Ten Things I’ve Learned from The Great British Bake Off

Brendan in more relaxing surroundingsThe excitement surrounding the final has receded and there is now time to step back and reflect on my journey on the Great British Bake Off. This journey began nearly a year ago when I sent in my application form, continued through the audition process at the start of 2012, then the weeks of recipe preparation, the filming and finally watching the programme from mid-August to mid-October. People that I meet these days often ask me about the experience, so I thought I would try to distill it into a few points, or ‘lessons learned’.

1. Making a TV programme is hard work.

During filming we would be up and out of the hotel by 6.30am every morning and often didn’t return until 8pm. Aside from the actual baking there would be a constant round of interviews and lots of waiting around while the crew made their preparations. But the filming was only one aspect of our work as contestants. There were also several weeks prior to filming when we were busy preparing and practicing recipes for each of the episodes. It was an intense time but pressure like that can also provoke creativity. Many of the ‘signature’ bakes were things that I hadn’t made before so, as well as developing new twists for some old favourites, I also added to my repertoire considerably.

2. The members of the crew are the unsung heroes.

However long the working day of the contestants it didn’t compare with the incredible efforts of the crew. In our case the crew numbered around 50 people each playing a specific role in sound, lighting, filming, editing and management. On GBBO there was also a small team of home economists who gave us all amazing support. In spite of the long hours and often difficult weather conditions they were all consistently cheerful. It was the crew who usually devoured our baking after each round – hopefully a perk of the job. I suspect that, like me, by the end of the filming many of them were craving simple, savoury food. I recall the evening after the final when I polished off a huge bag of kettle crisps with great relish – this was the most opposite thing to cake that my exhausted brain could imagine!

3. Making GBBO can also be great fun.

In case I’ve given the impression that it was just one long slog, let me be clear – making GBBO was also unforgettable fun. Amongst the contestants there was endless banter and no matter how tired at the end of a day’s filming we would go out in Bristol for dinner and drinks. We had some great evenings. On set there was little time for flagging spirits with the wit and encouragement of Mel and Sue. Whoever thought of involving them in GBBO is a genius.

4. TV is about storytelling.

Watching GBBO I came to appreciate the ways in which even a reality TV programme constructs ‘characters’ out of the contestants and gives each of us something like a narrative arc. I suppose that this helps to create tension, providing an additional hook for viewers. Inevitably, this also means that personalities are ironed out and we are all, to some extent, presented as archetypes. In reality we were all more complex and interesting than perhaps any programme could fully convey.

5. Some really good bits never make it on to the screen.

With so many hours of footage for each episode it must be a tough job deciding what to include and what to leave out. Some of my favourite memories didn’t make it into the programme, including the moment when Mel charged down to the nearby pond and threw one of the dreaded dollies (used for the hand-raised pies) headlong into the water. Or the numerous occasions when Sue would have us in stitches just as the production team were trying to get us all to look serious.

6. Once a label sticks it can be hard to remove.

OK, I admit that clementine and chestnut torte did turn out looking a bit 1970s. But it does taste really good and there’s nothing retro about chestnut flour. Once Paul had made that statement about the cake it seemed that the label stuck. For some journalists and online commentators everything I did thereafter was an example of 70s style baking. Not that there’s anything wrong with the 1970s but it did show me how people often like to think in terms of fixed categories. A lot of this series was certainly retro – I’m thinking rum babas, creme caramel, and fondant fancies for example – but, perhaps due to my age, that label was stuck principally on me.

7. Some viewers pick over every detail (so be careful what you wear).

Lots of comments were made after episode four when I wore an orange coloured shirt that appeared to match the clementine segments on my torte. Many seemed to assume that I had planned this colour co-ordination, which was very funny and quite untrue. In reality I would usually rush down to Bristol on a friday afternoon, grabbing clothes and a few essential pieces of equipment as I ran out of the door. Generally whatever seemed to suit the weather conditions, was clean and closest to hand ended up in my suitcase. However, the online discussion of my choice of shirt made me aware of the level of scrutiny to which the contestants are subjected by some viewers. Similarly, I read all kinds of theories about each of us and our relationships with one another based on our facial expressions or gestures. It seemed that for some viewers GBBO is like a whodunnit, and they search for clues to support different theories about who the killer (or winner?) might be.

8. People can be as nice as they seem on telly.

Yes, Mary Berry really is that lovely! On and off camera she was kind and gracious. I heard that between filming she would often make her way to the kitchen inside Harptree Court to warm herself by the Aga and chat with everyone like family. Mel and Sue were as warm and funny off-screen as they appear on. I guess that Paul can seem quite stern in his judging at times but away from the camera he was helpful and encouraging. He gave me some excellent advice on some of my bakes for which I’m very grateful.

