Prue Leith on tour
Prue Leith on tour
Great British Bake Off star, cookery doyenne Prue Leith is embarking on a one-woman Q&A tour. Just don’t ask about her favourite cake, she tells Fiona Adams
Dame Prue Leith is feeling “really rather nervous”. The 82-year-old chef, writer, restaurateur, campaigner, designer and co-host of Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off, is about to embark on her first one-woman national tour. Taking in 31 theatres around the UK, including Guildford’s GLive on February 11 and culminating at the London Palladium on April 6, the Nothing in Moderation show involves a first half of stories and anecdotes from the South African-born gastronome followed by a Q&A involving questions from the audience in the second half. Speaking to me via Zoom, resplendent in signature colourful glasses and top, she is nonetheless remarkably chipper despite the nerves.
“Last year in October I did a couple of try-outs in Bath and two in America in New York and Los Angeles. At first, I was so frightened, it was just awful and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this’. In Bath, my heart was making such a noise I could hardly breathe but the audience thought it was great!” she explains. “And in America, the reception was so over the top and so wonderful, that I felt carried along. It’s such a high when a huge audience can’t stop clapping, it’s like a drug. And I began to understand why all those comedians who are well past their sell-by date are still on the stage. They want all of that!”
With a career spanning 60 years in the food industry, including holding a Michelin star, a string of cookery schools and countless recipe books and TV appearances, as well as several novels and posts with the likes of the Royal Society of Arts, the School Food Trust and Places for People, she must have plenty to talk about.
“The content has changed quite a bit,” she reveals. “At first I wanted to include all angles of me, a bit of cooking, a bit of business, a bit of glass ceiling woman-in-a-man’s world, things I campaign for like Dignity in Dying and food education, and some of the personal stuff…”
This includes, it turns out, tales of her romance with fashion designer, John Playfair, whom she married in 2016.
“People absolutely love it if you talk about geriatric love,” she laughs. “Anybody under 60 doesn’t believe that anybody over 60 can possibly feel the same buzz of falling in love. And anybody over 60 who doesn’t have a husband or lover is dying to get one!”
Politics and more downbeat topics are kept for the second half for when – or if – an audience member raises them.
“I will talk about anything, but I sometimes weed out questions if I think they are so monumentally boring that we don’t want to bore the audience with it. People often ask me ‘what’s my favourite cake?’ Well, who cares what my favourite cake is?! That’s really not worth answering. And I know those questions come because people have a piece of paper in front of them and they think they must ask a question, so they write a question that not even they want the answer to!”
Despite admitting that she “nearly had a heart attack” when she saw that the tour ended at the London Palladium, which seats more than 2000 people, Prue considers herself “the kind of person who rises to the occasion”.
“If things start to go wrong, then I’m there. I don’t burst into tears and run away; I try to fix it. I nearly called the show ‘How to Wing It’ because an awful lot of my life has been exactly that – winging it. I started a catering company with no business experience at all; I started a restaurant with never even having worked in a restaurant; I started a cookery school without being a teacher, never having taught anyone anything. And that is a lot to do with my personality, which is over-confident!”
Prudence Margaret Leith was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and after a short stint in Paris at the Sorbonne and working as an au pair, she moved to London in 1960 and attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School. She went on to found Leith’s Good Food, a catering company and in 1969 opened her first restaurant, Leith’s in Notting Hill. She has also helped establish cookery schools in the UK and South Africa and raised two children with her first husband, author Rayne Kruger (who died in 2002), Daniel – the Conservative MP for Devizes – and Li-Da, a filmmaker.
She works with both her children, co-founding a production company, Relish with Li-Da and with Daniel she has made a documentary for Channel 4 about assisted dying –Prue and Danny’s Death Road Trip (on Channel 4 in Feb). Prue, a campaign member for Dignity in Dying, lost her brother David in 2012 to bone cancer and feels very strongly that as a nation we simply “don’t talk about death enough”.
“My elder brother died a horrible death at the hands of the NHS because they felt they couldn’t give him more morphine because they thought it might kill him and they didn’t want to be responsible for his death,” she explains. “If your intention is to relieve pain, it’s perfectly legal but doctors today are too frightened of being had up for mercy killing or murder. Nobody wants to be in hospital when they die and often you’re in there because they are insisting on giving you ever more treatments that are not going to save your life. We need to have a proper conversation about it!”
Her son, Danny, is on the opposite side of the debate and against assisted dying in case it allows the vulnerable or those with mental illness and who are seeking to commit suicide – particularly at a young age – to take their own lives. She insists that the programme is equally balanced with views from both sides, including those of patients and their families.
On a lighter note, while the author of the recent Bliss on Toast is getting used to being a dame, an honour conferred in spring 2021 and for which she was “hugely flattered”, she finds the idea of being a British national treasure highly amusing.
“Well, I think it’s hilarious! How can I be a national treasure? I mean I’m a national treasure because I eat cake on telly!”
She doesn’t want to think too far ahead – wishing to get her tour over with first – but she confesses to still harbouring hopes that her Food of Love novel trilogy will one day make it onto the small screen.
“I would dearly love this to be a television series. I hawk it around telling people it’s basically Downton Abbey meets Bake Off. How can they resist? Sadly they seem to resist but I have high hopes!”
Finally, her thoughts turn again to her tour and as we say goodbye, she expresses her fervent hope that everything will be alright.
“I’m not even going to think about the Palladium!” she concludes.
“Knock ‘em dead,” I say, and make a fervent wish of my own that nobody asks her about her favourite cake.
Nothing in Moderation tour info.
Prue and Danny’s Death Road Trip: February, Channel 4, and then on All 4.
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