The Truth About Bake Off
It's Bake Off season, lets take a trip back to where it all started
Hello and welcome. This is my new newsletter, a place you’ll find me regularly talking about all things baking. From interviews with bakers and pastry chefs to the latest and greatest bakeries you need to check out all over the world, this is a place I can create content without worrying about what the all mighty algorithm thinks and go deep into my favourite topic, baking. There is a paid subscription option and those subscriptions will help me spend more time creating the best possible content for you. The free subscription will come with frequent posts but, for the full experience and the exclusive recipes, you’ll need to subscribe. The first post is a little walk down memory lane, a look back at my time on Bake Off, 12 years ago!
It’s once again that time of the year, bake off is back on our screens and innuendos fill the airwaves. As GBBO season is upon us I thought it was about time I tell you what it’s really like filming the show, warts and all. As many of you know, I won the original season of the show all the way back in the Middle Ages, otherwise known as 2010. As a very fresh faced and very naive boy who baked, I had no idea what to expect and no clue what the show would do to my life. I thought it would be fun to revisit that experience and give you a first person view of the process.
When I initially applied for the show, I was stuck in a job I hated, unsure of how I would break out and do something different with my life. Despite a great group of colleagues, I felt trapped, desperately hoping to escape. Baking was my release, my outlet at the end of the day and it gave me something to look forward to as I plodded along at work. Back in those days I documented my baking on, what I’m sure must have been, an absolutely awful blog, full of terrible writing and even worse pictures. To my amazement people actually read those posts and it was one of the readers who sent me the application for this new, as yet untitled, BBC baking show. After a LOT of encouragement, and a little arm twisting, a couple friends convinced me to apply. No one believes me when I say this but it’s true; I applied because I never thought I would get on the show. At that stage in my life I was far too shy and nervous to put myself out there in that manner, my confidence was low and I didn’t think I had anything to offer a tv show. In my mind an audition was as much as I could expect and I was more than happy with that.
The application process was long and arduous, I applied in February of 2010 and didn’t find out I was on the show until late April. After a lengthy paper application they fleshed that with an hours long phone call. It all became real when I was asked to attend the first in-person audition, which involved lugging a cake and some pastry down to London. After barely managing to make it to the venue, without dropping any of the baking, I was nervous but excited to see what the production was like. If you’re expecting glamour, think again, TV is 75% waiting around. The woman ahead of me in the process, who had randomly been on the same train down from Leeds as me, went in for her audition and my heart dropped when she left with a no mere minutes later. I was convinced I was to suffer the same fate. On entering the room, I was met with Mary Berry, who I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of at this point. They hadn’t yet settled on a male judge so there was no Paul, instead there was a very well regarded Michelin starred chef. Speaking to other contestants later on in the process it seems like we all had different male bakers and chefs as they were still auditioning people for the role. The two judges tried my baking and all seemed to be going well, Mary remarked my bakewell tarts were the best she’d ever tried and by that point I was happy to go home with some wonderful feedback and a small boost in my confidence. But then everything changed. The chef off-handedly said I didn’t look like someone who baked. At the time I was rake thin, having recently lost a huge amount of weight. Naively, I told them all about this and within seconds a producer and cameraman, who I’d barely noticed before, were in my face asking me all sort of questions about baking whilst also losing weight. They seemed fascinated. Looking back now, it’s obvious they had found a hook to give them something to make me more interesting to an audience but in the moment I just thought they were genuinely interested, and maybe they were. That first audition seemed to be a somewhat seal of approval and from there I quickly did an interview with a producer and a screen test. The second and final round of in-person auditions was back in London but this time, along with baked goods we’d made at home, we also had to bake in front of the judges, in a challenge that was basically a technical challenge on steroids. There was close to 30 of us crammed into a small kitchen, taking up each other’s space while cameras roamed around filming us as we attempted to make Mary’s coffee and walnut layer cake. By this point Paul had been appointed as the second judge and it was clear from day one the role he was to play, stern teacher who’s approval everyone is aiming for. Being completely honest that audition went horribly, my cake was rubbish and if memory serves me right I even had a good cry at how badly I preformed; an omen of what was to come I guess.
It’s an understatement to say I was surprised, when weeks later, whilst making a round of tea in the office, I got a call to say I was on the show. I’m not exaggerating when I say that call changed my life. It’s a moment I will never forget.
Let’s fast forward to filming the show because I know you really just want to hear the gossip. The day before we started filming, we all arrived in London and we’re given strict instructions not to socialise with other contestants, should we bump into someone we recognised whilst at the hotel. I immediately bumped in Louise, a police office from Manchester, and of course we ignored that ‘guidance’ and went to the pub and excitedly talked about what was to come. This guidance was, for those interested, likely because in the hotel the two alternate contestants were probably also staying. There is always two alternate contestants for each series in case someone has to drop out last minute. I don’t think it’s a secret to say that some future winners of the show have been alternates for previous seasons.
Before we left London to film the first episode we had to speak with a psychologist to make sure we were mentally prepared to be on a tv show and handle all the stresses that could bring. Whilst chatting, talking about the tabloid media, the psychologist asked if I was prepared for the press to obsess over the fact I was gay, and for them to go looking for skeletons in my closet, I found it strange to think that could happen and thankfully it never did, back in the early days of the show the press were supportive and didn’t seem to care much about the lives of the contestants. I don’t know how I’d deal with the nastier attitude the press had in later years when the public lives of contestants become tabloid fodder splashed across the front pages.
