How The Great British Bake Off changed my life

Back on our screens tonight, The Great British Bake Off has turned dreams into reality for its Yorkshire winners. Grant Woodward reports on a true television phenomenon.

Yorkshires Great British Bake Off winner Nancy Birtwhistle, pictured with judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.
Yorkshires Great British Bake Off winner Nancy Birtwhistle, pictured with judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.

FIVE years ago, Edd Kimber was stuck in a job he dreaded and desperately trying to work out what to do with the rest of his life. Then his friends spotted an advert for a brand new BBC baking competition and persuaded him, as a keen amateur cook, to chance his arm.

That programme was The Great British Bake Off. The show, which returns to our screens tonight, would go on to become a soaraway hit, spawning versions around the world, picking up Baftas and pulling in more viewers than even the World Cup Final. Yet Edd, who ended up winning that inaugural series, freely admits he never saw it coming.

“As contestants we knew it was going to be on BBC2 and I think we all assumed it would be this little daytime show that did ok,” he recalls. “The only thing we could compare it to was Masterchef, but I don’t think anyone thought it would even replicate that kind of success.

“It certainly didn’t feel as polished as it does now, but we got around four million viewers which I remember seemed amazing for something that was so untested. It’s crazy to think it now gets three times that number.”

The show, as with so many of the contestants who have followed in his wake down the years, proved the passport to the career he yearned for yet never thought possible.

Edd, from Bradford, was 24 when filming started and working as a debt collector for Yorkshire Bank in Leeds. “It was a stop-gap while I worked out what I was going to do with my life and most definitely not for me,” he says.

“I always say that whatever I could have wanted to change about my life back then, Bake Off changed it in the most amazing way. It allowed me to follow my passion and fulfil my dreams in a way I never imagined.

Yorkshires Great British Bake Off winner Edd Kimber

“I have written three cookbooks, two of them have been published in America. I ran a pop-up bakery in Fortnum & Mason, they allowed me to take over the kitchenware department and turn it into a bakery for a few weeks. The thought of this boy from Bradford being given an opportunity like that is just unbelievable.

“ITV chose me to be the resident baker on the final series of The Alan Titchmarsh Show and I’m currently writing recipes for a magazine. Every day is different, but every day is about food. It is all I ever wanted.”

Success on the show was equally transformative for Hull-born Nancy Birtwhistle, crowned champion at the end of last year’s series by judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.

The former GP surgery manager has her own swish website and is in demand for everything from cookery demonstrations to after-dinner speaking. Her passion for baking had first been stirred by the realisation that retirement wasn’t everything she thought it would be.

“I’d worked full-time for 36 years and I was looking forward to retiring and not having to go to work every day,” she says. “But I didn’t like it all that much. I was bored and so I decided to bake. It went from one day a week to almost a baking obsession.”

She initially applied for Bake Off in 2013 but was knocked back because her bread failed to pass muster. Undaunted, she returned to the kitchen and worked hard to get better, reapplying the following year. Invited to an initial audition in Manchester, she was asked to take along two bakes – one pastry and one bread. One had to be sweet and the other savoury.

She caught the train and, being “a true Yorkshire woman”, refused to take her husband’s advice to get a taxi from the station to the exhibition centre where the auditions were being held. She travelled by bus instead, but when she arrived at the centre there was no one else there.

“I asked at reception and they said I had the wrong exhibition centre and there were no taxis that could take me. I had 10 minutes to find my way carrying all my baking. I just made it and told them they were lucky to have me as I nearly didn’t make it. I think that was one of the things in my favour.”

Nor was Nancy afraid to argue her corner with judge Paul Hollywood. “He said one of my bakes was dry and I said it isn’t. But I think he was probably right. He’s actually really lovely and when I got through to the final and was really nervous he was very supportive.”

Even as she sailed through the rounds, however, she insists she never let herself think about winning the coveted title. “I just didn’t want to be first out. I wasn’t bothered about being star baker I just wanted to get through.”

Edd and Nancy’s achievement in winning the competition – meaning Yorkshire has provided two of the show’s five winners to date – is even more impressive given the gruelling schedule that goes hand in hand with a coveted place in the series.

Filming takes place over the course of a weekend, with contestants rising at 5.30am to be in the famous Bake Off marquee for 6.15am, with the cameras rolling from 9.30am.

Even those who find themselves eliminated in week one have submitted, and practised, nine weeks’ worth of recipes. Those who are lucky enough to survive go straight into working on their recipes for the following week.

Mobile phones must be handed in on a Friday night and there is a strict policy of no texting, taking of photographs or talking about the show with anyone beyond the four walls of your own home. Contestants liken it to leading a double life.

Temperatures inside the Bake Off tent have also been known to rise. Edd’s advice to this year’s crop of would-be winners is to try to keep cool and concentrate solely on their flour and eggs.

“The best thing they can do is to remember the reason they are there, which is because they really love baking. It’s quite surreal to be in that tent with producers rushing around and the cameras in your face, but if you remember why you’re there you will enjoy the process more.

“It’s easy to feel stress about being on camera and what you are saying, but if you concentrate on the baking you will relax and do better as a result.”

He has noticed that the nature of the competition – and those taking part –has changed somewhat since his win five years ago.

“I’m not the sort of person who has ever wanted to be famous, I just did it because I loved baking and thought it would be fun.

“People who go on the show now seem to have more of an idea of how to turn it into a media career. We were perhaps a bit more innocent back then.”

However, the reward that awaits the latest champion to emerge victorious from the Bake Off tent is just the same as it has always been – the chance to pursue a professional career in baking.

“You can’t be luckier than doing what you love doing every day,” says Edd. “Very few people get that opportunity, so I feel extremely fortunate. And it’s all thanks to Bake Off.”