'I pretend that I'm clever, but really I'm just a child in an adult's body'
As Bake Off returns for a fifth series, host Sue Perkins tells Jeananne Craig why she loves rolling up her sleeves
After four years presenting The Great British Bake Off, Sue Perkins has picked up some pretty decent kitchen skills. So much so that notoriously hard-to-impress judge Paul Hollywood - who knows a good crumb from a soggy bottom - has termed her “a really good baker”.
“I wouldn't say I was any good at it, but it's very sweet of Paul to say I'm OK,” says the bespectacled comedian, who returns with co-host Mel Giedroyc for series five this month.
“I'm not much of a cake-maker, because I don't have kids, and because I think if you make a cake then you eat it,” she adds, revealing that the weight can “pack on” during Bake Off.
“I do love making bread, though, I think it's an amazing thing to get into. It's a stress-reliever, it's fun and I just absolutely love it.”
Perkins isn't the only one to have been bitten by the baking bug. The show, which first aired in August 2010, has led to a major revival in cake, bun and biscuit-making, and made stars of bread guru Hollywood and food writer Mary Berry.
More than nine million of us tuned in to see Frances Quinn crowned winner of series four, and this year the contest — which is moving from BBC Two to BBC One — will also have a spin-off programme, An Extra Slice, hosted by Jo Brand.
London-born Perkins (44) is modest about the role she and Giedroyc have played in the show's success (she's previously described it as “an hour of innuendo presented by middle-aged women”).
But when the pressure gets too much in the Bake Off tent, and you could cut the tension with a palette knife, the pair are always on hand to provide welcome light relief and console the contestants.
Admittedly, the ice-breaking does usually come in the form of a smutty pun, or a wink at a rude-shaped bake.
“I've sort of cultivated this sort of, ‘Ooh look at me, I've got my glasses on, let's try and pretend that I'm clever',” says Perkins. “Actually, I'm just a buffoon child wrapped in a 40-something-year-old's body. Really contrived puns, terrible jokes, people falling over, an exquisitely timed fart; these are things that will make me just roar with laughter.”
Over the years Perkins has befriended the home economists who test the technical challenge recipes on Bake Off and has gleaned plenty of baking tips from them.
“I will help them make stuff and if they're doing demonstrations, I'll make some of the bread,” she adds.
“I had quite a slow day on Bake Off once and we were having Comic Relief winners to come and have tea with us, and I made pretty much the whole tea myself — the scones and muffins and cakes and things. I was quite pleased with that.”
It's just as well Perkins is so interested in food, as many of her presenting gigs have involved it.
She and Giedroyc, who met at Cambridge University's Footlights performing arts society, rose to TV prominence on the Channel 4 daytime show Light Lunch, in which each episode saw a top chef cook lunch for the duo and some famous guests.
Along with stints on Celebrity MasterChef and Celebrity Big Brother, Perkins also co-presented the The Supersizers Eat... food history shows with restaurant critic Giles Coren.
“I suppose over the years I've kind of learnt by default what goes with what. I'm quite lucky, I've been cooked for by amazing people,” she admits.
As well as the new series of Bake Off, Perkins is also the host of new More4 show Cooks' Questions, in which three top chefs demonstrate their skills and answer questions from a studio audience of “fervent foodies”.
“I think the show shows how many answers there are to one simple question, like how to roast a chicken,” says Perkins.
“We had almost war with Tom Aikens saying you need to brine it for 16 days and then hang it upside down and then form a pentangle around it, and then you had Richard Corrigan going, ‘No, that's absolute rubbish, just get a hairdryer and turn it on', and then Frances (Atkins) saying, ‘Oh no, just shove it in the oven at 180. I think you'll find that turns out pretty well'.
“So actually, it showed the many ways you can skin a cat. Although a cat, of course, is not the best meat if you want a roast.”
Perkins is a fan of “good, solid practical home cookery”; the kind she used to help her mum with growing up.
“I do sort of love those big traybakes and great duvets of lasagne, and all those sort of comforting family foods,” she adds.
“I think there's all this razzmatazz around the star chefs. You forget that real women — and men, too — are turning out amazing things every single night of the year.”
- The Great British Bake Off, BBC One, Wednesday, 8pm
The show's disasters in the kitchen
- Poor Rob Billington was all set to present the judges with his tiered chocolate genoise sponge cake in series two — until he dropped it on the floor moments before serving. He still managed to salvage one layer, with a bit of help from Paul Hollywood.
- Scottish medical student James Morton was gutted when his gingerbread barn fell apart in the third series. But the judges loved the tumbledown look and still gave it a thumbs-up.
- John Whaite, eventual winner of series three, mistook salt for sugar when rustling up some rum babas. He also managed to cut open his finger on an electric mixer.
- Howard Middleton served up a tea loaf with a twist last year — it was laced with hemp. Cue hilarity as Sue Perkins tried to explain “naughty cigarettes” to Mary Berry.
- Last year’s champion Frances Quinn had a disaster when her button-themed biscuit stack collapsed like a Jenga tower.