From motorbike trips to husky rides, Mary Berry still loves a challenge. Francesca Babb chats to the nation’s favourite granny about her new TV series and what got her through lockdown.
When I tell people I am interviewing Mary Berry, the reaction is unanimous: absolute horror. ‘You mustn’t!’ cries my mother. ‘You shouldn’t!’, from my mother-in-law. Then I realise – they think I am to meet her in person rather than by our planned phone call. The fear of unwittingly passing on any germs to our greatest national treasure while a global pandemic rages is too much to risk – even for me, who has always had ‘sharing a slab of cake in Mary’s garden’ in my top dream interview scenarios. But that dream can wait.
There is an irony in the fact that while we’re all panicking about protecting Mary, she is perfectly capable of looking after herself. Take her upcoming TV show, Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts: a lovely feel-good cookery show featuring food we can all make; calming waters in the storm of 2020.
Well, yes, it is all of that, but it also features Mary, 85, adventuring around the country living her very best life courtesy of, among other things, a husky ride through the Scottish Highlands, a motorbike and sidecar trip through Ireland and – my favourite – grabbing a megaphone, jumping on a boat and coxing a rowing team up the Thames.
‘I am adventurous,’ she says down the line from her home near Henley in Oxfordshire. ‘I do like challenges. The husky ride was pretty cold and I thought I could fall out. I was a little hesitant about coxing the rowing team because I’m not a brilliant swimmer. And it was pouring with rain when we filmed with the motorbike and sidecar, but I don’t mind that. We’ve got to dress for the weather and not moan about it.
‘I have such great memories of that series. It’s about proper home cooking, from scratch with local ingredients – it’s sort of a hug in a pan. Some of it is a little bit naughty [I assume she is referring to the delicious creamy croque monsieur, or perhaps the brioche-based frangipane], but we can have that. It’s a balanced diet that we want.’
It is a relief to know Mary’s coming back to our screens in a triple whammy that spans Simple Comforts, followed by a return to Britain’s Best Home Cook via a one-off role as guest editor on Countryfile – the only other person who can claim that position being Prince Charles, so she felt ‘immensely honoured’. Mary’s calm, warmth and stoic Britishness feel like just the tonic as autumn approaches and Covid still looms large.
While Simple Comforts was filmed pre lockdown, Britain’s Best Home Cook and Countryfile were a post pandemic outing but every precaution has been taken to keep her and the rest of the cast and crew safe. ‘I’m obeying the rules, as we all should,’ she says, adamantly. ‘We should do all we can to stop the spreading. When it comes to filming, I’ve already had a test, I’m having another one tomorrow before we start Britain’s Best Home Cook again, and we will keep our distance as we film. When I’m home I avoid going out, other than into the countryside, and someone gets our groceries for us so we haven’t been to any shops.’
Mary has adapted pretty well to the pandemic. Up until recently, when she started to allow herself to visit neighbours for a socially distanced glass of wine in the garden, she’s been keeping herself housebound with her husband of 53 years, Paul Hunnings. They’ve kept occupied with jigsaw puzzles (the 500-piece ones of which she says she is now quite the aficionado), early morning walks, a devotion to Monty Don and to his jobs for the weekend on Gardeners’ World, alongside a new-found love of The Repair Shop (‘enchanting, I love the way there is no false emotion’) and a lot of meal planning.
‘I’ve never, ever been at home for such a long time,’ she tells me. ‘It’s been great to have that thing called time, and I’ve been amazed that I can actually wind down. Normally, I’m pretty active. I’ve learnt to really relax and I’ve got used to lolling about. I wore whatever was comfortable, I don’t think I put heels on the whole time. I wore shorts – which I wouldn’t dare normally – and canvas shoes. We’re enjoying it, but we’re immensely lucky to have a garden and lovely walks nearby.’
It is very Mary Berry to be making the most of a particularly tough time. She’s spoken in the past about how a spell in hospital due to polio at the age of 13 ‘toughened me up’, and I wonder if it’s that to which she attributes her imperturbable attitude? ‘Having lost a son, that’s the worst thing in the world that could happen,’ she counters, speaking of their son William who died aged 19 in a car crash in 1989. His death led to her working closely with the charity Child Bereavement UK.
‘The great thing is to talk,’ she says of her experience of the grieving process. ‘Thirty years ago, there was no Child Bereavement UK but I had the support of family – and there is nothing like your family. Everybody has their different ways to cope but we’re very lucky. We have two lovely children [Thomas, 52, and Annabel, 49] and five grandchildren. I’ve got a very lovely husband, great friends. I am very fortunate.’
