UK high value TV show beats the pandemic

1 October 2020

How do you make a high value show that gets a whole nation talking but has logistical challenges of having contestants from across the country in close proximity to each other, to crew and presenters?

That is the challenge that faced Love Productions, makes of the award-winning Great British Bakeoff [GBBO]. This staple of UK television for the past decade, that has the power to clear supermarkets out of ingredients within 24 hours of transmission, regularly attracts audiences of over six million people on the UK’s Channel 4. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, cookery expert and GBBO judge Prue Leith told the story behind this year’s unprecedented production. 

Prue Leith: What really went on inside the Bake Off bubble

Filming the new series of Bake Off was like living in a microcosm of the perfect society, writes the presenter

After months of lockdown, The Great British Bake Off came to life and I found myself in a bubble with 150 other people on the 115-acre Down Hall estate. Confined for seven weeks somewhere near Bishop’s Stortford. No hope of remission. Once you were in you couldn’t leave. If you had to leave, you’d not be allowed back.

It turned out to be one of the most remarkable periods of my long life. But to enter the bubble wasn’t easy. We were all quarantined for nine days beforehand and had to take two Covid-19 tests. My husband had to isolate and be tested too (“gagging orders” he called them) just to drive me there. His car was locked and unused for the nine days, then we drove – no stopping – straight to location.

On arrival I had another Covid test, was issued with masks and sanitiser; then confined to my room until given the all-clear 24 hours later. There were notices everywhere – Keep Your Distance, Wash Your Hands, Sanitise Before Touching Your Glass, One at a Time in the Lift, If You Love Me Don’t Hug Me.

It’s true that most telly people were desperate to be back at work, but it is still remarkable that almost all the long-established Bake Off team signed up to the quarantining and abandoned home and hearth for seven weeks. Everyone has partners or children (in my case grandchildren) to miss. Twenty of the hotel staff and two gardeners had to join the rest of us in the bubble. And the 12 bakers had to leave home, family, friends and their familiar kitchens.

Like a posh boarding school

Down Hall, a spa hotel, usually has a staff of 150. Now they were down to 20, looking after 130 of us, and their elegant rooms were plastered with safety instructions and notices: Crew Lounge, Production Office, Baker’s Dining Room, Talent Lounge”. The spa was closed, and we queued for meals. It felt a bit like a posh boarding school.

The famous tent was on a grassy expanse with a sloping field below, and beyond that woods and a stream. Two hundred yards away was the tent where Paul Hollywood and I discuss the pitfalls of each technical challenge. It’s known as Perfect, Perfect because we chat and drool over the model example of the bake-to-be. Between the two tents were four cute shepherd’s huts for Paul, Matt Lucas (our new judge), Noel Fielding and me, complete with desk, bed and comfy chair. Perfect for a cosy lie-down between takes.

Dotted about were more tents: 12 well-equipped kitchens for the bakers to practise in; tented offices; stores; laundry; green rooms; medical centre; guard room at the gate; cleaning station for sanitising incoming deliveries.

A dozen golf buggies belted along between the tents, moving people or kit, or running errands. Sometimes it felt like a small town, with all the citizens diligently working in the same factory.

Medics were everywhere, checking everyone’s temperature. Security guards patrolled, cleaners cleaned. Covid didn’t stand a chance. It must have been the safest place in England.

I’d never have thought 150 people could be locked up together for nearly seven weeks without a quarrel. Who could imagine we’d get every episode filmed to schedule, that we’d get through without anyone testing positive for Covid, with our location – and indeed the fact that we were filming at all – kept secret until almost the very end.

TV history in the making

Success was largely down to months of meticulous planning. This time, absolutely everyone involved in the show, from wardrobe to electricians, gardeners and chaperones (two of the bakers brought children with them) had to be given bed and board. I do think we made television history. Few people thought it would be possible to make a complicated 10-episode show in lockdown, but Channel 4 and Love Productions were determined, feeling Bake Off would be solace to the nation.

The unspoken fear throughout was that one of us would prove Covid-positive and all that effort would be for naught as the show was abandoned.

The more talked about, but less terrifying danger was that Noel Fielding’s girlfriend, Birdy, would have their new baby early. Then Noel would have to quit, leaving Matt to host the show alone. The pregnant Birdy, with two-year old Dali, was in the bubble with us, but the production company put her – and us all – at ease, going to extraordinary lengths to make sure we would be safe and comfortable. And to have a jolly time on days off: there was football, cricket, rounders, croquet, lots of ping pong, and an ongoing tennis

One balmy evening everyone turned out to play or watch a game of rounders. Sitting on the grass, glass in hand, cheering on the Oldies thrashing the Yoof felt pretty good. Sadly, the young reversed this at the return match a fortnight later.

On sunny days off, the lawns would be dotted with people lounging about on beanbags, reading, playing board games or just dozing in the sun.

In the evenings there were movies on a big screen (beanbags on the floor), and one night we all played bingo, with Matt calling the numbers and Noel winning first prize of a tower of Pot Noodles.  Matt was an instant success with everyone. He has that winning combination of wit and kindness that makes everyone love him. One of the producers, Lucy, put a dozen colleagues through twice-weekly gruelling HIIT classes and another, Becka, ran yoga sessions. There’s something about the holiday camp atmosphere that makes you want to join in, so I ran two flower-arranging workshops.

After a while, restrictions were eased a bit and spouses could join us – provided they went through the nine days of quarantine again. John brought our Cavalier spaniels, Tattie and Teasle, whereupon my daily walk through the woods became compulsory. Two badly trained spaniels and a lot of rabbits is a recipe for disaster. Rabbit poo is their favourite treat and rabbit chasing their favourite sport. Tattie broke two leads.

Bake-Off make-up and wardrobe wagons have always been a gossip centre, with jokes and impromptu singing, and this year, on days off, there might have been the occasional Negroni.

Pre-Covid, I never realised working full-time, keeping house and catching up with friends, family and emails was at all stressful. That was just my life, and I was happy with it. But I had no idea what stress-free really is. I know now. It’s being in a lockdown bubble with a crowd of really nice people, with meals provided, grounds to get lost in, entertainment laid on, working with a bunch of cheerful, can-do, non-complaining colleagues committed to getting the nation’s favourite show on the road, then time off lying on a beanbag in the sun, reading those books that have been piling up by my bedside for years, walking the dogs and FaceTiming my beloved to hear that he really, really misses me.

For some families the tensions of lockdown might accelerate relations into disaster, but many couples, I think, have woken up to how much they love each other, how glorious nature is, how precious time doing what you want to do is. And if you can have the luck we had, to do our work in a bubble, what could be better? The lockdown Bake Off has, I think, turned some long-time acquaintances and work colleagues into friends, and allowed us all to be proper people, not trying to be cool and indifferent. We became what we are at heart – caring, concerned, even loving.

Our bubble became a microcosm of the perfect society with no need to lock a door, with everyone doing their job with energy and commitment, and everyone appreciating the value of others. And I’m sure that, as well as the bakers’ efforts, will be plain to see as the series goes on.

Image: Mark Bourdillon/C4/Love Productions

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