I’d undertaken, commercial boards I sat on, all the committees and charities I served on, contracts I had to deliver on. Then she read out the list and watched my face. Every time I leant forward and talked enthusiastically about the project, charity, business or school board or whatever, she’d give it a tick on the list.
If I started to look glum, sigh, explain without enthusiasm what it was about, she crossed it off the list. Then she told me to quit all the crossed-out activities and I’d have time for the stuff I dreamt of doing. She was dead right. I’ve done all that now, and a heap more. But I still can’t sing!
You had a very long marriage and wonderful family with the writer Rayne Kruger, who passed away in 2002. That must have been a very difficult time. What helped you through your grief?
A friend said to me – and I have said it to dozens of bereaved widows since, because it’s the only homily that really helped – she said: “Look Prue, if it didn’t hurt so much, what would that say about the 35 years you had together? If you didn’t miss him, it would mean you’d wasted your life on something worthless. The unhappiness now is the fair price you are paying for all that happiness.”
How best can people cope when mental health issues enter the relationship?
My second love affair, four years after my first husband died, was with a wonderful man, a brilliant entrepreneur, philanthropist and pianist. But he was bipolar and I couldn’t handle it. I have no advice for anyone coping with a mentally unstable partner. How could I? I failed, and would fail again. I think you need the patience and the selflessness of a saint.
What sort of wellbeing benefits do you get when working with food?
I don’t see it in that clinical way. I just know that cooking is a joy I could not live without, that almost everyone who does it loves it, and that many people find it calming and relaxing, or just a fascinating hobby. I have never met a child who didn’t enjoy it, and I think we should ensure that everyone gets a chance to develop such a creative, useful and worthwhile pleasure which will last a lifetime and probably benefit their health and happiness. End of speech!
In Relish: My Life on a Plate, you talk about how, in your early career, you felt increasingly terrified about television presenting. Does this anxiety still plague you?
No, I’m much less nervous now, though the first sight of the big Bake Off tent did make my heart bang a bit. But frankly, being a judge is much easier than being a cook on telly. You don’t have to plan anything, time your recipes, see you have the right equipment, the right ingredients, the right assistant behind the scenes, and, if it’s live, you get no second chances. With judging, you turn up, get made up, coiffed, dressed, stuck in front of delicious food and you just have to eat it and say what you think. Pretty nice, huh?
You initially refused opportunities to write about widowhood, but then changed your mind. Did you find the writing process healing?
Not healing exactly, though people do say writing about grief helps. But I did find it satisfying. I felt I was somehow paying Rayne back for all he’d done for me, taught me about love, given me a happy life and family, helped me build my business, shared his life with me. And I think I wrote well about that chapter of my life and I am proud of it, so yes, writing it was good.
You received public criticism about your love life. Do you have any techniques for coping with negative attention?
I guess I asked for it. If you admit to an adulterous affair in a memoir and publish it, you cannot complain when the press use this to pillory you. But I can’t say it didn’t hurt. And it hurt members of my family too.
I am not looking forward to a repeat of all the publicity when Relish Is republished. But I think I wrote an honest book, and if readers will just read the thing and not some made-up twist believed by the tabloids, then I think they’ll judge me less harshly than a cynical hack bent on selling newspapers.
You’ve lived all over the world as a food journalist, and sourced and cooked food from many different cultures. Do you consider food a unifying force?
I’ve never thought of it in geopolitical terms but I do have one good example. There is a charity in Tel Aviv which brings Arab Palestinian and Israeli women together to cook. They inevitably become fast friends and their children become friends too.
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