Mary and Paul moved to Henley from Buckinghamshire last year to be closer to her children and their families (Annabel has three children and Thomas has two). ‘Being closer to them has changed our lives,’ she says. ‘As soon as you could see people again they were here in the garden. I was just pleased to see them and hear what they’ve been up to. I’m very family orientated – they’re my world.’
As much as family is her focus, work has always been imperative to Mary’s happiness, too. Her writing career started in the 60s as cookery editor of Housewife magazine then Ideal Home, before hitting our screens in the 70s on Afternoon Plus with Judith Chalmers.
Mary’s attitude to her career was somewhat pioneering for the time, going back to work five weeks after she had Thomas in 1968. ‘You were expected to leave your job and look after your children,’ she says. ‘You might come back years later but I wouldn’t have had the confidence. I so enjoyed my job that I was determined to keep it. You didn’t have the choice to take a year off like you might now. I had a mother’s help three days a week – a lovely girl called Jill – so I was able to go back and I am glad I did. I was lucky.’
My mother has one of Mary’s early cookbooks and I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘about the author’ section. ‘Mary Berry is a London housewife,’ it begins, before listing her many career accomplishments. For someone so dedicated to their career, so successful, I find it interesting that her role as housewife comes first. ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ she says, bemused. ‘What is a housewife? It’s just running a happy home, a welcoming place.’
Perhaps it’s because cooking is second nature to Mary, as intrinsic as building a happy home, so the two sit on a par. ‘Cooking is one thing I know,’ she agrees. ‘But I can still get nervous. Recently, I was cooking some little gem squash which I had grown from seeds that my book agent Felicity Bryan had brought me from South Africa. Felicity was my literary agent for 45 years, always inspiring and always smiling even through her brave battle with cancer. So courageous. Sadly she died recently, so these squashes mean a lot to me and I was nervous about how to cook them. They were delicious, though.’
I wonder whether nerves about cooking are something that her friends experience when they invite Mary over for dinner. ‘My friends all know the most important thing when I go to their house is to see them,’ she laughs. ‘If it was scrambled egg they had cooked me I wouldn’t mind. They often say, “This is a recipe of my mother’s that I have huge confidence in and I would like you to try it.” Or, “We had this on holiday in Italy, I hope you like it.”’
Another person keen to impress Mary was the Duchess of Cambridge when they worked together last year on A Berry Royal Christmas. ‘Aren’t we lucky to have her, to have both of them [Catherine and William]?’ Mary asks, in awe. ‘They are dedicated to their country and their people, following the example of the Queen. They’ve been wonderful over lockdown, doing all they can to encourage us in a tough time.’
Mary is keen to do her bit in keeping spirits up, too. Her main hopes for Simple Comforts, both the TV show and its accompanying book, are that the audience finds it ‘warm and friendly’ and that it ‘tempts people to cook for the family and realise that it is a joy’.
Elsewhere, she’s been phoning friends – widowers, people she knows are on their own – to check in and make sure they don’t get too lonely. I ask what she thinks the rest of us can do. ‘It’s a time to reflect,’ she says. ‘To make the most of what we’ve got. To be kind. To look after your family, and to be careful.’
And there she is, The Nation’s Granny, doing what she does so well: picking us up, making us feel secure and loved. As her gallivanting shows, she might not need us to, but it really is imperative that we protect Mary Berry at all costs.
Some things about Mary
Most used emoji At the moment it’s a rainbow.
Last thing you put on your credit card? Russell & Bromley gorgeous suede shoes.
Song that gets you on the dancefloor? Anything by Abba.
Your favourite tipple? Really well chilled sauvignon blanc in my favourite rummer glass.
The last person you texted? Annabel, my lovely daughter.
How do you take your tea? Very weak and very hot.
Last great book you read? A Seaside Affair by Fern Britton and I loved it.
Finish the sentence: Love is… The necessity of life.
Who’d play you in a film of your life? Meryl Streep – she is a wonderful actress.
What are you having for dinner tonight? Smoked haddock fishcakes with veg from the garden.
Earliest memory? Making dens in the garden with my brothers.
Have you ever been starstruck? Oh, it has to be when I met the Queen, something that will stay with me for ever.
Your career plan B? I would have studied horticulture – but would never have got to grips with the Latin names.
Mary Berry’s Simple Comforts starts on Wednesday 9 September at 8pm on BBC Two
Stylist: Tess Wright. Hair & make-up: Jo Penford using Charlotte Tilbury and Living Proof.