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‘Be optimistic, look forward and don’t worry about things going wrong’: Prue Leith’s recipe for a healthy, active lifestyle

Prue Leith
Prue Leith

With a schedule so busy it would exhaust people 40 years younger, Prue Leith is proof that age is only a number. As she approaches her 83rd birthday, the genial and enthusiastic South African is about to add another string to her bow.

Not content with the titles of chef, restaurateur, broadcaster and writer, Leith is going out on the road with her first one-woman show, Nothing In Moderation, in which she will go around the UK and the US telling stories about her life and career.

The Great British Bake Off judge believes being positive is a key factor in keeping healthy into her ninth decade. Speaking from her home office, which appears to be a hive of activity as we chat via Zoom, Leith says: “It’s all about the serotonin levels in the brain; if you can be optimistic and forward-looking and don’t brood about the things that go wrong, and I think I’ve been very lucky. I also sleep well and eat well, and I have a lovely husband.

“I do love to be busy and I have lots of energy, but the reason I can do it all is because I am so well supported. Because I’ve always had a big business, I’ve always had really good office staff. Francisca has worked with me for God knows how long now. Francisca, how long has it been?”

Leith looks over her shoulder and a reply from off-camera confirms it has been 22 years.

“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without her,” Leith adds. “She does all of the stuff that takes so much time – planning, talking to people, diary scheduling. I used to think it was hilarious to hear of people who had a diary secretary. For God’s sake, why can’t you fill in your own diary?

“But it’s not like that; it’s juggling with different organisations all the time and she does that. Lynn looks after the house and does the shopping; Angie is a lovely lady who makes the bed and cleans the place; my husband John drives me everywhere and encourages me; and now I have a stylist called Jane who appeared when I was doing a show called My Kitchen Rules. She was the first wardrobe lady I ever had who got me and understood I like bright colours and plain block colours, and no frills. I’ve hung on to her ever since. She and I have designed my glasses range, and I’ve just brought out my bone china range, too.

“So I’ve always had help, and I’ve always been a businesswoman. I like making stuff and selling it. Business is exciting. Most people in theatre or telly don’t get it; they don’t understand how exciting business can be.”

Prue Leith with Paul Hollywood, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas on Bake Off
Prue Leith with Paul Hollywood, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas on Bake Off

Born in Cape Town, it was while she was studying at the University of Paris that she discovered her love of all things culinary, and moved to London when she was 20 to attend the Cordon Bleu Cookery School. She began a high-end catering business and then opened a Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as her own cookery schools. She also became a successful columnist for a number of publications and has written several novels and cookbooks.

She first appeared on TV in the 1970s but hasn’t always enjoyed the experience. That changed with The Great British Menu. She did that for 11 years before The Great British Bake Off asked her to become its new judge after it moved from the BBC to Channel 4. Life, she admits, hasn’t been the same since she first stepped inside the famous tent.

“There aren’t many old octogenarians like me who have had the luck I’ve had,” she smiles. “Up to a point with the Great British Menu, but mostly Bake Off, I have been kicked into a level of celebrity which has made all sorts of other things possible, including this one-woman show I’m about to do.

“I think if I’d decided to do the live show before I became a telly person, even though I have the same stories to tell, they wouldn’t have been able to sell the tickets as no one would have heard of me, so Bake Off has made such a difference to my life. It’s been absolutely fantastic. I owe them a lot.”

Bake Off’s success on the other side of the Atlantic has seen the mum of two find fame in the lucrative US market as well. A Stateside version of Bake Off, The Great American Baking Show, was revived last year and features Leith and fellow GBBO judge Paul Hollywood.

“It’s very like the British one. I thought, having watched American competitions on telly, that they are usually quite in your face and try to undermine each other and be quite nasty. But I think that’s because they are trying to win huge amounts of money and to be famous. Baking contestants are not like that. They are bakers and what really interests them is making the perfect cake. They are competing for a cake stand!

“They help each other and they’re more excited about being in the tent and to meet other people who are as obsessed as they are. It was wonderful. I was so surprised, because the American bakers got it in one. I feel there is something inside the tent that turns people into Bake Off bakers.”

