Great British Bake Off feature interview - Martha Collison and Mary Berry
PUBLISHED: 11:55 22 December 2014 | UPDATED: 16:18 26 October 2015
Could you withstand the scrutiny of Mary Berry? At just 17 Martha Collison took on this formidable challenge, becoming a star of the Great British Bake Off
Mary Berry lifted a little portion of the chocolate cake on a fork towards her lips… and I stopped breathing, writes editor Jan Raycroft. Even before she began to sample the flavour and texture of the sponge, I’d backed into a corner of a room where there was nowhere to hide.
When the arched eyebrow was raised in my direction, and that oh so recognisable voice rang out: “This one… really this one? It’s not cooked through, you know, and the flavour’s just not right”, well even three floors up I wanted the ground to swallow me up.
Thank goodness for the lemon drizzle cake that saved me from total ignominy. And here’s the thing, I hadn’t even baked the blessed cakes, just agreed to judge a baking competition alongside Mary at Eden shopping centre in High Wycombe. As head judge she decided we should not compare notes until the end, whereas I’d been expecting to follow her round nodding wisely, agreeing with anything and everything she said. But no, Mary wanted a proper marking system, and actually the contestants who had worked so hard to produce a beautiful display deserved nothing less. So I had to reveal to the Queen of Cakes which were my favourites… and why.
That day I became an expert on panic attack-style sugar rush (you try sampling a heaving table of cakes, goodness knows how Mary and Paul Hollywood cope on Great British Bake Off).
So imagine what it was like for Martha Collison, just 17-years-old and a student at Charters School in Sunningdale, taking part in the BBC’s most watched show, under the glare of cameras, knowing that 10 million or so viewers would see what came out of the ovens and the pronouncements of Mary and Paul on her efforts.
Nothing, not even being a previous winner of the East Berkshire Rotary Young Chef of the Year competition, could prepare you for that.
“Honestly, I was terrified,” Martha admits. “On the first day my hands were shaking so much I really wondered if I would be able to do it at all. When I first met Mary and Paul I was in awe of them, a bit petrified. And then you look around you at the other contestants and think ‘What am I doing here with these people, they all really know what they are doing… and then there is me’.
“I watched the series with my family and you could see my hands shaking, it made my dad laugh, but by that stage even I was able to find it funny because it was all over and there had been so many really good moments that I’ll never forget. I don’t usually get that nervous but became a bit obsessed with getting through the first week, telling myself that anything after that would be brilliant.”
As it happened, Martha made it all the way to the quarter finals and episode eight before finishing in fifth place when the technical challenge of a spiced plum ice bread swirl and the monstrous demand for 36 exotic doughnuts proved to be a bake too far.
No doubt many of our readers felt as sad as we did when it was announced that Martha had been eliminated, but it was a fair result. The judges, of course, could not give her any leeway for being the youngest ever Bake Off finalist. And nor did she expect it, gaining confidence as the rounds proceeded and receiving a baking education and masterclass which can be bolted on to the career she hopes to follow.
However, Martha does reveal that a very special moment was when Mary suddenly appeared beside her one morning, gave her a hug and said “Ah… it’s so hard not to have favourites, well done, little one.” And Martha was mesmerised by the ‘twinkly’ side of tough judge Hollywood who clearly wanted the bakers to do well while stretching their skills to the limit.
“Paul really knows his stuff, he’s so clued up and you learn such a lot,” she says. “It’s not just that he knows where you got it right, but explains why something went wrong. For instance, he can look at some layers in a cake that haven’t quite worked and instantly tell you that it was a mistake with the sugar.”
Those of us glued to our armchairs during the series loved Martha not only for her baking skills but because she is one of those people whose every emotion shows on their face. So it’s easy to understand how difficult she found it to keep two secrets: firstly that she was taking part at all, and then, when everyone knew about it, The Result.
“I hate lying and I’m not any good at it. People can tell because my face gives the game away. When we were actually filming the series I would have to miss some school and you bump into friends while out shopping or in the park and they naturally ask what you are up to and somehow you have to get round it.
“That was really difficult. Will you have to go back another week? What did you say last time, to this person or that one? Really it was nightmarish and I didn’t enjoy it at all. Of course my family, closest friends and teachers knew what was going on.
“I went back to school as if nothing had happened, it was really strange. Then the show is about to air and it all comes out in the press. So you go through the weeks of people saying ‘So that’s what you were up to!’ and wanting you to reveal how you got on.”
Martha is full of praise for the support she received from Charters School, where she is studying Maths, Chemistry and Food Technology A levels. The science of food fascinates her and normally this would be an obvious route to university, but after the experience of Bake Off she’s not firmly set on that path.
