Packets of flour were cleaned with ultraviolet light, contestants spent six weeks away from their families and Prue Leith “bubbled” with her pet dogs. Producers of The Great British Bake Off have explained how they created a safe “biosphere” to ensure that this year’s series — complete with Hollywood handshakes — could go ahead despite the pandemic.
Contestants include a pantomime producer, a Jamaican-born radiographer and an adventurer who found solace in baking after losing his leg in a motorbike accident. They were only able to show off their culinary skills after Channel 4 approved measures to ensure the show abided by social-distancing rules that caused the cancellation of other TV series including Love Island.
The contest is usually filmed over consecutive weekends within a tent pitched in the grounds of Welford Park, a country house in Berkshire, with the bakers returning to their homes between shoots. That would have been impossible in the Covid era, so producers switched to Down Hall Hotel on the border of Essex and Hertfordshire. The contestants, presenters and crew spent six weeks on site after nine days in isolation to ensure they did not have the virus. Extra accommodation had to be built in the car park and golf buggies took people around the grounds.
Everyone was invited to “bubble” with selected loved ones if they remained for the duration of the shoot, but Prue Leith was one of the few to accept, bringing along her spaniels Tattie and Teasle. One baker also brought their dog, while Noel Fielding, one of the presenters, was accompanied by his pregnant girlfriend Lliana Bird, a radio DJ.
Kieran Smith, the executive producer, told Radio Times: “Everything was complicated, everything was different, but everybody wanted to do it.” Richard McKerrow, chief executive of Love Productions, which makes the program, said the list of safety guidelines was “longer than the Bible”. Letty Kavanagh, another executive producer, said: “Nothing entered the bubble without going through the hands of cleaners. We used a spray system and an ultra-violet system, and there was an open area where items had to be left for a period of time before they could be brought into the location. It was quite a military operation.”
Everyone was invited to “bubble” with selected loved ones, but Prue Leith was one of the few to accept, bringing along her spaniels Tattie and Teasle.
Even before bakers entered the biosphere, the lockdown disrupted their preparations. In early summer supermarkets were hit by a flour shortage due to increased demand, making it difficult for them to practise at home. “We sourced flour from restaurants and corner shops, and handed them over to cleaners,” Ms Kavanagh said. “They cleaned all the packages, left them under UV lights, and they were then packaged and sent by courier. When the packages arrived, the bakers then had to clean them again. When you think about it now, it does sound quite mad, but it became very normal very quickly.”
Matt Lucas, who has replaced Sandi Toksvig as Fielding’s co-presenter, enjoyed “pootling about” the estate on his golf buggy, looking at the trees and getting fresh air, insiders said. The safety protocols meant that filming within the Bake Off tent was able to proceed fairly normally. There had been speculation that the congratulatory handshakes that judge Paul Hollywood awards to his favored bakers would be dropped, but they have been retained. Filming had to be paused one afternoon after someone reported coronavirus symptoms, but it resumed after their test came back negative.
This year’s 12 bakers include Marc, 51, from Cornwall, a climber and landscape photographer who turned to baking after losing his leg in a motorcycle crash in 2016.
The series premieres in the U.K. at eight P.M. next Tuesday, September 22, on Channel 4, and in the U.S. next Friday, September 25, on Netflix