Having spent Christmas at the home of her son, Conservative MP Danny Kruger, where she cooked the festive dinner, Leith is preparing for a hectic 2023. She will begin it with a trip to South Africa with her husband to visit her chef school in Pretoria for the first time in nearly three years. But it will also be a chance for the pair to enjoy some holiday time. For the rest of the year, until November, her diary is already filled. But Leith, who was made a Dame in the 2021 Birthday Honours list, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“My New Year resolution should be to do less and not more but I don’t think I’ll be making that resolution,” she laughs. “This year is going to be very busy. After South Africa, I begin my UK tour, then I have Bake Off in the summer, and then America.

“I was in the States for two months last year and I really missed our new home. We built this house and it’s lovely. I have two dogs and a cat, and I was terrified the cat would die while we were away, because it’s on its last legs. I was very relieved to see him – looking even scrawnier – when I came home but I really did miss the house and everyone who is in it.”

She will have to miss it again over the next few months, as she embarks on her 34-date UK tour.

“The nice thing is John will be with me and he absolutely loves a road trip. He is the kind of person who will know we should visit this place or that place in each town, so I’m looking forward to that. Sometimes, if we have days off between shows, we will come home if it’s nearby; if not, we will go jaunting.”

The show came about when she got talking at a social lunch a couple of years ago to Clive Tulloh, who produces and directs Joanna Lumley’s one-woman shows and TV series. He remarked to Leith that she told a funny story and they should make a show, but she laughed it off.

“Then, a little while ago, Paul Hollywood told me he was doing a show and I thought, if Paul can do it, maybe I can, too. So when I next saw Clive I asked him if he’d meant it and he said yes. That was only six months ago, so we had to get moving fast because we wanted to do it in 2023.”

Some try-out shows were booked, and the experienced public speaker was surprised at how scared she was during those gigs.

“I found it utterly terrifying. My heart was beating so loudly I couldn’t hear myself speak. I didn’t enjoy it but the audience laughed and clapped in the right places, so I knew it wasn’t terrible. With these work-in-progress shows, the audience gets a cheap ticket and they are asked to fill in a sheet at the end, asking if they would recommend it, and we got 100% positive feedback on the first night, so I knew I must have done something right.

“I was surprised by the nerves. After all, I’ve done a lot of public speaking on theatre stages at literary festivals. I think I was frightened because instead of having notes, I had a script to learn. There is a big screen behind me with photographs from my past, and little jokes and animations, so it is quite professional, and I need to keep to the time and in the right order.

“By the time we took the warm-up show to Los Angeles, I felt I was quite slick, and I was more confident and not frightened. The American audiences are so over the top and were shouting and hollering. I received a standing ovation before I even started and they were still excited by the time I finished.

“I suddenly understood why you have these ageing stand-up comics who should have retired years ago still going on stage, they want to feel that wave of love and glory one more time. It was such fun.”

‘Work is a family affair’

With lots of connections to Scotland, Prue Leith is no stranger north of the border and she’s looking forward to returning here again on tour.

“I absolutely love Edinburgh,” she said with a smile. “I’m chancellor of Queen Margaret University, so we have a good excuse to be there, and my husband, John Playfair, is from a venerable Edinburgh family.”

The couple were married in the capital in 2016 and she belatedly celebrated her 80th birthday in Scotland last September, two years late.

She said: “We took 10 friends fishing on the Spey at Ballindalloch and we went on a puffer up the Caledonian Canal. It was lovely weather and it was beautiful – so much better than having a great big party.”

Prue Leith with husband John
Prue Leith with husband John

Leith will look back on her travels in her new one-woman show, which will also include anecdotes from her catering and business careers. She continues to expand her horizons, having made a series of documentaries for Channel 4 in recent years, with a new film made with her MP son Danny Kruger out soon.

She said: “The first was with my husband about the garden we have here and then I made one with my daughter, Li-Da, who’s Cambodian. I adopted her as a baby and the programme was about going to look for her birth parents. It’s quite fun working with my children and husband.”

Prue Leith: Nothing In Moderation, EICC Pentland, Edinburgh, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 4-5