She’s naughty… but nice! Great British Bake Off’s Prue Leith introduces her showstopping new co-host Alison Hammond (and reveals the startling reason she never watches the show)
Alison Hammond first burst into public consciousness in 2002 when the cinema usherette, who was £4,000 in debt, walked into one of the most famous houses in the country. Her stay didn’t end as she’d hoped.
Alison was evicted from Big Brother after just two weeks, but the 48-year-old owner of TV’s most infectious chortle certainly had the last laugh… and many more besides.
She went on to appear on I’m A Celebrity… and regularly presents This Morning, but crowning it all, this month she makes her debut as co-host of one of the world’s biggest shows, replacing Matt Lucas on The Great British Bake Off.
She’s hoping to be a successful addition to the baking band, and as the show returns Prue has certainly become a member of the Alison Hammond Fan Club.
The feeling’s mutual and, chatting to the dynamic duo, it’s clear they adore each other. Plus, with Alison’s arrival, Prue’s no longer outnumbered.
‘And it’s so nice,’ grins the 83-year-old. ‘I adore Matt, Paul and Noel, but it was like dealing with a bunch of primary school children sometimes. You know how a three-year-old loves the word poo?
‘They crack up. Well, those boys are not much different. Alison’s a breath of fresh air. Yes, she’s naughty, but she leads the gang and has a tremendous base of kindness. She naturally likes people.
‘On top of this is a teasing, spirited, fun woman. A really good combo. She’s life-enhancing, there’s no doubt.’
The newbie is just as effusive about the Dame. ‘Prue’s a gentle guiding force, generous, kind and knowledge-able. It’s kind of like having my mum there,’ says Alison.
‘You’re constantly listening to her amazing stories. She’s so entertaining.’
Don’t imagine that a battle of the sexes has now broken out in the green room over contentious topics like who controls the TV remote, though.
‘We’ve got our own spaces to chill – shepherd huts,’ Alison says. ‘You’ll have Paul in his watching Formula One. Noel will be painting in his. I’ll be sleeping…’
‘I’m in the middle of doing a cookbook, so normally I’ll be working on that,’ says Prue.
‘If we were in the same space, the Formula One would do my head in,’ admits Alison. ‘Though I did go for a drive with Paul. It frightened me to death.’
‘Everybody I know has only ever been in a car with Paul Hollywood once,’ reveals Prue. ‘I’ve been in there once in seven years. I’ll never do it again.’
Although Alison admits to being ‘really nervous’ on her first day of filming, auditioning for Bake Off surprisingly held no fears for her.
First up was a chemistry test with Noel. Then Alison interviewed garden centre shoppers to show the rapport that she might have with the bakers.
‘Whenever I audition, I don’t get nervous,’ she says. “I think, ‘If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t.”
‘When I met Noel, I realised I wanted the job because I really liked him. He was charming, funny, into art. I am as well. I paint. We had lots in common.
‘I started off interviewing people on This Morning and this was going back to basics,’ she adds.
‘Fundamentally, it’s being interested in somebody else. I do come across as loud and brash, but I also listen to what people have to say.’
She gives great hugs, too. Paul’s reportedly been stingy with Hollywood Handshakes this series. Hammond Hugs, though, are in plentiful supply.
‘I’ve always been quite tactile,’ says Alison. ‘I’ve scaled it back. I don’t jump on celebrities any more and kiss them, we’re in a different age. I just like a cuddle.’
Faced with soggy-bottomed setbacks, the contestants hoping to emulate 2022 champ Dr Syabira Yusoff cherished a comforting squeeze. Aged from 21 to 59, they include a deli manager, a PE teacher and an intelligence analyst.
Rather than ever more fiendish tasks, this series sees a return to classics such as crème caramel, chocolate torte and sausage rolls.
There are new themes, too: Chocolate Week, Botanicals Week and Party Week. And, as ever, they kick off with cakes.
The first challenge? A Vertical Layer Cake. They tackle an iconic bake in the technical challenge. And the showstopper? Well, they venture into Carry On territory when re-creating animals.
Alison understands the pressure, having been a contestant on 2020’s Celebrity Bake Off. Prue said of her, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody with this much confidence.’
Alison didn’t win, but her signature bake kickstarted her friendship with Prue. ‘We bonded in the sense Prue enjoyed my chocolate brownies with Daim bars in them,’ Alison says.
‘She asked for the recipe. I’ve been dining out on this ever since. She’s got the recipe on her fridge.’
‘I’ve only taken two recipes home in the time I’ve been on Bake Off,’ adds Prue. ‘Alison’s was one, long before we knew she’d be a presenter.’
Reading each other’s memoirs helped them get acquainted further. ‘If you’re well-known for one thing, the public thinks that’s all you’re about,’ says Prue.
‘Doesn’t matter what else I do, it’s always Prue the cook. Alison has a deeper side to her than hilarious interviewer. Her autobiography’s terrific, but she also wrote the most fantastic book for kids, Black in Time, about [Britain’s] heroes of the past who were black.
