“I had never baked,” confesses Richard McKerrow, the man behind one of the most successful shows in the nation’s television history. It seems a somewhat remarkable statement for the creator of The Great British Bake Off to make, but his own (lack of) experience aside, his concept has certainly captured the heart of the nation.
“I’m interested in what other people are interested in,” says Richard, who set up company Love Productions in 2004. “We have been baking since before the Bible and yet no one had done a show on it.” Not everyone shared his vision though and few could have predicted the scale of its success. It took more than four years of repeated pitching to commissioning editors before BBC took the programme on.
“I think if you have an idea that you are passionate about tell anybody, tell everybody,” says Richard. Millions of viewers now tune in each week to see the quintessential baking contest, set in a tent in the grounds of an English country house. “We like to call it the big show that thinks it is little. We really try to hold onto that spirit.”
It is the bakers, of course, that are at its heart, representing Britain in all its diversity and multiculturalism. As Richard heeds, ‘love the bakers, love the baking’. “One of the things I have learned is that bakers tend to be very good people. They are the opposite of the typical cynical television character...and they care more about baking than being on telly.”
“The truth is there is no checklist [for a contestant],” he adds. “Just go out there and represent Britain and represent the world. At the end of it the key thing is are they a good baker?”
Richard lifted the lid on the show and his career at a talk in Leeds last week, chatting with Glyn Middleton, a lecturer in TV production as part of Leeds Trinity University’s tenth annual Journalism and Media Week. “I got into journalism and then television to try to make the world a better place,” he says. “I always had that when I was young.”
Richard started out as a journalist at The Nation magazine in New York. He then worked for Yorkshire Television in its documentaries and current affairs department as a producer and director, before joining Channel 4 in 1997 as a commissioning editor for education.
From 2002, he was creative and managing director of production company Maverick Television before setting up Love Productions, which has shows including The Baby Borrowers, Make Bradford British, Benefits Street and Kidnapped By The Kids to its name. The common thread is trying to do something that has never been done before, he says. “One of the things we have always been passionate about is don’t let yourself be stereotyped and be curious about the world and the things you don’t know about.”
Though Bake Off is undoubtedly a change from many of the social issue documentaries on which Richard has worked, it has authenticity at its heart. “Bake Off could happen without any television cameras there,” he says.
It was out of the BBC’s documentary department that the award-winning show, which has just finished its ninth series, was first commissioned. But in 2016, it was announced that the programme would switch to Channel 4.
“The move has been characterised as greedy producers going for the money,” says Richard. “All I would say is we did it to protect the format.” The 48 hours after the announcement of what was dubbed Bread-exit were “unbearable”, he recalls. “When we were in the eye of the storm, we really had no choice. I think Bake Off would have died if we hadn’t moved.”
Despite the recent announcement that the channel has chosen Leeds as its new headquarters, a Bake Off move to Yorkshire seems unlikely. “That’s going to be tricky. We film at Welford Park near Newbury and have a fantastic relationship with the people that own it. They have become part of the Bake Off family.”