The Great British Bake Off’s move to Channel Four is currently one of TV’s most compelling storylines, and yesterday a new character was introduced in Prue Leith, legendary chef, restaurateur, and author, who was named as a potential replacement for Our Beloved Mary Berry™.
On the whole, the news has been received well – Leith herself has spoken positively about wanting to take part in the reboot, even finding kind words for Paul Hollywood, and she certainly has the cooking chops, even if baking isn’t a specific speciality. It was also a relief to most of us that Berry’s replacement isn’t a twentysomething reality TV star whose baking experience extends no further than a love of cute fairy cakes and a knack for hair-flicking over the baking powder.
But while all of the above are causes for celebration in a Bake Off-specific conversation, is it not a little depressing that the only place we really ever see or hear from women of 70-plus is in the kitchen? After all, they aren’t presenting the news, while John Humphrys (73) continues unimpeded on Radio 4’s Today Programme, they aren’t seen in the boardroom, while Sir Alan Sugar (70 next month) continues on The Apprentice and they are just as rare in parliament itself where of the 22 MPs aged over 70 at the last election, only 4 were women. Must anyone beyond reproductive age still be relegated to a mumsy role if we are going to be confronted with them on our TVs?
Leith has shown Mirren-esque levels of ease with her own body and sexuality, posing in the nude with her fellow Great British Menu hosts and using her memoir Relish to discuss her past lovers, drug use and sexual experimentation
Cookery is happy to welcome our elder stateswomen, lavishing them with respect and affection. Is it because viewers can’t handle seeing women over 60 on TV unless they are presented as either laughable cougars or are deliberately desexualised? Do we feel somehow safer if we only have to watch them doing what our mums did, thus providing the warm and fuzzy glow that Bake Off became so known for? Or is it because TV commissioners can be a notoriously unimaginative bunch, especially on commercial channels, and have merely tried to replace Berry with someone who has comparable a career as possible to Berry’s – thereby easing the anxieties of those still suffering palpitations about Bake Off moving channels at all?
The answer, I suspect, is a little more complicated. For starters, Leith’s involvement would be a boon for those of us who rage at the remote when confronted with another expert being replaced by enthusiastic eye candy 40 years younger than their predecessor *cough*AleshaDixonStrictly*cough*. Charming though I’m sure many of those glossy-haired cupcake fans are, none of them have anything close to Leith’s expertise in either kitchens, restaurants or indeed TV studios. After all, she has 57 years in the food industry – as cookery-school doyenne, restaurateur and author of booth cookery books and novels – and she has been a feature on The Great British Menu for a decade. It would be churlish to ask any more of Leith’s CV, and I am not sure anyone would be wise to do so, from Channel 4 senior management down.
Added to this, Leith has an identifiable personal style – bold specs, statement necklaces, cool gran hair – which would more than comfortably furnish viewers with the kind of viral online lolz that we all enjoy about the entire Bake Off cast while contestants’ loaves are proving. And unlike Mary Berry, who is only a few years her senior and remained a somewhat more closed book, Leith has shown Mirren-esque levels of ease with her own body and sexuality, posing in the nude with her fellow Great British Menu hosts and using her memoir Relish to discuss her past lovers, drug use and sexual experimentation. When you hire Leith, you are not hiring a sexless nan with opinions as bland as undercooked pastry.
However, any potential employing of Prue Leith can only ever be little more than a drop in an ocean of diversity-light TV. Until Clare Balding broadcasts for at least as long as Des Lynam did, leaving a gang of ready replacements in her wake; until the only women we can see as “experts” stop being white, neat and with home counties accents, no matter how racy their pasts; and until we have female politicians able to broadcast from College Green outside of parliament looking at least as scruffy and as entirely unremarked upon as most septuagenarian MPs do, Prue Leith’s new gig should be heralded as the start of true diversity for women of all ages, colours and shapes on TV, not its apex.