9. Harptree Court is the most wonderful venue.

We were incredibly fortunate to film the series at the wonderful Harptree Court. Although a grand house with beautiful grounds, it is also a very homely place. This is largely due to the amazing owners Linda and Charles. I can’t imagine what it must have been like with so many strangers trudging through your home every weekend, seeking to be fed or looking for a corner to curl up in. Yet we were always welcomed with immense warmth and given endless encouragement. Harptree Court runs as a bed and breakfast for most of the year. I can’t think of a better place to relax amidst the glorious Somerset countryside.

10. Never underestimate the power of baked goods.

The response that I’ve received from viewers has been an unexpected and uplifting aspect of participating in the programme. Both in writing and in person strangers have shared thoughts and feelings of a very personal nature. I’ve heard very moving stories from people who have faced great challenges in their lives and who found in the programme some comfort or encouragement. Last week I had an extraordinary conversation with a lady in my local supermarket that ended with us hugging like long-lost friends. It seems to me that the connection viewers make with contestants has a lot to do with the baking: perhaps because baking connects us at a deep level with a sense of home and family, and with happy times – either those from our past or those we wish for in the future. Anyhow, the connection with so many lovely people has been an unexpected cause of joy to come out of my time on the GBBO.


45 Responses to “Ten Things I’ve Learned from The Great British Bake Off”

  1. julie
    October 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    what a lovely description of your time on the great british bakeoff x

  2. karen
    October 29, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Great article, Brendan. I still have a question though: how do you keep it all secret from friends and colleagues? Nothing ever gets leaked!

    • brendan
      October 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

      We sign confidentiality agreements and, in truth, none of us want to spoil it for the viewers. It has such a following and it means a lot to people, so no one is tempted to act as a spoiler. The friends who attended the Final also had to sign the same agreeements and they got into the spirit of the thing too. Brendan

  3. Jenni
    October 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    Thanks for that insight into the workings of GBBO. Really enjoyed reading your side of it. Enjoyed watching the series ( also series 1 &2)
    Had you pegged as the winner Brendan with your wealth of experience and was really sad for you. After rewatching all the episodes am convinced you were cheated of the title!
    Good luck in the future. x

  4. Lynne Rose
    October 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    We are so enjoyed this years GBBO – when I say we I mean my work friends! Wednesday morning were spent reviewing the previous evening show and deciding on what our favourites were! We love Mr Hollywood and Mary of course! Mel and Sue really do make us laugh – so you must have had great fun!

    We had you as our favourite too! Loved all of your bakes – your attention to detail was amazing!

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Well done on all your hard work and we wish you luck and all the best for the future.

    Lynne and all my friends at Personnel Placements (Salisbury)

    • brendan
      October 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

      Thank you Lynne for the lovely compliments, which I a[ppreciate. And amny good things are emerging from and the publicity platfirm will greatly help me with my plans for it. Warm wishes to you and to your friends at Personnel Placements. Brendan x

  5. Margaret
    October 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I agree with Jenni above. You were clearly the best baker in the series (if not in all three series so far). Anyhow, I hope that lots of good things come from this – you deserve it!

  6. Janet
    October 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    I think the reminder that the footage is edited for television is really important. Intentionally or not, in the necessary business of editing, they create portraits of the contestants and with each passing week, viewers get to feel that they know the bakers from those portraits. It’s easy to forget how much more there is to the people on the show than just what can be shown.

  7. judy2shoes
    October 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Brendan that is a lovely post, thank you for sharing your experience. It has made me feel as warm and happy as GBBO itself. I am really looking forward to following you and trying out the recipes.

    • brendan
      October 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Thank you Judy. There are lots of good things happening which is exciting. Will keep you updated on porgress via the web-site. Warm wishes Brendan

  8. October 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    What a lovely post Brendan and round up of your year. It will be hugely helpful for anyone considering applying. Wishing you endless baking success and happiness – I know we haven’t seen the last of you x

  9. October 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Lovely round-up of the show, Brendan. Thank you. It’s great to hear that the show is as lovely off-screen as it appears on-screen. An obvious reason why it is loved by so many people.

  10. Marie
    October 29, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    Good post Brendan, I agree with point 9. Last year the night before my daughter was married my family stayed there. Linda and Charles looked after us really well and we have some lovely photographs taken in the garden before we left for the ceremony. It has been really nice catching glimpses of the house. I’m looking forward to trying some of your recipes. Good luck going forward.

