Don’t get me wrong: I gained a huge amount from the Bake Off experience and I cook every day I’m at home and still love to bake. I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account of how to fill in the application form since I know no more about what they are really looking for in potential contestants now than I did when I applied. I can make suggestions as to what I think might be important and how you might want to consider the impact of any application not just on yourself but on the people around you and your family finances. Heck I can even dispel some of the myths around Bake Off that I’ve seen promulgated online and tell you some of the inside secrets that don’t break the terms of the contract we were all obliged to sign before we even got anywhere near filming the first episode.
But tant pis she writes with a Gallic shrug, Bake Off has been ruined for me now and I’ll never be able to watch it again in the way that I saw episodes from previous series. And that makes me sad.
Ok that tricky form. It’s long, complicated and seems to ask a huge amount in enormous detail about the whole spectrum of baking. I struggled with it too. Along with Signe Johansen (writer of the Scandilicious books) I find the whole idea of anything being a “Showstopper’ stupid and pretentious. No one likes a show off so why when I cook for the people I care for would I regularly be doing anything to score points over them and enhance myself in the process? If I make something for a party I ask the hosts what they would like me to bring – it’s their choice not mine and I’m doing it to help them not for self aggrandisement.
So I didn’t have a showstopper anything much less a signature one and the form seemed to be obsessed not just with the range of goods that I’d baked but the complexity of them.
So here’s what I did: I asked the people around me who regularly eat what I make, what they liked to eat in each of the categories and wrote about the most complicated or difficult things I’d baked and why. In other words I was honest. I told them what I liked to do and why, the times I baked for pleasure and why it helped and how I coped with having to fit baking for necessity around everything else I have to do in my life.
Because unlike your sins, your fibs and half truths on the form will not be forgiven and will be easily found out. We’re amateurs and the researchers are aware of that. They want to know what you’re currently capable of and what your range is, not whether you’re the likely next winner.
The process will weed out the cupcake obsessives and the sugarcrafters who can’t really bake, not because there is disapproval of those groups, simply that expertise in one area of baking tends to be too limiting when they’re looking for all rounders or people with the potential to be. Oh yes, and if you cook as much as you bake it’s a big help. Flavours are important. It can keep you in the competition longer if your technical ability is a bit weak, although in the end it came down to ability to make a cake the best that determined winning this time. But don’t count on that – next time it might be something completely different.
Accept that you’ll never know if you’re ready because you’ll never have baked everything so at some point you do have to feel the fear and let go, trusting that the process will mould you and inevitably form you into a better version of your baking self than you were previously. It did for me.
This bit has to remain confidential but ask yourself, what are the lovely researchers who telephone you and will become your new BFFs in the following weeks wanting to know about you? Well obviously the stuff you wanted to know about us, plus making sure that you can actually bake. You have to be able to ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’ and if you can’t….close but no cigar. You can still always have another go next year. This was second time around for Cathryn and look how marvellously well she did.
Like George Washington it is best not to tell a lie. John said from the very first time I met him that he wanted to win, bake for a career and already had half an eye on writing a book. Brendan had his masterplan for social change and I….. had nothing. Well I did, but it isn’t lifechanging TV friendly: I had no intention of any career change. I just wanted to see how far I could get and how good I was compared to the ones who were wanting to make new careers out of it. Sufficient proximity to breathe the same baking fumes and for some people sweetly to think I might have been a real contender even though all along I never saw myself as wanting that.
And yet they still took me, because despite repeated questioning my story didn’t change and I was telling the truth. Anyway it’s boring to watch 12 attention seekers who all want the prize. That’s not Bake Off style. They’re selecting 12 people who fit a formula for 12 different demographic types. I don’t even believe we were the 12 best bakers who applied last year. What I do believe is we were the 12 best fits for a suitable and varied group of individuals that represented UK baking who had all the other qualities they were looking for.
So if you’re not selected, don’t take it personally, but your face on that occasion may really not have fitted. Oh yes and there are no travelling expenses. A modest contribution will be made towards travelling expenses at a fairly late stage, but if you live outside the selection site then you’ll already be out of pocket. Paying travelling expenses at this stage would probably bankrupt the company.
The Wait Before Dawn
I would like to say that this was the worst bit. It wasn’t. But at the time, it felt like it probably was going to be.
All recipes for all the programmes excluding the final had to be submitted by all the contestants before filming starts. They came in waves, usually 2 weeks apart with very specific requirements. Oh and all the recipes have to be original. Some recipes go in the book that’s sold to accompany the series and on the BBC website. So no ripping off anyone’s copyright. Devise your own recipes and then hand over copyright to the production company in return for appearing on the show and getting them assessed. It’s perfectly legal and called a contract.
At the time it felt like the seven labours of Hercules, but I didn’t care because this is where I got better. Strudel pastry, vegetarian Wellington, bagels; all were new to me and some I had more success with than others. I was sleep deprived though, going to bed at 1-1.30 am and getting up at 5am because work and life can’t stop at this point. Very few people will “officially” know what you’re doing.
The reason I made savouries at every opportunity was because we still had to eat. We ate the recipes I was trying out, good and bad. Strudel for supper every week with slight variations, curry to eat flatbread. This is also where it started getting expensive. You can put it in the freezer, you can give it away, but when it just goes wrong you can only put in the bin. Sometimes burning fivers might have felt more satisfying.