“Fortunately my family just want me to be happy whatever I’m doing, so that’s a decision that can wait.”
It’s something that Mary would understand. Her career in food has lasted longer than many and it’s one that actually began with cooking; showing purchasers of electric ovens how to use the new-fangled devices when they first came out, but Mary realised early on that cooking was to be her life.
“I was never very good academically when I was at school, so cooking is the only thing that I can remember ever wanting to do. At school, if you were clever you did Latin and maths and if you weren’t, like me, you did domestic science. But I loved that, because I soon got the bug for cooking. It quickly became the thing I excelled at and the thing that I wanted to do when I left.”
So it’s easy to understand why Mary had a soft spot for Martha. For many people who become very successful in life, their formative experiences in school can have a lasting positive effect on their career.
“My inspiration for cooking was my old teacher Miss Date,” Mary recalls. “She was the one who encouraged me when she saw I had a passion and flair for cooking. I’d found something I could do and she praised me and encouraged me all the way. If it wasn’t for her, I may not have even got into cooking. So any success I’ve had I always feel is down to her inspiring me from the beginning.”
In 1970 – more than 25 years before Martha was born – the queen of baking published her first kitchen bible, The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, and it certainly wasn’t to be her last. In fact she’s now written more than 70 cookbooks since that first tome and they have sold over five million copies worldwide. It must be hard to have sustained that workload so successfully for so long but for Mary, her family and the public help enormously.
“I have a wonderful husband who has supported me in everything that I have done, as well as wonderful friends. I don’t really feel any pressures of fame at all,” she says cheerfully. “I am hugely grateful for everything that I have and besides, everyone I meet is lovely to me. Just the other day, a couple of young lads came up to me and asked for a photograph - they were probably not even 20. But they did it because they were big fans of the show and they were so nice and respectful. I enjoy that.”
Mary’s career has been built while being a mother too and much of it in a time when the term ‘life work balance’ wasn’t used much but again it’s hard to get Mary to ever lose her upbeat attitude. “I have found it quite easy, actually,” she cheerfully admits. “My children have long since flown the nest, and my husband Paul actually quite likes it when I am out and about and working hard. He is happy that I am busy, as long as I remember to come back home every once in a while! But even though I’m busy we make it work, we make time to see each other. I love coming home and relaxing with my family, that is precious time for me. I would hate to come home to an empty house.”
Of course, The Great British Bake Off has made busier than ever, but Mary will soon turn 80 - a time when many people would be slowing down, yet this particular powerhouse keeps going.
“I am enjoying where I am right now,” she says simply. “I think this has to be the highlight of my career. The Great British Bake Off has been so amazing for me personally; it has given me a whole new lease of life. I’m loving my life and to have this opportunity at this stage of my career is wonderful. I am so lucky,” she smiles.
Doing the Bake Off in Welford Park, near Newbury had its advantages for Mary, because it wasn’t far from her home in Penn; something which must have made a difference after a long day’s filming! Mary laughs and agrees. “It was lovely. Wherever we do it, wherever that tent is put up, is fun and successful and I wasn’t familiar with Welford Park before, so it was a lovely surprise.”
The beauty of Welford Park also impressed Martha. She says her favourite day there was the final when all the contestants and their families gathered, enjoying a party in the wonderful surroundings, with the sun beaming down to add to the special occasion.
Filming apart, Mary finds time for her other passion aside from cooking: gardening. “Yes, I am very keen on gardening and I think it is an excellent thing, it makes your life more interesting to garden and it’s very rewarding to get flowers or vegetables at the end of it,” she says. “We grow what we eat so if I were making a quiche I’d put leeks in and perhaps some lamb’s cress, and if I’m making casserole we’ll use our own carrots.”
She is keen about homegrown produce: “I think people more and more are wanting to know where their food comes from. And if it comes from your own garden or your allotment, you know all about it, don’t you? My daughter Annabel has just moved home, she’s beginning to garden and she loves it too.”
What now for Martha?
She’s found herself to be a local ‘celebrity’, which makes her laugh and blush. Martha has over 40,000 Twitter followers and a lovely blog at bakingmartha.co.uk, where you can follow her recipes.
But all of this – whether it’s switching on Christmas lights or demonstrating her skills – is very unlikely to turn her head. She enjoys charity work and volunteering and very close to her heart is Tearfund’s No Child Taken campaign to help prevent child trafficking (see www.tearfund.org). She’s also taking part in Children in Need, and has baked some treats at Charters to raise funds.
One place she’s more than happy to talk about her adventures is Addington School in Wokingham, where the pupils have moderate, severe or profound learning needs. Martha has volunteered here and really enjoyed joining them on a caving trip to Wales earlier this year.