Chaired by Viv Groskop
Viv Groskop was the perfect choice of chair for Sue Perkins. Two comedians playing off each other for a highly entertaining hour. Groskop begins by pointing out the Bake Off-esque overtones to some of the reviews of Perkins’ book, one of which called it ‘warm, crisp and beautifully layered’. Perkins laughs that it makes her book sound like one of the Bake Off’s Eastern European technical challenges. Spectacles is a memoir, which was written now because she feels that the time was right and she had something to write about. She despairs at the trend towards every emerging young celebrity to write a memoir, since at 17 you haven’t really lived yet and you only think you know everything.
The eloquent, confident woman on the stage is a far cry from the shy, stuttering child who got her first experience of performance in a nativity play. The first year she played the coveted star role of a fox, before moving up to 4th shepherd (out of 3) and then an angel in subsequent years. Later in her school career she went weekly to see a Miss Carol Schroder who got her to read out Shakespeare. Perkins learnt about phrasing and cadences and the shy, stuttering child began to fade. She jokes that Schroder had given her the gift of speech and in doing so, created a monster.
Arriving at university she soon joined the Cambridge Footlights, a society famous for having produced a remarkable number of Britain’s best comedians. She arrived in the society in part thanks to a dare from her roommate. Perkins admits that she has the flaw of wanting to do almost anything if she is dared to do it. On the second day of term her roommate dared Perkins to do a stand up slot at an event the next day. Perkins carried out the dare and in doing so met Mel, her comedic other half. Perkins explains that for a while during their university days Mel had pretentions to be a ‘serious actress’ and was always appearing in one serious drama or another. Eventually she sent Perkins an entertainingly formal note that read ‘Dear Susan, would you like to do a double act with me? Love Melanie’. Perkins agreed and their wonderful partnership was born.
Their first show as a double act was at the Fringe in a tiny room on the top floor of C Venue at 10:05 in the morning. On the first day no one came at all. The second day gave them an audience comprised of a single American tourist. The woman never removed her backpack and half way through the show began unfolding a map, which grew until they could not see her at all. The biggest audience they managed in that run was just 12 people but Perkins says she loved those times. Groskop asks how she kept going and Perkins dryly suggests vodka, before launching into an explanation. She says it wasn’t so much self belief as ignorance. At that age no one gives you boundaries so she just blathered into things and hoped they worked. The first time they actually made a living at comedy was when they sent in a script for the Radio 1 show Weekending. They received a cheque for £11 and were so excited that they had proof of their ability to make money that they never actually cashed it.
The duo carried on and eventually landed the Light Lunch show. They weren’t the only hosts considered for the show but, in Perkins words, the producers decided to go with anarchy and see what happened. She describes the show as being an amazing playground, stating that they had no idea how lucky they were. However, after a time Mel decided she wanted a family and for the first time she was going on a journey that Sue couldn’t follow her on. At the time it had felt like the end of the world but they grew up and better and returned to dance their duet on other shows.
Going on to talk about Maestro, Perkins explains that she didn’t initially want to do the show. It sounded weird and, feeling vulnerable, she didn’t like the idea of the public vote. In the end her friend Debbie (who promptly waves from the front row) persuaded her to do the show, which wound up being one of the most incredible experiences of her life. She turned down the Bake Off three times as well, these are both things that make her glad people refuse to leave her solely responsible for her own career decisions. Maestro made her see the world differently at a time when she needed it. Nothing can compare to conducting Elgar in the Royal Albert Hall and the emotion involved was intense. Perkins admits that a lot of her verbiage was a defence mechanism but she found it intense and liberating to communicate with music instead, even if she did cry.
Groskop finally directs the conversation to the Great British Bake Off, something she’d been dying to do judging by the visible excitement. She reveals she once baked for Mary Berry, getting the feedback that her brownies were dry, her lemon drizzle close to being good, and her rock cakes ‘good for a child’s lunchbox’. Perkins laughs that attempting lemon drizzle for The Mary Berry was a brave move.
Perkins wasn’t sure about the show when she was first approached and she certainly never expected it to grow to the phenomenon it’s become. She was once accosted in Bridgewater service station by two people desperate to know who had won the series airing at the time. They followed and persisted until she eventually blurted out the name of someone who wasn’t even on the show, leaving them satisfied long enough for her to make an escape.
Despite such encounters she does truly love the show. Nadiya, last year’s winner, is the most conspicuous example of the good it can do but Perkins explains that the show changes everyone on it, even the ones that leave in the first week. A great deal of what she and Mel do on the show is off camera pastoral care. The pressure and atmosphere in the baking tent is intense and they feel awful when things go wrong. She only watches bits of the show, when recording voice overs, but she remembers clearly that one of these moments made her cry. The segment showed Dorret talking enthusiastically about her chocolate cake and how much she loved the recipe and the ingredients she had used. Then she lifts the sides of the tin and a small amount of the mix leaks out the bottom. Dorret’s response was to slam the side down again to contain the leak of something that had gone horribly wrong and stare in disbelief. The level of precision had become so high that while mistakes still happen frequently, the show has become more about the emotional journey of the contestants, making moment’s like Dorret’s all the more heartbreaking.
Perkins does admit to some of the disasters being her fault (not that anyone who watches could forget her elbow sinking into Howard’s buns). Every year she tries to keep herself in check and every year has to admit to something being her fault instead of the contestant’s. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered if that comment meant there was another disaster with her name on it this year. Despite elbows going into buns, or ingredients into her mouth, Perkins said she is proud to be part of such a nice, loved show. She certainly appeared to be enjoying herself on its return to BBC1 on Wednesday night.