Anticipation always enhances the pleasure of the moment right? Well the night before filming when we all met as a group for the first time was that point.
The shock in the bus back after the first day’s filming, up since 6am and returning exhausted after 8pm was bad enough. The bus journey back on the Sunday when Natasha had been eliminated was 100 times worse. If you have any ounce of empathy for your fellow competitors, whatever pleasure you may take from success is always tempered by their pain. It’s almost visceral.
The production crew are funny, charming and extremely helpful. They make the experience the best they possibly can, as do Mel and Sue, but they all have jobs to do and the product is not us. We are the ingredients, to be taken out and used when required for filming, baking and interviewing. The hanging around waiting can be tedious even though the others were genuinely marvelous company and on the whole delightful people to spend time with.
However making radical alterations to your routine 2 1/2 days a week has a novelty value that wears off pretty quickly. From then on what will keep you coming back is down to your motivation for entering and desire to succeed. Mine disappeared before the semi-finals although I’d been openly saying I wanted “my life back” from week 6 onwards. I came back because the people around me and the people at work wanted me to see it through to its natural conclusion.
It’s not just you that will have to buy into the process: your loved ones won’t even be getting to enjoy the fun bits. So make sure you really know why you’re applying and never lose sight of that reason. Winning really isn’t everything for many people – or the people around them.
Travelling expenses are paid for as are the ingredients that you use on camera, but in between you will still be trying to practise and improve recipes before filming and although we had some contribution to our costs it doesn’t cover what was spent, and the company acknowledge that. So you will be further out of pocket, and still eating the same food.
Some things you may not be able to practise- I’d never done the Clock Tower from construction to decoration in 4 hours before as I simply had no time, and I found out on the day that I couldn’t do it. No wonder it looked such a mess. And the scars I got from the caramel are still present – I’ll need plastic surgery to improve the look of the ones I’ve got at the base of my thumb and back of my wrist.
But I was ‘lucky’. You can’t rely on not having practised, which means you need to be able to clear your diary during filming. And I mean REALLY CLEAR your diary. Life cannot get in the way if you want to progress. My mother was taken into hospital just before filming one episode, and the times when my diary could not be cleared corresponded with the times when I was most shaky.
It’s not nice. TV shows a highly edited version of the ‘feedback’ you will get. Some is very positive and encouraging, all is meant to improve your skills in some way. But this is TV land not the work environment, and methods of appraisal and feedback you may be used to will not be present here.
Seeing yourself on TV isn’t the problem: it’s seeing the disappointment on the faces of the people you care for when you don’t appear much in an episode or you’re portrayed in a way that they don’t recognise as fully you. You can rationalise it to them, but it doesn’t feel good to see them upset about online comments or unable to work out why your bake wasn’t shown and someone else’s was.
Work out a strategy for how you are going to deal with that – although like childbirth, how you can know what it will be like until you actually experience it is anyone’s guess. Remember that in signing yourself up for this, you are consenting them to the experience also. In the end I was in it long enough for the positive effects to be felt by the people around me and for me to take pleasure from that, but it might not be the case for you, and then you may feel unsatisfied, cheated or even relieved.
Over 6 million people saw this series and I’ve been approached many times. Those approaching me have been universally kind and generous, but I don’t enjoy being the centre of attention, haven’t courted the media or press and find the whole concept of Z list celebrity anathema in terms of what I’m trying to achieve in my life. If you want it fine, if you win, you will have to court it, and if you don’t win but want to try and use your 15 minutes of fame then you’ve got an uphill task to capitalise on it. Over the ether however, the comments will be much more personal and at times vituperative: people are willing to judge all aspects of your life and personality without knowing you when they don’t have to say it to your face.
There is no money or contract directly associated with winning. Everything else is down to you, although I suspect if you win the production company will help out initially, but they don’t commit to. The people who have done best out of GBBO career wise have been willing to change and absorb that kind of attention. This year John may do very well because he is media friendly, actively wants to do this and also the show will be enhanced by having a very visible success in the way he has said he wishes to progress his career. But next year may be very different…don’t expect it to bring you riches.
The ‘economic’ arguments of winning never stacked up for me, and overall it cost me time and money I’ll never get back. But it’s a hobby. Think of it as buying a set of very expensive golf clubs or a few season tickets: no one really gets paid for their hobby, it’s the definition of ‘amateur’.
Right now I look back and can’t quite appreciate how I ever managed it. I’ll probably watch the next series, and maybe you will be in it. I got exactly what I set out to get from the experience and more that was unanticipated. However I’d never do it again. I know too much of what it takes to be involved and I wish a part of me still had that bucolic fantasy of baking in a tent in a field.
And if you’re one of the poor souls battling away against yourself in that tent, then know that you’ll have at least one viewer who has considerable empathy for your struggles and will have nothing but admiration for everything you do. Because if you want a personal challenge and you can bake a bit, you won’t get a more extreme one than this.
Hold on to your sense of self when all around feels like a Bosch tableau. You are not at the Gates of Hell it just feels like it sometimes, and remember, you have chosen freely to do this. No one is forcing you to change but you will undoubtedly be a better baker as a result. Good Luck.