  11. Jennifer Brindley
    October 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    I loved reading about your GBBO experience. I was so hoping you would win although the winner was lovely too. Being a bit of an ‘oldie’ I loved all of your bakes and how you worked. I am an extremely keen baker (love the decorating side too) but no where near good enough to apply. So enjoyed watching you, best wishes for the future x

    • brendan
      October 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

      Thank you Jennifer and good to hear from you too. While it is always useful to benchmark your skills in any area, the important thing is to persist and keep raising the standard with every bake. You have clearly achieved much over the years with your baking and will have given much pleaseure to all those who have shared them, so take a bow. Warm wishes Brendan

  12. October 30, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Brendan, this is the blog post I never wrote but wish I had. All so very true.

    • brendan
      October 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

      Thank you Holly. I am a big fan of your work, and it is great to see your progress and success since GBBO. Long may it continue. Warm wishes Brendan

  13. October 30, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights on GBBO. I have nothing but admiration for the contestants. I love baking and always have, but I’d never have the courage to do what you did. It was good to hear the crew and production team were good people. I thought they did a good job and made it seem a kind programme as well as fun and interesting. You did exceptionally well and in my humble oppinion deserved to win.

    Thank you for the lovely compliment. It was quite a journey but many good things are and will emerge from it. Warm wishes Brendan

  14. Casper
    October 30, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Brendan, I very much like your baking and baking in general, as I do your website. I need some advice on how to bake with sugar substitutes, like xylitol or stevia. Because of all the pounds I’ve piled on over the past couple of years, I have to radically rethink the way I’m baking and how much sugar I’m consuming. I haven’t exactly become pre-diabetic, just a bit worried. But what I don’t want to end up doing is limiting my baking to just twice a month. That’d be too radical. And I don’t have more than a couple of mouths and stomachs to feed at home ;-)

    • brendan
      October 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

      I have used xylitol with great success as a sugar substitute. Just follow directions and use as for caster sugar. All the best with the bakes. Warm wishes Brendan

  15. Suzanne Harris
    October 30, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    What a lovely insight into the programme and your enjoyment of it..loved it all,the programme, and yourself..Personally I think you should have won but am sure you will still have great fun and many benefits when you take your next steps..Good Luck and God Bless x

  16. Gemma&lucy
    October 30, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    What a fabulous article, Brendan, my 8year old daughter and I loved seeing your creations, whatever era they were representing. The whole series was, and always is such great tv, I’m not surprised to hear of the amount of work that went into it. The discussions on Wednesdays were always dominated by a review of the programme that had been on the night before, and we miss it!

  17. October 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Thank you for this informative post. It is interesting to think about the show as more than what we see on the TV. I am glad that on reflection you found the whole experience to be positive. I really admired your skill, you were an real pleasure to watch. :) x

  18. Andrea
    October 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    What a lovely write up Brendan. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I am very sad today that I cannot look forward to another episode of GBBO tonight! Can you please tell us what the audition process was like? Does it incur alot of expense? Good Luck in all that you go on to do.

    • brendan
      November 1, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      Hi Andrea. Thanks for your message. John has written a detailed account of his experience of the audition process. I’m sure you’ll find this very informative. You can find it at http://johnwhaite.tumblr.com/ Warm wishes, Brendan

  19. Andrea
    October 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    Thank you Brendan for sharing your experiences with us in such a lovely way. I dont know what I am going to do tonight as it is one of the few programmes I thoroughly enjoyed watching and looking forward to! Can you please tell us what the audition process involved and did it incur a lot of expense? Good Luck in all that you go on to do.

  20. Vincent
    October 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    I’d like to add my thanks for this blog. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, and it’s reassuring to know that while certain elements were emphasised and highlighted, as things must be for television, the final cut wasn’t a completely twisted version of what happened in the tent. Reading about the exhausting nature of the filming (how DID you stay so calm with all the mayhem around you?), I wonder if you would have signed up for it had you known in advance?

  21. leah
    October 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    What a lovely post Brendan, was rooting for you to win GBBO and was very sad you didn’t however, all the bakers were worthy of winning. I am very excited for your website and all the recipes you will be sharing with us! :)

  22. October 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    A lovely post. Nice to hear some insider detail. Glad everything got eaten!

    Don’t worry, I think that most of us could see that the 70s thing was a device they were using. You are a very talented and conscientious baker. I’m surprised you didn’t win, though I’m glad John did as I feel he probably gained more in terms of confidence and progression from doing so than you might have, given that you are (or appear to be) a grounded, self aware and confident person. Well done anyway.

