Mary Berry: My brother's death changed me
As 'Mary Queen of Cakes' she is one of the best-known chefs on TV. But as Mary Berry returns to our screens in The Great British Bake Off, Andrew Johnston finds her life touched by tragedy as well as triumph.
F Scott Fitzgerald once stated there are no second acts in American lives. It’s a good thing Mary Berry’s from Somerset. The veteran British cookbook author found a new lease of life at the age of 75, when she began judging the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, in 2010.
Her rejuvenated career has seen her hailed as a sex symbol and a fashion icon, as well as a screen natural. The Guardian even described her and co-host Paul Hollywood’s double act as the best reality television judging partnership ever.
It has been a long time coming for the woman born Mary-Rosa Alleyne Berry in Bath on March 24, 1935. Berry was the second of three children to Alleyne and Marjorie, a surveyor and housewife respectively. Her father also served a term as mayor of Bath and was closely involved in establishing the University of Bath.
Meanwhile, her paternal great great grandfather had been a master baker, suggesting being good in the kitchen may be in the blood.
But it wasn’t solely genetics that led to Berry becoming one of the nation’s most prolific food writers. Hard work has been the key, beginning with domestic science classes at Bath High School, where the equally aptly named Miss Date encouraged Berry’s nascent abilities.
The youngster’s first creation was a treacle sponge pudding, which earned her her first review, from her father, who said it was as good as her mother’s.
At 13, Berry was struck down with polio, a condition that in those days had proved fatal or disabling in thousands of instances. Happily, of course, Berry survived, though the illness left her with a twisted spine, a weaker left hand and a thinner left arm.
Yet in typical fashion, she saw the positive side of the situation. “The little girl in the bed beside me died, so I knew just how lucky I was to be able, finally, to go home at the end of those 12 weeks,” Berry told the Daily Mail in 2013.
Next, she studied catering and institutional management at the Bath College of Domestic Science, before joining France’s Le Cordon Bleu school in her twenties.
A string of food-related jobs followed, including stints at the Dutch Dairy Bureau, the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board. She also worked demonstrating electric ovens at the Bath Electricity Showroom, invariably using a Victoria sponge, the same dish she would later bake to test new ovens in TV studios.
The year 1966 was a big one for Berry. As well as marrying Paul Hunnings, a wine merchant for Harvey’s of Bristol, this was when she made the fateful move into journalism.
Berry’s first gig was as food editor of Housewife magazine, and she went on to hold the same role at Ideal Home magazine between 1970 and 1973. Showing the kind of resolve that has kept her in demand into her eighties, she held down both positions throughout giving birth to children Thomas, William and Annabel, as there was no statutory maternity leave at the time, and she also wasn’t keen on someone pinching her employment.
In 1970, at the age of 35, Berry published the first of what would be more than 70 cookbooks. The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook was an instant hit, not that its creator made a fortune from it. Berry has recalled that she was paid a mere £162 per 60,000 copies.
Still, her books have by now sold in excess of five million, the most recent being Berry’s 2013 autobiography, Recipe for Life. You would like to think she has negotiated a more favourable royalty rate over the years.
And it’s not just old-fashioned paper and ink for Berry. Since 2014, her recipes have been packaged in an interactive mobile app called Mary Berry: In Mary We Trust.
Sadly, behind the scenes, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the talented star. In 1989, tragedy struck when Berry’s younger son, William, was killed in a motoring accident, aged 19.
He had come home from university to stay with his family for the weekend, and died driving into a nearby village to buy a newspaper. His sister, Annabel, who was also in the car, escaped unhurt.
“William’s death changed me,” Berry confessed in 2013. “Little things simply do not bother me any more. You have to count your blessings instead, and my life has been immensely blessed.
“Even now, 24 years later, William is still a huge part of our lives. I have his photo in the kitchen, where I can look at it all the time. I miss him immeasurably, but I know how fortunate I was to have him even for that short time. And I still have two other children. How lucky am I?”
In 1994, Mary and daughter Annabel launched their own range of salad dressings, which have been sold everywhere from Harrods to Tesco. Surviving son Thomas is a tree surgeon.
But for all her considerable success as a writer and sauce magnate, Berry’s career went into the stratosphere when, in 2010, she joined BBC Two’s new cookery show, The Great British Bake Off, as a judge alongside baker Paul Hollywood.
It wasn’t her first small-screen appearance — Berry graced our sets in 1973, when she presented a segment on The Good Afternoon Show — but it was her most high-profile.
Bake Off has consistently done well in the ratings, building to a peak of 12.29 million viewers for the final episode of the most recent, sixth, series. It has won a Rose d’Or, two Baftas and a National Television Award, and has been critically lauded, too, but perhaps most importantly to Berry, the series has spurred an interest in home baking, with shops reporting record sales of baking goods and books.
Other TV work for the BBC has included The Great British Food Revival, Mary Berry Cooks and her latest solo effort, Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites.
And the decidedly old-fashioned Berry certainly doesn’t have a problem with women being in the kitchen. Indeed, she has rubbished the idea of her being a feminist.
“I would always stand up for women, but I don’t want women’s rights and all that sort of thing,” she told the Sunday Times last year. “I love to have men around, and I suppose if you’re a true feminist, you get on and do it yourself.
“I love it when someone says, ‘I’ll get your coat,’ or, ‘I’ll look after you,’ or offers you a seat on the bus. I’m thrilled to bits. I’m not a feminist.”
Her decades of culinary championing led to Berry being given a CBE in the Queen’s 2012 Birthday Honours, and since then, the accolades have kept on coming. The same year, she became the first president of the new Bath Spa University Alumni Association and was given an honorary degree by the highly regarded seat of learning, which incorporates her former domestic science college.
In 2013, she was voted second-best-dressed person over 50 by The Guardian. In 2014, she was awarded the Freedom of the City of Bath.
But one prize the 80-year-old perhaps couldn’t have foreseen bagging was number 73 in FHM magazine’s 2015 list of the 100 sexiest women in the world. Berry was placed ahead of the likes of Emma Stone, Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez.
And with her mother Marjorie having lived to the grand old age of 105, ‘Mary Queen of Cakes’ should reign for some time yet.
A life so far
- She was born in Bath in 1935
- She attended France’s Le Cordon Blue school in her twenties
- She became editor of Housewife and Ideal Home magazines in the 1960s
- Her first of more than 70 cookbooks was published in 1970
- Since 2010, she has been one of the judges on BBC Two’s The Great British Bake Off
- She lives in Buckinghamshire with husband Paul and their two dogs, Millie and Coco