'This is my way of exorcising the demons of being Bake Off's villain'
Ahead of his new show, A Baker's Life, Paul Hollywood talks to Francesca Gosling about making mistakes and what makes him cry
It is almost impossible to work out what is going on behind those steely blue eyes, as they gaze inquisitively at a quaking amateur baker over a dozen miniature loaves. Paul Hollywood gives away nothing as he chews slowly and thoughtfully. Will the loaves be under-baked? Or might he raise a hand to bestow that coveted prize, the Hollywood handshake?
While Wallasey-born Hollywood (51) is best known for providing the culinary yang to Mary Berry's yin over six years of The Great British Bake Off, he insists there is more below the stone-baked exterior.
And he plans to share it with the nation in his new show, A Baker's Life.
It will take viewers on a journey through his personal and professional history, from his early mornings in a bakery as a teenager, to his first steps into the big white tent, with some favourite family recipes thrown in along the way.
"It's time for the public to see a little more about me," he says. "They know this pantomime villain and what they've read about me in the Press, but, actually, nobody knows who I am, or where I came from. This programme was a way of exorcising the demons of the villain of Bake Off."
We are sitting in his north London studio. There's a plate of his chocolate muffins on the side and a snooker table in the corner, presumably in case he feels the need to release some creative tension.
When we meet, it's a few weeks before he and his wife of nearly 20 years, Alex, announce in a joint statement that they are separating. But in keeping with his inscrutable Bake Off image, there is no sign that there is anything amiss.
In fact, his manner is relaxed and confident and he is pleased that Bake Off's debut on Channel 4, with a fresh batch of hosting colleagues, has proved an undeniable success.
In his words: "It's done much more than I thought it would and we got a much higher youth audience than we did with the BBC."
Hollywood chuckles as he remembers going back over series one footage for his new show. "It was very funny. I was wearing all those hideous shirts, the floral ones and the stripes.
"One week, I wore a black shirt and one of the BBC commissioners said, 'Ooh, love Paul in black'. So I wore a dark shirt the next week and got rid of all the florals."
In A Baker's Life, Hollywood treats viewers, used to his discerning judging, to a view of him being judged. Two Bake Off favourites, Val Stones and Selasi Gbormittah, are invited back to the tent to scrutinise him.
"I sat behind the bench and they said, 'Paul, your challenge is to make a roulade in one hour, and your time starts now'. Then they came round and asked, 'So what are you making?' I replied, 'A roulade with rosewater'. They teased, 'Rose is quite a strong flavour'.
"So, I know how the bakers feel now. Initially I thought it was stupid, but as soon as they said 'Go' and it went quiet, I thought, 'Hang on, I don't like this'."
Yet the pressure of two pals with a payback agenda was nothing compared with the work Hollywood put in to cut his teeth in the baking world while sharing a Wirral bachelor pad in the 1990s.
"I knew I was working a lot. My mates were always out and when I was trying to sleep in the day, they'd come in and, like in a comedy, someone would whisper really loudly, 'Shhh! Paul's asleep'."
"Then I would be up at 10pm. While they were dozing off, I'd put on my chef's whites and drive to work.
"In the winter, when it was freezing cold, I would get in and think, 'Why am I doing this?' But I did it for years, six days a week."
His efforts, which quickly generated job offers from The Chester Grosvenor, The Dorchester and Claridge's, did not go unappreciated by his friends, as they tell us in A Baker's Life.
Rewatching the rushes, Hollywood confesses their words achieved what eight Bake Off finals could not - a few tears. "It was lovely," he says. "It was the first time I had heard them talk about me as the guy off the telly, rather than a mate.
"I did cry a little bit. But you will never see that soft side of me. Crying is a very personal thing.
"What got me was when they said I was a grafter. I never really, at the time, thought of myself as a grafter."
But it wasn't all hardship, and he muses fondly over memories of his housemates' early-morning visits to the bakery - just as he shovelled the day's first fresh pies out of the oven. They would be on their way home after a night out and he'd happily give them some baked pick-me-ups.
Clearly, there's a more generous and softer side to Hollywood than you might have suspected from his public persona. So, why are there so many controversies around him?
He admits: "If I screw up now, it's all over the Press and everybody thinks I'm a git. Whether it's speeding, or having a go at Liam on Bake Off, I'm the one that's going to cop it in the neck.
"If I did something wrong when I worked in the bakery, the chef would mention it, but no one told me off more than me. I'd get down about it really badly.
"I still have a go at myself, but now the whole country is ready to have a right pop as well."
But Hollywood is careful not to complain. After all, his chosen path continues to offer him international television deals (he recently wrapped the US Bake Off) and allows him to indulge his passions both for baking - which he still adores as a hobby - and for buying fancy cars.
"I believe everyone has got a fate of some description," he says, looking back on his career. "I think you make choices and doors open.
"I never set out to be on the telly, I never set out to be famous. I just set out to be a very good baker."
Paul Hollywood: A Baker's Life, Channel 4, Monday, 8pm