Bake Off’s Prue Leith: Why I’m simulating sex on London stage
Bake Off’s Prue Leith tells Adam Bloodworth about her latest work, a riotously funny one-woman show
Just last month, Prue Leith was on This Morning talking about libido enhancers for the overeighties. Her husband, sat in the audience, was asked whether he’d like Leith to take some herself. “Don’t give her anymore!” he said, as the 83-year-old Bake Off judge chuckled along.
In the most wonderfully outrageous scene from her one-woman show, Prue Leith: Nothing in Moderation, which comes to the London Palladium on 6 April, the octogenarian simulates sex on stage, gyrating her hips in front of the ageing audience, recalling a cringey workout video she shot in the 1970s. “F***kedy f***kedy f*** f***,” she says, walking back and forth doing hip thrusts. “F***kedy f*** f***.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Leith, for whom nothing seems to be off limits when it comes to making business decisions. Leith had wanted to include more serious stories, including one about campaigning for euthanasia, but feared it’d turn people off. “It’s all cakey and cheerful, and then you’re talking about death,” she says. “I realised this was not going to be successful.” Those who knew Leith before she became the hippy-clothes-clad Great British Bake Off judge in 2017 won’t be surprised to hear she retains the same uncompromising approach to her work that made her one of Britain’s most successful female chef-entrepreneurs, raking in an estimated £85m fortune.
After setting up her cookery business in Earl’s Court in the early sixties, Leith became a driving force in gentrifying Notting Hill with her eponymous restaurant Leith’s. One of the coolest places to be seen, it welcomed everyone from The Beatles to Princess Margaret, not that Leith recognised many of them. “I had to have Lulu pointed out to me,” she laughs. “I didn’t know who they were.”
She turned her cookery business into Leith’s Cookery School, which was sold in 1995 when the annual turnover was a reported £15m. She quit cooking to write dozens of books and do more charity work; she has just filed a report to the UK government about the state of hospital food, a topic about which she’s trying to get a documentary made. She tells me she’s been pitching to TV companies from her laptop in the back of her tour bus. Not bad for an 83- year-old.
“So much of what I’ve done is crazy,” says Leith. “I mean, you shouldn’t open a restaurant without ever having worked in one. You shouldn’t open a cookery school without ever having worked in one. You shouldn’t take on a television series without having been on telly.” But her failures have also been from taking risks. There was the restaurant manager who “robbed me blind,” and the vegetable business that went bust because it couldn’t compete with the crooked traders who sold cheaper veg by disguising the mouldy sprouts with fresh ones on top. “I thought I’d be the first honest veg woman in London,” she laughs. “Mostly I would try and do things I thought were a good idea.”
It’s easy to imagine what she would have been like in her twenties when she started out, but nothing is in the past tense; she’s all about now. “To be honest, I’m pretty happy doing anything except doing nothing,” she says. At the height of her cookery school, of which patrons include the Duchess of Cambridge, Leith managed 500 staff but bureaucracy today, she says, is “maddening.” As for opportunities for women? “I think it’s getting better but I’m fairly cheerful, I would think that.”
We meet the morning after the Chester leg of Leith’s tour, where it was almost a sell out. In the foyer, excited octogenarians wore sparkly outfits. Plenty were queueing to buy copies of Leith’s books. Walking on to the Bake Off theme – because of course – Leith tells stories about mucking up while serving the Queen, drugs and the 1960s, and behind the scenes on Bake Off. She doesn’t pause to sit down for over an hour, drilling through the stories in a way that feels both efficient and warm.
Bake Off’s success astonishes me. Nobody, including the production company, understand itPrue Leith
“I have a huge amount of energy,” she says. “If anybody ever asks me to do something and I’ve never done it, I want to do it.” It might be 9.45am in a drab meeting room overlooking a comically dreary car park, but Leith is wearing her trademark red lipstick, jacket and necklace combo, as if she’s about to walk on the Bake Off set. The South African native comes across as decades younger, but she’s also at the precipice of change. Her mind wants to carry on but, as for her body, “If I get down on my hands and knees to weed a flower bed, I can’t get up again,” she laughs.
In person, Leith doesn’t hesitate to answer any question about any topic. It’s not just gyrating on stage that makes her an open book. I ask about partying in the sixties – “Harry Nillson was forever trying to get me into drugs… it sounds so boring, but I was working” – mixing that with a poise that shows she’s totally in control.
We must talk Bake Off. The morning we meet, Alison Hammond confirmed she’d be replacing Matt Lucas and Leith brings it up before I do. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of her before,” she admits. “She’s quite naughty, she’s very funny and very friendly. I’ve only seen her on telly but I think she’s a good choice.” I wonder if the global phenomena that is Bake Off took her by surprise?
Musicians were forever trying to get me into drugs… it sounds so boring, but I was workingLeith reflecting on the 1960s
“I find it astonishing they are so nuts about Bake Off, and me, and all of us,” she says. “It is the most extraordinary thing because it’s a baking show. None of us, including the production company, really understand why. If people knew the magic ingredient, everybody would be doing it.” It feels like Bake Off is the one business decision Prue has made that she doesn’t fully understand, and it’s fascinating watching her cogs turn as she tries to analyse its success.
Does she have any regrets? “I probably don’t reflect enough. My whole nature is to think about what’s happening now or will happen tomorrow. Thank goodness it isn’t to fret about the past because if I did there are a whole heap of things I should never have done.” So will she be carried off the set of the show on her baking tray, so to speak? “I want to stop before they tell me to stop,” she says, stirring in her seat, her mind drifting to the thought of sightseeing in Chester. Later, she’ll be ferried by a tour manager to Leicester for another show.
“I feel like a parcel,” she says, with a gleeful poetic touch. “Being passed about. And I love it.”
Prue Leith’s Show, Nothing in Moderation, will be at the London Palladium on 6 April – for tickets go to lwtheatres.co.uk
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