Prue Leith on love, the Queen… and that Tweet
In the days before we meet, Dame Prue Leith has braved a force eight gale crossing the Atlantic from New York on a cruise ship, a row with her husband about his books covering the coffee table, and the news Matt Lucas is to leave The Great British Bake Off.
She is – regardless of this – in very high spirits. The gale barely bothered her, even though she is ‘terrified of the sea’ (‘I was lucky to be part of a literary festival and, frankly, I hardly noticed it because the ship’s stabilisers were so marvellous’).
And the row with her husband – the 75-year-old former fashion designer John Playfair – is, she says with a throaty laugh, ‘a weekly occurrence’.
“I like the coffee table kept neat and tidy, but he just loves secondhand books, which find their way all over it. He’s messy, I’m organised, but that’s the way we are.”
Matt Lucas is, however, more of a blow. The former Little Britain star did tell her of his departure before the news broke.
‘I’m very, very sad he’s leaving,’ she says. ‘I totally understand why, because Bake Off takes up four months of the year and he’s extraordinarily talented and wants to do more writing, more theatre.’
So does she have anyone in mind to take over co-presenting alongside Noel Fielding? ‘Not a clue,’ she says brightly. ‘Although who wouldn’t want to work on Bake Off? It’s the best job on television. It absolutely changed my life.’
Since Prue took over from Mary Berry in 2017, as a judge alongside Paul Hollywood, her fortunes – like a good cake – have been on the rise.
But she feared she would be fired following her first-ever series, after accidentally tweeting the name of the winner, Sophie Faldo, before it had been announced.
Her mortification is apparent five years on. The tweet was hastily deleted within seconds, but social media was already alight with recriminations.
‘I thought I’d be sacked,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘I was ready to be told to go because I felt I deserved to after that, but thankfully that didn’t happen.’
Aside from being a Bake Off judge, Prue has a colourful crockery range, an eye-catching glasses collection, her novels, cookbooks and autobiography, and her cookware.
Plus, now, at 82, she is taking to the stage with a 34-date UK one-woman show called Nothing in Moderation.
A new direction
There will be, she says firmly, ‘absolutely no cooking’. There will be a few mentions of Bake Off, of course, but there is so much more to Prue Leith than a cake show.
This is a woman who has lived it large with ups and downs, but always with extra relish.
From her privileged childhood in South Africa and her exploits as a Swinging Sixties It girl in London who had the band The Hollies as her lodgers, to her £15m one-woman catering empire whose clientele included the royal family and Hollywood stars.
She tells me about having to serve lobster to Princess Margaret when she had ‘skipped that class at Cordon Bleu’ and ‘never seen a lobster in my life’ and how she spent an afternoon practising her killing knife skills on her teddy bear, only to discover the lobsters were already cooked.
The show promises to be a rollicking romp through the life of a glamorous, gregarious ‘greyhead’ (her word not mine), who has, to her great surprise, become something of a national and international treasure.
She has legions of fans on this side of the ocean; now, thanks to the heavy presence of Bake Off on Netflix – where it is in the top ten most-streamed shows – America has opened its arms to our Prue too.
When we meet, she’s just returned from a six-week US trip where she promoted her book, Bliss on Toast, and did some trial runs for her stage show – all before going on a road trip and the literary cruise (where she treated fans to a karaoke rendition of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds).
‘I get recognised more over there than I do here,’ she says. ‘I mean, who would have thought that – at this age?’
She is now set to be a judge on the US version of Bake Off, The Great American Baking Show, alongside Paul Hollywood, which will be filmed over here at Pinewood Studios. Nothing in Moderation will tour first in the UK until April, and then in the US.
Yet still, Prue, who has done trial shows in both countries, admits she can hardly believe this new chapter of her life is taking place. ‘When I told Paul Hollywood the idea, he told me I was crazy,’ she says.
‘He said, “I don’t think you realise how exhausting it will be…” He was kind enough not to mention my age but that’s what he meant.’
Undaunted, she turned to her friend Joanna Lumley, 76, who told her to ‘absolutely do it’. Prue smiles. ‘On my first [trial] show in Bath I was so nervous.
In Los Angeles, I was getting a standing ovation at every turn. It was the most incredible rush. I was on such a high afterwards, we all went out to eat, ordered food and then I promptly fell fast asleep at the table!’
An alpha female
Prue is delightful company. She’s funny, self-deprecating, smart and no aspect of her life is off the menu (the second half of her show is given over to questions and answers).
We talk about everything: her new downsized country home in Oxford; her weight dilemma (‘I should lose at least half a stone but it’s very difficult’); her first marriage to writer Rayne Kruger and the fact she is a grandmother again as her adoptive daughter, Li-Da, has adopted a second child.
She went to Cambodia with Li-Da, 47, to try to find the London-based film-maker’s birth mother (they filmed a Channel 4 documentary), but to no avail.
‘Still nothing,’ she says, rather sadly. ‘But my daughter is trying to help others in the same situation, so that’s a good thing.’
This year she and her Tory MP son, Danny Kruger, 48, will make a Channel 4 documentary about legalising assisted death, in honour of her elder brother David, who suffered horribly from bone cancer and died in 2012.
‘He refused antibiotics because he knew they would prolong his suffering,’ she says. ‘In the end he died of pneumonia, which is a terrible death, and his wife had to sit by him, all the time feeling the most awful guilt because she was wishing he would just die to be out of his misery.’
It is impossible to be in Prue’s company without noticing a couple of things. First there is her presence, you feel she’s the sort of capable, feisty woman who could handle anything. An alpha female.
Then there is her energy. ‘I have no idea where it comes from, but I like to make the most of things.’ Finally, there is one name mentioned regularly that never fails to light up her face with a smile: John, whom she married in 2016.
As no-nonsense and matter of fact as she is, Prue is a woman in love. They met through neighbours in 2011 when she was 70 and he was 64. It was nine years after the death of Rayne.
Prue had believed she would never fall in love again. Her first marriage was complicated and controversial. It began as an affair in her twenties, then a marriage that lasted 28 years until his death.
Rayne was 18 years older than Prue. He was the husband of her mother’s friend, Nan Munro, who was 16 years Rayne’s senior.
‘We had an affair which is very hard to justify. My only defence is we were in love and just couldn’t fight it,’ she says solemnly.
Rayne was a huge influence on her life, and he insisted they remained close to Nan. He was business-minded and reclusive, preferring to surround himself with just his small family.
‘Rayne taught me a lot,’ she says. ‘I loved him, but it was very much a pupil-mentor relationship. We didn’t have many friends, which suited me because my early years were about working and building my business.
‘When he died, I was very lonely. I didn’t really know many people, so I had to push myself out there.’
She smiles as she describes John. ‘He is absolutely the opposite. He’s incredibly sociable, he’s very cultured but he also loves to have fun. And I love that. We laugh, we spend all our time together with friends and it’s rather wonderful.’
It is clear this guy adores her. When they watch Bake Off together ‘he’ll get wound up if Paul is given more airtime on judging than me’, she laughs. What winds him up even more is that ‘every now and again I call him Paul, which makes him very annoyed.
‘I also call Paul, John, which doesn’t go down well with Mr Hollywood. But these are the men I spend most of my life with, so I do occasionally muddle up the names.’
John is the most devoted of husbands. He goes everywhere with her, and on her visit to the US they took a road trip from LA to Florida.
In the UK she travels everywhere on the back of his three-wheel Harley-Davidson, he runs her baths and pushes her to glam up her style. ‘He calls himself the bag carrier,’ she laughs.
She admits she organised their first date. It started with an impromptu country walk, then she invited him to the theatre, and he invited her to a pub.
‘I was very nervous,’ she says. ‘I decided I should dress like a posh Daylesford type of woman, all smart beiges and creams. No colour. When I turned up, he said, “What on earth are you wearing?”’
From that moment, the new Prue was born: a multicoloured septuagenarian (now an octogenarian), whose life and wardrobe is crammed with colour and who makes a point of encouraging other women to break into reds, pinks and blues. ‘It makes life much more enjoyable.’
Downtime is spent with her family and, despite her claim she is a ‘bad granny’ (‘I’m just not a conventional granny,’ she says), time is set aside at Christmas for her to ice the cake – made by their other granny – with her five grandchildren.
While chatting, it’s hard not to bring up The Queen, whom Prue met several times.
Like her, Elizabeth II was a woman of absolute substance but, of course, Prue has a story to tell from a formal lunch two years ago.
‘The protocol is that when The Queen arrives you wait for her to speak. The first question was always: “Have you come far?”, which is a rather dead end.
When she arrived, she was surrounded by her Corgis. I decided to break protocol by saying: “Oh, Your Majesty, it’s lovely to see your Corgis.”
‘She looked at me and said, “They are not Corgis, they are Dorgis.” I laughed, thinking it was a joke, and she went into a long explanation about how Princess Margaret had owned Dachshunds and how there had been some illicit liaison that resulted in puppies, which they both loved and continued to breed. It was the most real conversation we’d ever had.’
We both laugh. As a foretaste of her show, it’s a blinder. Prue Leith, we salute you.
Prue’s Nothing in Moderation UK tour runs from 1 Feb – 6 April. For tickets and venues see mickperrin.com
Written by Louise Gannon