The excitement surrounding the final has receded and there is now time to step back and reflect on my journey on the Great British Bake Off. This journey began nearly a year ago when I sent in my application form, continued through the audition process at the start of 2012, then the weeks of recipe preparation, the filming and finally watching the programme from mid-August to mid-October. People that I meet these days often ask me about the experience, so I thought I would try to distill it into a few points, or ‘lessons learned’.
1. Making a TV programme is hard work.
During filming we would be up and out of the hotel by 6.30am every morning and often didn’t return until 8pm. Aside from the actual baking there would be a constant round of interviews and lots of waiting around while the crew made their preparations. But the filming was only one aspect of our work as contestants. There were also several weeks prior to filming when we were busy preparing and practicing recipes for each of the episodes. It was an intense time but pressure like that can also provoke creativity. Many of the ‘signature’ bakes were things that I hadn’t made before so, as well as developing new twists for some old favourites, I also added to my repertoire considerably.
2. The members of the crew are the unsung heroes.
However long the working day of the contestants it didn’t compare with the incredible efforts of the crew. In our case the crew numbered around 50 people each playing a specific role in sound, lighting, filming, editing and management. On GBBO there was also a small team of home economists who gave us all amazing support. In spite of the long hours and often difficult weather conditions they were all consistently cheerful. It was the crew who usually devoured our baking after each round – hopefully a perk of the job. I suspect that, like me, by the end of the filming many of them were craving simple, savoury food. I recall the evening after the final when I polished off a huge bag of kettle crisps with great relish – this was the most opposite thing to cake that my exhausted brain could imagine!
3. Making GBBO can also be great fun.
In case I’ve given the impression that it was just one long slog, let me be clear – making GBBO was also unforgettable fun. Amongst the contestants there was endless banter and no matter how tired at the end of a day’s filming we would go out in Bristol for dinner and drinks. We had some great evenings. On set there was little time for flagging spirits with the wit and encouragement of Mel and Sue. Whoever thought of involving them in GBBO is a genius.
4. TV is about storytelling.
Watching GBBO I came to appreciate the ways in which even a reality TV programme constructs ‘characters’ out of the contestants and gives each of us something like a narrative arc. I suppose that this helps to create tension, providing an additional hook for viewers. Inevitably, this also means that personalities are ironed out and we are all, to some extent, presented as archetypes. In reality we were all more complex and interesting than perhaps any programme could fully convey.
5. Some really good bits never make it on to the screen.
With so many hours of footage for each episode it must be a tough job deciding what to include and what to leave out. Some of my favourite memories didn’t make it into the programme, including the moment when Mel charged down to the nearby pond and threw one of the dreaded dollies (used for the hand-raised pies) headlong into the water. Or the numerous occasions when Sue would have us in stitches just as the production team were trying to get us all to look serious.
6. Once a label sticks it can be hard to remove.
OK, I admit that clementine and chestnut torte did turn out looking a bit 1970s. But it does taste really good and there’s nothing retro about chestnut flour. Once Paul had made that statement about the cake it seemed that the label stuck. For some journalists and online commentators everything I did thereafter was an example of 70s style baking. Not that there’s anything wrong with the 1970s but it did show me how people often like to think in terms of fixed categories. A lot of this series was certainly retro – I’m thinking rum babas, creme caramel, and fondant fancies for example – but, perhaps due to my age, that label was stuck principally on me.
7. Some viewers pick over every detail (so be careful what you wear).
Lots of comments were made after episode four when I wore an orange coloured shirt that appeared to match the clementine segments on my torte. Many seemed to assume that I had planned this colour co-ordination, which was very funny and quite untrue. In reality I would usually rush down to Bristol on a friday afternoon, grabbing clothes and a few essential pieces of equipment as I ran out of the door. Generally whatever seemed to suit the weather conditions, was clean and closest to hand ended up in my suitcase. However, the online discussion of my choice of shirt made me aware of the level of scrutiny to which the contestants are subjected by some viewers. Similarly, I read all kinds of theories about each of us and our relationships with one another based on our facial expressions or gestures. It seemed that for some viewers GBBO is like a whodunnit, and they search for clues to support different theories about who the killer (or winner?) might be.
8. People can be as nice as they seem on telly.
Yes, Mary Berry really is that lovely! On and off camera she was kind and gracious. I heard that between filming she would often make her way to the kitchen inside Harptree Court to warm herself by the Aga and chat with everyone like family. Mel and Sue were as warm and funny off-screen as they appear on. I guess that Paul can seem quite stern in his judging at times but away from the camera he was helpful and encouraging. He gave me some excellent advice on some of my bakes for which I’m very grateful.
9. Harptree Court is the most wonderful venue.
We were incredibly fortunate to film the series at the wonderful Harptree Court. Although a grand house with beautiful grounds, it is also a very homely place. This is largely due to the amazing owners Linda and Charles. I can’t imagine what it must have been like with so many strangers trudging through your home every weekend, seeking to be fed or looking for a corner to curl up in. Yet we were always welcomed with immense warmth and given endless encouragement. Harptree Court runs as a bed and breakfast for most of the year. I can’t think of a better place to relax amidst the glorious Somerset countryside.
10. Never underestimate the power of baked goods.
The response that I’ve received from viewers has been an unexpected and uplifting aspect of participating in the programme. Both in writing and in person strangers have shared thoughts and feelings of a very personal nature. I’ve heard very moving stories from people who have faced great challenges in their lives and who found in the programme some comfort or encouragement. Last week I had an extraordinary conversation with a lady in my local supermarket that ended with us hugging like long-lost friends. It seems to me that the connection viewers make with contestants has a lot to do with the baking: perhaps because baking connects us at a deep level with a sense of home and family, and with happy times – either those from our past or those we wish for in the future. Anyhow, the connection with so many lovely people has been an unexpected cause of joy to come out of my time on the GBBO.