‘The Great British Bake Off’ Judges Share Tidbits from the New Season

Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith discuss new theme weeks and what it’s been like to shoot in the pandemic.

great british bake off bakeoff gbbo interview paul hollywood prue leith
Photo courtesy of Netflix; Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Photo courtesy of Netflix; Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

The Great British Bake Off is very much like the dishes dreamt up on the baking competition show: warm, sweet, and comforting, with a dash of chaos every now and again. The show, which originally aired on BBC Two and was intended for stay-at-home housewives, has taken the world by storm with its charming cast of bakers, supportive judges and hosts, mouthwatering creations, and gentle competition.

“We never thought that we’d get series two let alone series 12, so it’s been a real journey and one that we’ve all enjoyed,” says Paul Hollywood, who has been a regular on the show since it first premiered in 2010.

We caught up with both Hollywood and Prue Leith, the expert chefs who serve as the judges on Bake Off, to see what new challenges when Season 12 premieres on Netflix on September 21, what it's been like to shoot during a pandemic, and why they feel the formula for Bake Off is so successful.

Thrillist: Bake Off is now going into its 12th season and Paul, you’ve been there from the start. Can you talk about witnessing the growth of this program?

Paul Hollywood: We didn’t really know 12 years ago when Sue [Perkins] and I were having a cup of tea, sitting in the muddy field in Oxford, knowing that 12 years later it was going to be global all over the world. I mean, wherever I go, I notice my Instagram followers are from Brazil, Russia, Asia, and all over the States and Canada. And they’re all big fans of TheGreat British Baking Show. It’s been incredible. I love doing my job—I love judging on The Great British Bake Off. There’s nothing better than starting work in the morning, turning up with a nice cup of tea, and then wandering over to the tent. It looks amazing in the morning, by the way.

Speaking of the tent, what was it like filming during Covid—a very difficult time for the entire world—and knowing that you were creating something that brings people a lot of joy? Were there a lot of challenges?

Prue Leith: One of the great things about filming during the lockdown was the feeling that, at least, we were doing something that was really important. I know this sounds ridiculous because how can cake be important? But we knew that there were just millions of people locked on to their televisions because that provided a little bit of comfort—a half-hour or hour of just switching off from the horrors of Covid and just thinking about cake.

The competitors are very nice to each other. It’s not the sort of competition where everyone tries to sabotage each other or diss each other. They’re all friendly. I rather like working under the concentrated conditions of a lockdown bubble, because it only took six weeks and we’re all together and we have drinks in the evenings together and we eat together. It’s a little bit like a holiday camp in a way. Whereas normally, before Covid, we would be filming over a three month period only on the weekends. On the Sunday evenings when we were wrapped, we would be in our cars and gone. We wouldn’t stop and have a drink with anybody—we just wanted to get home. It’s very different, and rather enjoyable really.

Bake Off is really wholesome—there isn’t really any antagonizing behavior. Why do you feel that is?

Leith: Paul is probably better able to answer this than me, but I think that it stems from the fact that it was supposed to be a program that would be shown in the afternoon. It would be for that bunch of people who were not well-served by television—who were the sort of village ladies that would go and have a cake competition for the local fête. It was a very village-y, homely thing. It wasn’t expected to be a world beater. And an enormous amount of our audience is children, but it wasn’t aimed at children. It was aimed at mostly women, mostly housewives in those days, who liked to make cakes.

Hollywood: They gave us an 8 o'clock slot on BBC Two, so it wasn’t BBC One. They were like, ‘Oh yes, give them that program in a tent and let’s see how it gets off.’ The first year we did three-and-a-half million, and the second five-and-a-half million, and then seven-and-a-half million, and then nine-and-a-half million, and then 13 million, and then 15 million. I think at one stage we had 22 million. We were the most watched over an England football game, over the royal wedding. I mean it was just ridiculous. We didn’t know. I think part of it is down to the fact that the bakers are the stars of the show. We’re just the framework; the bakers have always been the stars. Ultimately, it’s in a tent, it’s very much the village, it’s very British. You’re making cakes, you’re making bread. It’s that very old school British, going back to the village green. It’s comforting—it’s what people think is what Britain’s like.

Leith: Everybody was surprised by its success. The producers didn’t realize it’d be so good, you [Paul] didn’t realize it would be so good, BBC didn’t realize they had a treasure there. And now it’s only Netflix and millions and millions of people all over the world [watch].

It is such a global show now, and I feel like over the course of the latest seasons there have been new ingredients, new challenges. Can you talk about the difficulty of judging ingredients you’re not as familiar with or trying to come up with new challenges?

Hollywood: Ultimately, the team that picks the challenges trove through my books, Prue’s books, they watch the programs that we’ve done—I did one recently in Japan and they looked at some of the bakes there and they were like, ‘We can do a Japan week.’ And this season we’ve got German week.

European baking is very similar to British baking in many ways. If you look at the U.S. and the style of baking, U.S. baking is actually a mix of all European baking, but the States have their own ingredients and then they change it from the original recipe that may have come from Holland or Ireland or England or Scotland or France or Italy or wherever. But ultimately, they’re all very similar. Wherever you are in the world, [baking] is recognized as something—whether it’s a fruit bun, or a cake, or a sponge with whipped cream on it. It might be called something different, but essentially it’s the same. There’s a unity in Bake Off and I think that’s why people like it.

Leith: And I think the other sort of [unique selling proposition] is that these are amateurs. They’re all people—they could be you and me. I think that’s always fun. Last year, the winner was a Scot. You’d think Scotland had won the World Cup, they were so pleased.

Can you talk about the vibrancy and diversity of the contestants? They’re from all over the U.K. with very different backgrounds and careers.

Hollywood: I think that’s the way it should be. It’s very diverse, it represents all sorts of communities within the U.K. because we are a diverse culture. The bakers will bring their own prowess and their own skills and their own flavors and we’ll try to be as diverse as possible in our challenges. We’ve had Japan in the past, we’ve had Italy, we’ve had France. We’ve got a week this year which is “free from.” One of the challenges won’t have eggs in it, the other won’t have dairy, one will be gluten-free. So again, it’s inclusive of lifestyles, as well. It’s about being inclusive and I think Bake Off does that well and always has done since series one.

Leith: And if you just look at this year, for example, the bakers range from the youngest,who is 19, to the eldest, who is 69. They come from all over Britain. One of them is a midwife, one is a police detective, one is a student. They are all human lifers here.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn