Words: Christine Smith Pic: ITV, Rex Shutterstock
Looking every inch the glamorous grandmother, it’s hard to believe Mary Berry turned 80 this year.
With Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites just started on BBC2, a new book out to accompany the series packed with an all-new collection of more than 100 recipes and another Great British Bake Off returning for autumn, Mary is busier than ever. And while her peers might rather put their feet up, Mary likes nothing better than being on the go.
Indeed, the 80-year-old – who celebrated her landmark birthday with a dinner party for her closest friends – reveals she regularly rises at 6am to kickstart her busy day and won’t sit down properly again until her meal and glass of white wine in the evening. A treat to a spa wouldn’t happen, she says, because it’s a waste of her valuable time. And being super organised is, she thinks, the reason she is still working today.
“I certainly wouldn’t go to a spa,” she declares. “To me, that would be a waste of time. For me, it’s all about being organised and I am very organised. I never leave anything to do for the morning and I will put jumpers out the night before along with my shoes and scarves. I don’t want to get stressed out.
“It’s a lot easier now the kids aren’t little! I can remember trying to juggle working when they were ill off school. It was tough! I still do leave lists out for my husband, Paul, too!”
With a trusted notepad by her bedside to jot down sudden flashes of inspiration in the middle of the night, Mary admits that, despite the success she has found over the last five decades, she still worries about whether people will invite her back again – a revelation that will come as a huge surprise to many. “There was never one big moment in my life where I realised cooking was what I was going to do,” reveals the likeable judge. “I’ve always known I enjoyed working and I hope I have taken every opportunity that has been offered to me. You never are too sure of yourself. Even when you are offered something, you always get nervous if you are going to be asked again. They could say you are rubbish.
“That said, it is now a huge joy for me to be able to say no to things! Some TV things people ask me to do, I don’t want to. I like the food programmes and some interview shows – but they have to be right.”
Crediting her trusted assistant Lucy, who has worked with Mary for 25 years, as her right-hand woman, Mary says she still loves working in TV just as much as she did when she first started.
Reflecting on how much television-making has changed over the years, Mary muses: “I can remember Judith Chalmers telling me that if I didn’t make it fun and interesting, people would switch off. You do have to think of it as a mass of people watching. I don’t get in a state any more. When I first started, you had to do everything – leave home at 6am with the pots, pans and ingredients and lay it all out on a trestle table. Now it’s so wonderful to have so much help and backing – although I still do bring along things like a bunch of parsley because I want it to be the best. “And I have learned a lot, too. At the beginning, they’d say things like ‘Shall we go from the top’. I was very nervous and I’d think, ‘Where is the top?’ They didn’t tell you where to look or what to do.”
Did she ever think she’d become as popular and so well-loved as she has done? “You can’t go back can you?” replies Mary. “I know I enjoyed it from the beginning. Now you can’t imagine life without a freezer but back then we started out with just a mixer and a grill, then along came foil and clingfilm!”
In Mary’s Absolute Favourites series, she visits the seaside as she fondly recalls many a family trip to Salcombe in Devon; a trip to find wild mushrooms, a visit to a farm country shop and a rummage around the allotment. Gardening, she says, is her other big passion in life, aside from baking. “I am a fair-weather gardener but I do love it,” she says. “And if I could swap places with anybody for 24 hours, it would have to be with a presenter of the Chelsea Flower Show!”
‘I am very organised. I never leave anything to do for the morning’
Cooking with her grandchildren is, without a shadow of doubt, Mary’s favourite pastime. Affectionately called Granny Cocoa by them, she says she definitely won’t be putting pressure on them to follow in their famous grandmother’s footsteps. “Oh gosh no,” she says clearly. “I loved teaching from the beginning but I don’t think any of them will follow. My daughter has the ability to do it but she isn’t going to.”
But what do her grandchildren think of their famous granny showing so many people how to bake the perfect cake? “Oh, I am just granny to them,” she says, laughing.
Looking young and fighting fit today as we chat at the launch of her new TV series, Mary says she is slowly but surely recovering from a knee replacement operation in January. She says she hopes to be back on the tennis court very shortly and credits her husband, Paul, for being so supportive in her recovery battle. Indeed for the first time in their marriage, it was he who was in charge of the kitchen. “He had to unload the dishwasher and do everything,” she chuckles. “But I was really grateful. I’m feeling a lot better now.”
What’s so nice about Mary is she is so unassuming. Ask her about how flattered she must feel to be a style icon for the older generation and she simply says it’s good to wear bright clothes. “I hope I do dress for my age,” Mary remarks. “People my age are often dressed in rather dark colours. I don’t wear skirts that are too low either. But I do think we are so lucky now with the choice.” Mary does have help from a TV stylist with her wardrobe but loves nothing better than being able to pick items up herself when she can.
She sees close friend and fellow co-star, Paul Hollywood, as much as she can but insists she didn’t feel strange recording a show without him. “It didn’t feel weird and besides, there were plenty of people on set I could ask,” she says. “We are a team.” Looking at the specialist chefs like Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom for her own inspiration, Mary says she never takes anything for granted. “I do feel lucky,” she says. “I love baking and to be able to make a show about my absolute favourites has been fantastic…”
Catch up with Mary Berry's Absolute Favourites on BBC iPlayer. The book of the same name is available now.