At the start of filming I was under the impression we were making a daytime show, no big deal, I didn’t have to be too nervous because that wasn’t a big spotlight, my shy personality could just about cope with that. The first episode was a car crash, I think that’s probably a fair assessment. The production company were just as new to this type of show and it was clear everyone was somewhat learning on the job. The original format of the show had a fourth challenge which was dropped after day one, when everyone realised baking actually takes time to film! We had to reshoot so many parts, the bit where the contestants walk into the tent was filming close to ten times. Overall that first weekend left me with two very clear memories. It was freezing cold and rained most of the time and we were in a tent with no heating, so we would turn the ovens on, open the door and huddle in front of them to keep ourselves warm, we also drank a ridiculous amount of tea. The second thing was my admiration for Sue and Mel. There was, of course, a million jokes but also a huge amount of support. The duo would walk around the tent, chatting and cracking jokes, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. They always seemed to be there for a supportive hug and with a few words of encouragement right when it was most needed. But what most people may not realise is just how much they set the tone of the show. They, like us contestants, had been told the show wasn’t another reality show that thrives on drama, tears and failure, played up for cheap laughs, instead it would be positive and uplifting, celebrating the skill of homebakers. In that first episode there was a moment when the duo both walked off set, upset at how the tone seemed to be playing out. We had been told that if we left the tent we wouldn’t be followed and we would be given privacy. At one point Mark, one of the contestants that left in the first week, one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet, got emotional and left the tent to have a few tears in private. Instead of being left alone, a camera crew was sent to film him crying, and my understanding is that this was the moment Sue and Mel walked off, only returning when they were promised the positivity of the show would be staying. So, if you’ve ever liked the innuendo, the positivity, the joyfulness of the show it’s in no small part down to that dynamic duo.
What about Paul and Mary? Well to be completely honest we were kept away from the judges. Not because of some perceived hierarchy but because they didn’t want their personal feelings towards us to affect their judging. This meant we didn’t really get to know them, at least not until we had spent weeks with them and the show had finished. My favourite story about the judges came in bread week. I was told a story by a member of production, that after bread week, Paul had scooped up my loaves and served it to guests visiting his house for dinner that night. I’m sure the crew member was exaggerating but he did say Paul had pretended the bread was his own and had served it to a very famous celebrity chef. Tongue in cheek I’m sure, but it still made me feel good about my bread baking nonetheless. One of the questions I still get asked, all these years later, is ‘was Paul scary’ and the simple answer is no. The longer answer is whilst he played this role of stern teacher he was actually very encouraging when the cameras weren’t rolling.
That first season of bake off is a bit of an anomaly because it was the only season that travelled to a new location each week, a great idea in principle but one that caused a lot of logistical nightmares I’m sure. There was the time in Scotland when we all went out after filming, and after someone bought a few too many tequila shots, production couldn’t wake me up the following morning. By the time I crawled out of bed, with one hell of a hangover, I realised everyone else had already left and I had to scramble to catch a train home. There was the time in Cornwall where a fire alarm woke us in the middle of the night and I fell out of bed and quite badly cut my leg, or the time in Bakewell when we filmed in the middle of the town and security had to continually stop a very drunk man trying to come into the tent. But maybe my favourite memory was the cheating. Okay cheating might be a strong word but there was definitely a secret helping hand for a few episodes. As we would start each episode there would be a mission amongst the bakers to find out what the technical challenge was that week, so we could be prepared in the moment and feel a little less daunted. We might spot the baking vessel and make an educated guess or, on more than one occasion, someone (who shall remain nameless), would come and give us a clue or even outright tell us what was coming. I don’t think I can say who it was but I’d love to hear your guesses.
When it came to the final there are a few key moments that stand out. The first was the halfway point elimination. At the end of day one the judges were to whittle three down to two, but that decision took hours. The three of us waited and waited, we went and relaxed in the field, we drank multiple mugs of tea and then our anxiety started to build as the wait grew and grew. A decision was only made as the sun started to fail and filming had to happen. Paul and Mary could not agree on who to cut and after hours and hours of debate, locked away together, they finally decided that Ruth and myself would move forward to the final. The second thing that stands out is the blood. Along the way there had been a fair few cuts and light burns but the very final challenge was where I came a cropper. We were making bread for the afternoon tea and I clumsily managed to stab the palm of my hand with a metal bread scraper. It wasn’t some razor sharp knife so the jagged bit of metal really made it self known. My hand started bleeding but I wasn’t going to let that stop me so I continued kneading with one hand whilst they tried to patch me up, offering me sugary drinks to stave off the fainting spell that seemed likely considering who pale I was looking. Whilst I was trying to knead the bread I’m convinced some blood ended up in the dough, disgusting I know, and we were told the dough would be taken by the home economist and baked off for us, my accident delaying the schedule so they needed to give us a helping hand. When it came to serving the afternoon tea, finger sandwiches were sent out for us to use and whilst they denied it I am 100% convinced that out bread that was supposedly used for these sandwiches actually ended up in the bin and the sandwiches were instead bought in from an outside caterer. The bread felt and looked like fluffy commercial bread and not a spot of blood could be seen, I also doubt the production company would take the risk of serving my bread to anyone.
When I think back to that summer I very fondly remember the experience but especially the people. It was tough, completely exhausting and sometimes incredibly stressful but I can’t tell you how much fun it also was. But most of all I will be forever thankful to the show for allowing me to think of life where I made a career from the thing I love, baking.
So, that is how my story started all though years ago. Join me now on this new Substack adventure as I bake up a storm and share the recipes with you, travel the world meeting some of the world's most fascinating bakers and so much more. I hope you'll join me for the ride, I can’t wait to get started.
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Paul did take your bread but we needed it for a beauty shot which is how we found out, I've no idea what happened to it after that.
We’ve seen every season and now, because of your article, we’re going to rewatch Season 1. 😄 Thanks for the insight into the production side!