Sue Perkins is back to present a second series of The Great British Bake Off, which began on BBC 2 on Tuesday. The presenter tells Lisa Williams what it’s like working with pal Mel Giedroyc again and why her presenting work has gravitated towards food.
Food has been a recurring theme in the professional life of Sue Perkins.
The witty 41-year-old made her name in a show called Light Lunch back in the Nineties, has popped up on Celebrity Masterchef, eaten her way through the ages in Supersizers Go... and is now back to present – and sample the produce of – The Great British Bake Off for the second time.
“I am an eater,” she announces, with barely-concealed amusement.
“To do a food programme convincingly, you need to have an appetite, put quite simply. And I have one which is almost legendary. I can come back for seconds of pate, drink two bottles of sherry, and lay waste to pretty much anything that’s put in front of me.”
The Great British Bake Off travels around the country in search of the best bakers. It has been described as ‘the X Factor of baking’ and, even though the judging is left to cookery writer Mary Berry and baking expert Paul Hollywood, Sue has appointed herself chief taster.
“I had a spoon in my pocket that I would whip out and delve into all the ingredients I could see: mascarpone, caramel... I put on about three-quarters of a stone,” she admits.
And it seems she left no ingredient unsampled. “One person had a bowl full of cherries and I ate half of them. A shout went up of, ‘Where are my cherries?’ and I ‘fessed up.
“Of course they needed all of them, and there were no more cherries in the building. Their end tart was really spartan, so I had to say, ‘Don’t judge it badly – because it was my fault!’”
Last year Yorkshireman Edd Kimber clinched victory in the cookery show after wowing the judges with goodies such as raspberry choux buns and home-made finger rolls.
Sue, known for her thick-rimmed glasses and deadpan delivery, admits she and the producers worried they might not find enthralling candidates like Edd again, but these fears were allayed once they’d hit the road.
She rattles through the contestants, saying: “We’ve got this soulful, guitar-playing sexpot, a beautiful young engineer from Croydon, then Mary-Anne, an ex-rugby playing mum-of-one who met her husband online playing a dungeons and dragons game, she’s really into food history and makes Elizabethan pies and tarts, she’s like something from Sweeney Todd....”
The first series of the show marked an on-screen reunion for Perkins and her former comedy partner Mel Giedroyc.
The pair had met at Cambridge University, where they were both members of the Footlights performing arts society and, after graduating, formed a comedy double act as ‘Mel and Sue’.
They took their show up to Edinburgh Fringe Festival (“We had to do it in the 10am slot because we only decided to do it at the last minute”), started writing for French and Saunders then, in 1996, landed Light Lunch, their own show on Channel 4.
The programme, in which the duo chatted to a celebrity chef while they cooked lunch, then to a celebrity while they ate the food, was initially a hit but was scrapped a year later due to falling ratings.
The duo then embarked on solo projects. Sue had slots on panel shows Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You?, as well as a stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house that she describes as “not something on which I look back with any relish”.
Reunited with Mel in 2009 for a Comic Relief sketch with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Perkins says her great pal is “always in my life, whether we work together or not”. It was The Great British Bake Off that truly brought them back together on screen. And it seems they’ve been making up for lost time.
“I can be very sensible, but when I see her it’s like we’re children again,” says Sue. “There’s some very large plastic prop baguettes which we like to whack each other with when we’re not expecting it.
“I’ll be doing a take and suddenly this huge plastic cob will get walloped against my bottom and I’ll just leap into the air.
“We’ll look up fart noises on the iPhone which we’ll pop into each other’s pockets unsuspectingly, so you’ll be doing a link and suddenly this horrible farting sound will come from your trousers. It’s a playpen!”
On top of her friendship with Mel and relationship with artist girlfriend Kate, with whom she lives in north London, Perkins’s other great partnership is with her Supersizers colleague Giles Coren.
Last year’s Giles And Mel Live The Good Life, in which they attempted to live off the land in a London semi as the characters of The Good Life did, was not as well received as their former projects, but they are planning to work together again.
Sue says: “Next year we’ll be embarking on a new series, we’re just planning what we want to do. There’s a couple of ideas floating around so I’ll keep it as ‘tba’ but there also might be a few filling-in-the-gaps Supersizers, just because people seem to like them and because it’s fun for us to do.”
With a trip up to Edinburgh Fringe to present for The Culture Show planned, and three BBC documentaries also in the pipeline, there’s no chance Perkins will be having to knock on the doors of this year’s Big Brother house.
“It’s busy, busy and long may it continue, it’s all good. Life is sweet,” she says.
Extra time - Sue Perkins
:: Sue Perkins was born in London in September 1969. “I’m the only person to have never lied about my age. I just think there’s no point.”
:: Although she was open about her sexuality with friends and family, the public did not know she was lesbian until her ex-girlfriend Rhona Cameron announced it in 2002 while on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
:: She’s pretty much stopped doing panel shows but still loves being part of Just A Minute on BBC Radio 4 and QI with Stephen Fry. “I like the things which are quizzical and friendly. I’m not one for gladiatorial arena of comedy really.”
:: She is more of an eater than a cook. “I tend to work and not have enough time to sit and make things but when I do get time I’m really good at scones, and I can do a tart.”
:: The Great British Bake Off begins on BBC Two on Tuesday, August 16
:: Editors: Note language in par 19.