Baked to imperfection | Life hasn’t been all cakes and ale for the Great British Bake Off co-presenter Sue Perkins. In her memoir Spectacles, the hugely popular comedian draws acres of charm and even hilarity out of a life of emotional challenges, and she joins Edinburgh Book Festival to discuss it all.
“Three days into Uni and I met one of the loves of my life.”
Sue had been asked about writing a book ten of fifteen years ago, but she passed. Now it feels like half time, “enough has happened of note.” We begin with whether she knew she would be a performer early on. “No, I didn’t know anybody who did that,” she says. “Fame is the least interesting aspect of what I do.” She was a shy child, but the flip to every shy child is this extroverted aspiration to be seen. Sue had a stammer, so being a performer definitely never crossed her mind, but she worked on it with a specialist who “gave me the gift of speech, and in doing so created a monster.”
“It’s about finding like-minded people,” she continues. You have a shared sense of fun, values and joy. Sue is particularly susceptible to dares, so she was dared to do a show a few days into Uni, and there, she met Mel Giedroyc. “Three days into Uni and I met one of the loves of my life.”
Sue was more into stand-up, Mel serious theatre, but they found their way together in the end. They came straight to Edinburgh with 10.05am slot in a venue on the top floor. Their first Fringe show, no one showed, their highest crowd was 12, but they had the time of their lives.
So how did they keep going as performers? “It’s not self belief,” notes Sue. “It’s ignorance, it’s joyfulness. No one tells you where the full stop is at that age. I didn’t for a second think I should stop until someone told me.” No one did. They found themselves up against professionals for Light Lunch, but “in the end they decided to go with anarchy and see what happened.”
There have been some tougher times. When Mel had her first child, it was a strange juncture. They were so close, and Mel was embarking on a journey that Sue couldn’t go on. It changed their relationship – “at the time I thought it was the end of the world” – but it was for the better, and they grew up, and became closer. She’s godmother to her children and adores them. She had been living in juvenile bliss until the age of 27, she says, but this moved them forward.
Then we come to the biggie: Great British Bake Off.
“Ten weeks of Mary laser-eyeing them and Paul grubbily thumbing everything.”
“I think it’s a matter of public record that I said no three times,” she laughs. “I’m eternally grateful that I’m not in control of my own career decisions.”
It’s really lovely to see people’s lives changes, 2015’s winner Nadiya is an obvious example. It does change people, it’s tough too. “It’s ten weeks of Mary laser-eyeing them and Paul grubbily thumbing everything.” For Mel and Sue “it’s genuinely awful when something goes wrong.” What they offer is more pastoral care.
Consoling is key when Sue inevitably leans on someone’s cakes and crushes them, as happens at least once a series. Remember Howard’s peachy buns? “I destroyed them.” Sue doesn’t watch the bake off, but sometimes sees bits through voiceover; Dorret’s chocolate cake disaster had her really emotional.
It’s an hour of talking about everything from conducting to Paul Hollywood’s denim-stained thumbs being slammed too far into dough, and the whole way through Sue emanates joy, laughter and gratitude. So we close with the important question: what’s Mary Berry like?
“She is dreadful. I’m glad you asked,” she smiles. “She is regal and gentle and kind and cheeky and rude and funny and naughty.” She’s supportive, she’s hilarious, she’s too many adjectives to keep up with. “To be loved by Mary is such a beautiful thing.” She points out she’s been rather harsh on Paul, but “he’s got a heart of gold.”
“Any show that makes the assumption that the Great British public is stupid and doomed to fail,” says Sue, talking about how ‘nice’ has often been uncool in the past. “I’m proud to do a nice show, take care of people and do it with my best mate.”