  23. Emma
    November 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    A very gracious and typically thoughtful blog. I can HEAR your voice expressing those views as I read it, either excellent words or I am hallucinating

    • brendan
      November 5, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

      thank you Emma. You are very kind and I appreciate it. Warm wishes Brendan

  24. November 9, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to share your insight about the show, Brendan. It’s always interesting to know what it’s really like on the other side of the camera. Your baking was consistently amazing throughout the competition. Undoubtedly you have a bright future ahead of you with your baking talent. Best wishes.

  25. Craftilicious
    November 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your insights – and your fabulous bakes :-) Long like the clementine cake!

  26. Madelaine and Adam
    November 19, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Hello Brendan,

    We thought that you were fantastic throughout the programme and were fascinated by your level of baking knowledge. We wish you all the best for the future :)

    • brendan
      November 20, 2012 at 9:22 am #

      Thank you both for the lovely compliment which I appreciate. If ever you can come on one of the courses, it would be an opportunity for me to pass on some of the skills to you. Warm wishes, Brendan

  27. misspiggy
    November 23, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    Thanks Brendan for sharing with us. You were our favourite baker from the start. We particularly loved the way you spoke, the things you said and the shots of the very civilised life you seem to lead. We so want to have you on our TV screens – do you think there might be any chance of a programme where you take us through your breads of the world, or something similar?

    • brendan
      November 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Hi. Thank you for the lovely compliments which I appreciate. Lots of good things are happening as a result of GBBO. And this week I am at the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC doing some demonstrations this Wednesday. Warm wishes Brendan

  28. December 9, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Watched you making your swans at the NEC. What a gentleman, and thanks for your generosity. You are a inspiration.

  29. Michelle
    January 4, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Hi Brendan,

    Due to what we be a long list of for want of a better expression ‘things’ we have only just viewed the final. I was sad that you did not win. Although I liked John & James and found them both very talented, you were my clear winner. We were dumbstruck at the beauty of some of your creations. And if you are stuck in the 70s, I and many others are clearly there with you too! My very favourite has to be the bird house with the beautiful bluebirds.
    You are clearly very talented and your personality shone through which is what sparked me to find you and declare you the winner in my eyes!

    I hope the family reunion went well.

    Kind Regards,

    • brendan
      January 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

      Hi Michelle. thank you for the lovely kind comments, which I appreciate. Many good things have come out of GBBO for me. I will be talking to some large care organisations re taking baking into retirement home life. I am also teaching now 2 days per month at a very new cookery school which is great. all the best to you for a great 2013.

  30. Estelle
    January 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Hi Brendan,
    It’s always lovely to hear a bit more from behind the scenes of one of my favourite programmes. My two boys (2 and 4) love to watch it with me and we regularly re-watch episodes. You were our firm favourite right from the start and we loved watching you. My eldest was very fond of telling me ‘Brendan didn’t do it like that mummy’ when we had a go ourselves. He has very high standards, just like you!

    Thanks for continuing to give us so much pleasure through this blog.


    • brendan
      January 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      Thank you Estelle for the lovely comments, which I appreciate. And great news to hear that your two boys are engaged with baking, which is an excellent skill to take with them into adulthood. I will be updating my progress re my plans for this year on the web-site and will also add recipes when I can. So far there have been over 41,000 downloads of recipes – with over 101,000 visitors in 3 months!
      All the best to you and your family. Brendan

  31. Mayna
    March 13, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    Hello sir,

    I just randomly stumbled on to your site when re-watching GBBO today (it’s midterm week, so obviously I had to waste some time!).

    You’re just incredibly cool, and I just want you to know I was really moved by your passion for baking, to the point that I now bake regularly for my friends at university (I’m 21 and a girl). Oh, and I’m from Pakistan (!), and my friends and I were totally rooting for you to win :D

    It’s so great that you seem to be having a good time post-GBBO. Thank you for being so wonderful, especially for taking baking into retirement homes. I think I’m going to bake suff with my grandma now xx

    • brendan
      March 25, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Thank you Mayna for your lovely message. I’m so happy to learn that you have been inspired to take up baking and share the results with your friends at university. It is such a great way to build a sense of community. No doubt baking with your grandma will be wonderful too!
      all the best

  32. Lyn Stewart
    June 11, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    We have only just had the final here in New Zealand, so was really interested to read your ‘list’ of things you’ve learned! Your cooking was amazing and your consistancy was second to none but as you know by now with the politics involved, sometimes best doesn’t always win. In this jaded old world it was good to see the emotion and ‘real’ personalities be allowed to come through a little bit in the final. What the show does (for me at least) is inspires me to cook and bake a bit better. So with that said, well done awesome acheivement!

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