‘I gave it to my grandchildren because I thought they should know this and it’s inspiring for them. My two smallest grandchildren [adopted by her Cambodia-born adopted daughter Li-Da] are both of colour: one’s half-Congolese, one’s half-Ethiopian. They need to grow up knowing lots of people who’ve done wonderful things were black.’
‘I wish I’d had me on telly when I was younger,’ Alison adds. ‘I used to watch Floella Benjamin and think, “She’s amazing!” It was inspiring to see someone who didn’t necessarily look like me. I was a lot bigger, but she had the same skin tone.’
Bake Off has always been inclusive – with someone every viewer can identify with, whatever their age, sex, colour and sexuality.
Some might accuse the series of having a ‘woke’ agenda because of its diversity, but it shows how universal baking’s appeal is. This year, GBBO welcomes its first deaf baker.
Prue explains how they whittle down applicants. ‘The process at the beginning is just who’s the best. We want to know what they know about baking and will they be able to stand up to the pressures. It’s not about the colour of their skin or anything. We need to make sure we’ve got some young ones, some old, some black, some white, different nationalities, backgrounds, income groups…
‘It’s woke in the sense we care about reflecting society. We would not put somebody in the tent who wasn’t capable of winning. Otherwise, we’d be doing them a disservice. They’d be humiliated. It’s about a duty of care.’
‘It’s the same with the presenters,’ says Alison. ‘I wouldn’t have been chosen if I wasn’t up to the job or couldn’t handle the job.’
Prue laughs. ‘Alison could do not only her job, but also Noel’s job and she might do mine and Paul’s given half a chance.’
Cake’s an occupational hazard for our duo, so how do they deal with temptation? ‘I’ve just come from the gym,’ says Alison.
‘I probably put on half a stone. I’ve been working so much, I haven’t been training. I was face down in the cake every single bake. I thought the appeal would’ve worn off, but I was tempted all the time. When you hear Prue say, ‘Oh, that’s delicious…’ I can feel myself dribbling.’
Prue struggles to stop at the one small mouthful she needs to know if a bake’s any good, but an expanding waistline isn’t her only concern.
‘The trouble with our job as judges is you’re looking down all the time and all your chins are on view. Then, to have a gob full of cake…’ She sighs and makes a surprise admission.
‘I never watch Bake Off and the truth is not that I don’t think it’s a wonderful show. I do. I’m so vain, I cannot bear seeing my wobbly bits on view all the time.’
‘I’ll probably change after this series,’ says Alison, ‘and never eat again.’
As co-host, Alison has the less enviable task of sending bakers home. After her own eviction, she knows how that must feel. She’s also the perfect reminder that all is not lost.
‘I was so gutted to be evicted from Big Brother, but I do think things happen for a reason,’ she says. ‘If I’d won, I probably wouldn’t have the career I have today.’
A This Morning producer, who’d never watched the show before, saw her leave the house and offered the former child actor, who’d appeared in TV shows Palace Hill and Chalkface, a segment on dieting. That led to her covering the red carpet for a new George Clooney film.
She inadvertently hit the star in the face with her microphone. The producers thought Alison was so funny that she had to stay, and the nation and Hollywood’s A-list took her to their hearts – she’s been fed chocolates by Hugh Jackman, received a marriage proposal from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and gave Harrison Ford the giggles in a chat that went viral and has now had more than 17 million views on YouTube.
This year, though, her time really has come. In February, she fronted the BAFTAs with Richard E Grant. Having hosted This Morning on Fridays with Dermot O’Leary since 2021, she’s now a regular alongside Holly Willoughby – with a nomination for Best Presenter at the National Television Awards to boot.
‘It’s luck, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘A combination of luck, hard work and being curious.’
Does Alison have a cake worthy of a Hollywood Handshake? ‘Absolutely!’ she says.
‘I soak raisins and stuff in white rum and sherry and leave them all year round. I’ll pop the rummed-up fruits into my banana bread. Or if I’m doing bread and butter pudding, I’ll put my fruits in. Everybody loves them.’
One sadness takes a little shine off Alison’s new role. Her mum, Maria, isn’t here to watch. She died from lung and liver cancer in 2020. How would Maria have reacted to her girl being in that tent?
‘She would’ve been there every week,’ Alison says with a smile. ‘She’d have been over the moon. She loved Prue and Paul. Bake Off was one of her favourite shows. It’s bittersweet doing it, the fact she’s not here.’
Prue has become somewhat of a role model. Does Alison ever think, ‘I want to be Prue when I grow up?’
‘I want to be Prue now! I want to be in Prue’s clothes, first of all, they’re amazing. If I have the fitness, agility and work ethic she has when I’m 50, I’d be flying. She’s a wonder woman.’
Although there’s one bone of contention. ‘I can’t believe her age,’ says Alison. ‘I think she’s been lying for a long time just to get sympathy.’
As they laugh again, it’s clear everyone’s had a ball on Bake Off. Having been part of This Morning’s family for 21 years, does Alison feel like she’s cheating on them by joining another TV clan?
‘I do a little bit, but do you know what? I feel like I’m with my forever family now. They’re a lovely gang and I’m just so happy to be part of it. I’m quite sad filming has come to an end.’
- The Great British Bake Off returns to Channel 4 later this month