For a while, it looked as if it might not happen. It would have been so like 2020 to have cancelled one of the nation’s best-loved autumnal TV treats. But it seems not even a pandemic can get between the British public and the particular joy that only comes from watching an accountant from Leicester sweat over a batch of custard tarts in a marquee.
Next week, The Great British Bake Off is back for its 11th series, and though to the casual viewer it may look as though nothing much has changed, more seasoned fans may be able to spot a few clues as to the Herculean effort that went on backstage in order to transform the tent into a Covid-safe zone. In fact, it sounds as if they went to such lengths that the Bake Off “biosecure bubble” may at one point have been the safest place in Britain.
Ahead of the first episode on Tuesday, here is everything you need to look out for when watching the new Covid-proofed Bake Off 2020.
The contestants looking suspiciously young
The show has always been beloved for the diversity of ages among its contestants. Who could forget Val who used to “listen” to cakes to work out if they were done, or septuagenarian Flo who turned out to be an accomplished rapper? The oldest baker among this year’s cohort is Linda, who is a mere spring chicken at 61. It’s not clear if there was an official “no shielders in the tent” diktat handed down by Love Productions’ insurance adviser, but you have to imagine they deemed it sensible to recruit a younger bunch this year.
Paul and Prue pretending not to notice a little Eau de Dettol in the génoise sponge
Producers drew up a list of safety rules “longer than the Bible” before filming began. Everything was sanitized to within an inch of its life, with executive producer Letty Kavanagh insisting that even bags of flour were cleaned several times a day. Deep cleaning is easier with some ingredients than others; there’s nothing like an afternote of bleach on your lemon zest. One imagines that endlessly wiping down packets of self raising can’t have been the ideal kitchen task, especially given that flour and water aren’t exactly a marriage made in heaven – unless, that is, you’re making a dough for flatbreads.
People manically wiping down tins of golden syrup in the back of the shot
Olivia Van Der Werff, the show’s health and safety advisor, says a four-person team of hygienists (who had been through quarantine and were regularly tested for Covid) worked full time on set, cleaning everything rigorously and regularly. “Any kit that arrived was cleaned with alcohol wipes by our team. Everything that came to site was sent to their cleaning station, and it was an immense exercise.”
Towers of ingredients tumbling over
The team in charge of ingredients had to order everything for the entire series in advance to take into account the delay on deliveries caused by the pandemic. Faenia Moore, the chief home economist on the show, says her flat was stacked to the rafters with sugar and butter for days ahead of filming.
“We started prepping for Series 11 about two months before we started filming, and I began getting things like freeze-dried pineapple flavouring all delivered to my small flat," she recalls. “A lot of people in the food industry were furloughed, so it had a knock-on effect on ordering, but we tried to be as organised as possible.
“I was nervous that we wouldn’t be able to get a delivery of extra flour during the filming of the series, so I planned ahead. I also asked for 200kg of butter at the beginning as I wasn’t sure how it would all work. We just needed enough extras for the bakers to practise and, thankfully, they always had enough.”
A force field around Prue and a cap on Hollywood Handshakes
The contestants may be spring chickens, but, at 80, Prue Leith must be considered relatively high risk. She’s a game girl, though, and fans will be delighted to see her back at the helm, deadly global virus be damned. Even Paul Hollywood’s famous handshake (doled out seven times in the 2017 series) has been permitted to make a very occasional appearance. It was all made possible because the set was such a highly controlled zone. Van der Werff says the entire team (and each of their households) quarantined for 10 days before filming began and were each given two Covid tests before travelling to the set. On arrival, each person involved in the show was given a third Covid test, “so we could be 100 per cent sure”.
Contestants who look as if they haven’t seen the outside world for a while
Down Hall Hotel in Essex was chosen as a new base for the show, housing the entire team, including bakers, hosts and judges, for the entirety of the shoot (with temporary overspill accommodation set up in the car park). Usually on Bake Off, everyone goes home during the week and returns to set at weekends, but this year producers asked bakers to take six weeks off work and decamp for the duration.
The set was a “completely sealed location” for seven weeks, which sounds rather like a recipe for frayed tensions – and that’s before anyone tampers with a fellow contestant’s baked Alaska. Van der Werff says: “At the site, we fenced off all the entrance points, and built physical obstructions so no one could get in through a back door. Once everyone arrived on location, they would not be leaving until the end of the shoot. No one else was allowed on site at all. Everyone on camera and behind the camera could relax and do the job they had to do in our biosphere.”
A new host in the tent
This series, Little Britain star Matt Lucas makes his debut as a Bake Off presenter, alongside Noel Fielding, having replaced Sandi Toksvig, who left the show to pursue other projects. Lucas described the experience as being rather like “summer camp” (particularly as filming was delayed from April to July). Filming was “tough for the bakers”, he says, but “we did things in the evening. I hosted bingo one night, Prue did flower arranging – and Paul made pizzas.”
The Great British Bake Off returns to Channel 4 on Tuesday, 8pm