The Great British Bake-Off – Behind the Scenes

Article published in Shetland Life magazine, September 2012. This is the unedited version, so apologies for errors!


Despite the multiple interviews, the auditions, the many warnings, the psychologist screening, the screen testing and endless whisking, I’d made a decisive error: who’s idea was it to wear Fair Isle?


“It can get quite hot in the tent,” says Matt, our carer – or the person supposed to stop us inexperienced in television going into places or touching things that we aren’t meant to. “So layer up, but remember continuity.”

“Ah,” I say, remembering. “So like a blue jumper with a blue T-shirt underneath.”

“Err… no.” Matt says. “So, like a jumper, with an identical jumper over the top. And maybe another over the top of that.”

Walking away feeling that this could only confuse viewers and in the knowledge that I only had one of each of the Jamieson’s knitted numbers that I planned to break out in support of the whole Shetlandic cliché, I mentally committed to wear them regardless. And one at a time. I would suffer the consequences.


On the first day of filming the Great British Bake-Off, it was hot. But despite the sun (and the surprise peril – the ovens) I needed to get the jumpers on television before I invariably ‘went home’; this could be my only chance. And on seeing what I was wearing, the jumper divided the unfamiliar production team. The stylists and editors were elated, if slightly concerned for my welfare, but a few groaned with mutterings of ‘patterns’ and ‘strobing’.

Fortunately, Fair Isle is chunky enough to avoid such issues, but as filming gets underway, I became aware of the gravity of my decision:

12 Bakers, 12 Very Hot Ovens, 50 (yes, five-zero) crew, a comedy double-act and Mel and Sue, in a tent in Somerset.

My jumper was indeed a bad choice, but on reflection, it soaked up the sweat admirably. The claustrophobia, though, intensified the heat. Within a couple of weeks we’d got used to the proximity of large men holding Huge Black Boxes, but during those first challenges we were petrified, glancing at the oven to the cake timer to the camera in a triad of concern, blabbering back at the very leading questions fired at us.

The uncomfortable working conditions were eased by only one thing: the people who surrounded me. It has often been said that reality television is a horrible, exploitative industry that cares not for the emotional damage it inflicts on its contestants, profiting from those they deem marketable. Probably true, but let this never be said of the Great British Bake-Off.

The entire crew were approachable, likeable and beautifully professional. In those situations of extreme pressure, like when you’ve got to turn a tarte tatin upside down (or right way up, depending on your outlook on life), the cameramen would utilise their extraordinarily expensive lenses to film you from the edge of the tent, whilst the soundie’s arms ached with the longest of booms. The Home Economists would find you the oddest of ingredients in seconds, and even come round with homemade focaccia when all we’d eaten all day was icing and food colouring and were craving something savoury. The executives even, listened to your concerns and were sympathetic to any strife. We forgot we weren’t getting paid for our time.

But even more than the crew, the other contestants made the experience for me. There isn’t a single one of them that I would not love to spend time with again – surprising, maybe, with such a perfectly diverse group and when we are forced to spend up to 16 hours a day in each others exclusive company. But no cracks appeared, and I miss every one of them. Especially Brendan.

And Mel and Sue! As well as literal shoulders to cry on (thankfully, never me, I think), Mel was our TV-mother, caring and compassionate at every doughy disaster, whereas Sue was the ultra-clever comedy master whose every perfectly annunciated word hurt our sides. It was awe-inspiring, and confirmed in my mind that most of those in true celebrity circles are not those with privilege and luck, but those whose talent is unapproachable. A degree from Cambridge probably helps too, though?

And you think all television is fake? Well, think again. What you see is what you get: the judges really decide who wins, the only thing that’s set up is the endless walking into the marquee and putting our pinnies on. Although the editors exaggerate, they do not alter.

Now, watching the series back, I find it funny that I have this relentless positivity, when at the time I can definitely remember it being the most stressful time of my life. Reflecting, I cannot forget the amount of time invested in this process. Indeed, before filming even began I knew it was going to be tough, as my end of year Med School exams would be happening about the same time. Of course I’d kept this quiet from my concerned parents, who were a distant voice of reason throughout the process.

But I convinced myself: “I can manage it,” and on realising this was delusion, I thought “There’s always resits,” – referring to the embarrassing set of last-chance resit exams in August. I simply hadn’t considered the extra time I’d need to commit. Even before filming began, we had to submit full recipes for every episode, and so needed to practice elaborate dishes that we may not get to bake on the show. This was both hugely expensive for a student and procrastination galore.

Then during filming, I thought I’d get loads of studying done on location. But when you’re on a 12-16 hour-a-day adrenaline rush, you need a full day to recover.

This led to a sense of apathy some weeks, despite a generally cheery façade. Often, I just wanted to be home. Despite the glamour of television, posh hotels and all-expenses-paid restaurant trips, it was hard – away from home with people I’d just met when all I wanted was a very savoury home-cooked meal and a curative episode of The Thick of It with my brilliant and supportive girlfriend.

And now, I worry about the footage they’ve got and my intermittent refusal to play the television game and the potential havoc they could inflict. But then I remember the crew. I remember the people I am dealing with, and I remember that GBBO is the nicest thing on television. I’d be a nervous wreck now, and I’d have been one back then, without the brilliance those around me.





  1. What a lovely article. Glad you have had a good experience with GBBO. It shows I think in the quality of the programme. Thoroughly enjoying it, well done.

  2. If you can cope with the pressure of GBBO then the medical world should be no problem to you at all. I am sure you will become a very capable young doctor. Best wishes for a successful and happy future.

  3. Trust me, your baking will keep all the nurses and secretaries and fellow doctors happy. We have a regular cake sale in our department raising money for Macmillan. Hope you win GBBO! x

  4. I can tell you that the Fair Isle knitwear went down a storm with the online knitting community! There are quite a few posts on Ravelry regarding your taste in knitwear and some disappointment when you stopped wearing the Fair Isles!

  5. Hi James,
    Your choice of jumpers totally rocked on GBBO, especially during the perishing heat of filming. The gingerbread derelict barn was pretty awesome too. But the answer we all want to know is, did you pass your Med School exams??

  6. I hope you win James! I have really enjoyed watching GBBO. I like your Fair Isle sweaters and I enjoy knitting Fair Isle. I have bought wool from Jamiesons in the Shetlands and I highly recommend it. All the best with your studies and your career in medicine.

  7. Ashame you didn’t win James – loved your – and all the finalists – food. What year are you in med school? I am a volunteer ‘pretend’ patient and I’ve been warned that you are my competition in the baking stakes! I think it’s safe to say you beat me – hands (or mixing bowls!) down…hope to see you in the Wolfson Bldg…

  8. What a great post – full of honesty and integrity, and an interesting insight into behind the scenes. You should have won, but it seems that you simply had not had the time to practice enough, compared to the others – hardly surprising when you were studying for your Finals! Congratulations on your successes on the GBBO and on qualifying Dr James.

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