Restaurateur, traveller, author – and now the straight-talking judge on the Great British Bake Off - the indomitable Ms Leith speaks exclusively with Happiful about the mental health benefits of baking. She also has a word to say about the sauciness of a good innuendo
Firstly, congratulations on the success of the all-new Bake Off!
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 tiffs in all that time, always because when I get stressed I get bossy and peremptory, and John feels taken for granted.
Paul is the devil. He will see something rude in the most innocent remark, and once he starts laughing, we all do
How are your tiffs 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 be held.
To read the full interview, pick up a copy of Happiful in your local Waitrose. Prue's story features in the November issue of Happiful magazine
To find out more about cakes and wellbeing, read our article on the links between baking and mental health.