“I SHOULD probably come out and say this: Mary and I are now living together. We fell in love,” Claudia Winkleman declares of her new co-star Mary Berry.
Over the course of our riotous conversation it quickly becomes clear the Strictly Come Dancing frontwoman is only half-joking.
The BBC has boldly paired its two most popular (and probably highest paid) female stars for a new series — Britain’s Best Home Cook — that bosses are banking on to replace The Great British Bake Off.
Chemistry between Claudia, 46, and Mary, 83, is a key ingredient in the high-risk show’s recipe for success.
In fact, the big-fringed Beeb favourite, who has recently cut back her work commitments, signed up based solely on the iconic cook’s decision to become a judge on the eight-part series.
Claudia reveals: “They had me at Mary. I didn’t know what the show was going to be about. They said, ‘Mary’, I went ‘yup’ and they went, ‘Do you want to know the premise?’ ”
Claudia told bosses: “Nope it’s fine. It can be about avocados. Maybe she wants to go abseiling. It’s a yes.”
According to Claudia, the “womance” — the female equivalent of a bromance — began as soon as they started filming after she perched on Mary’s lap.
Speaking a mile a minute in her trademark style, she says with a twinkle in her eye: “We fell in love and I thought it was just going to be one-sided and I couldn’t be too fan girl.
“I thought, is it going to be too weird to sit on her lap? I don’t know, I think she can take it.’
She adds with sincerity: “There are lots of things about Mary that I love — her kindness. She is so sweet to the cooks — and all of us.
“Mary has such presence. So she’s warm and soft but we’re all slightly obsessed with her.”
Are you genuinely friends now? “Of course we’re friends. We’re best friends.”
Have you hung out? “Yes we’ve hung out, we text, which is very sweet. She gets very excited when she gets a text.”
The new show sees 10 home cooks from across the country live under the same roof while competing for the title.
Claudia, who admits she is “unbelievably bad” at cooking, is determined the show won’t compete with MasterChef or Bake Off.
A key difference is none of the contestants wants to be famous.
On the new episode of The Dan Wootton Interview podcast, she explains: “It is only about home cookery. The cooks aren’t desperate to open up little restaurants or to go their own way. There is no jus. There is no fizzy lettuce.
“I am simply looking after them and I steal all their food.
“Somebody made a fish curry and I was like, there’s no time for utensils. Somebody get me a ladle.”
It’s lucky for BBC bosses that Claudia was quite so determined to work with Mary – because she had decided to dramatically reduce her work commitments.
She has already quit the BBC’s movie review programme, The Film Show, and BBC2 sewing contest The Great British Sewing Bee to put her family first.
She and filmmaker husband Kris Thykier, 46, have three children — Arthur, six, Matilda, 11, and Jake, 15.
In the rare interview, she explains: “I want to be home between 4pm and 8pm. These shows, you just have to do them properly, they are 12-hour days.
“It’s big commitment, it’s a whole series, and I just thought I won’t be able to do it properly because I’ll go, ‘Can I just go and pick up my son?’ ”
While Claudia describes her children as “edible”, she admits there are “horrific” new challenges as they enter their teenage years.
“My eldest son has got a buzzcut. He’s 15 and he thinks his mum’s a loser. It’s heartbreaking,” she sighs.
“The main thing he wants me to do is just not do Strictly. ‘Mum, if you really love me, you’d stop.’
“He’s just embarrassed. But that’s the whole point.
“My job is to embarrass him, so I just follow him around trying to lick his ear. He’s the cutest thing ever.”
And that brings us to the show that Claudia has become synonymous with.
Like most observers, Claudia was slightly surprised the most recent series of Strictly became the most popular in its 15-season history — averaging 11million viewers a week — as head judge Len Goodman was replaced with the “absolutely brilliant” Shirley Ballas.
But there are potentially choppy waters ahead, including the hot-button issue of whether same-sex dance partnerships should be introduced.
Claudia is keen on the prospect, agreeing with me that if you have a gay man who wants to dance with another man “he should be given that choice”.
She explains: “I’m not an expert so I’d go with the professionals. But I would quite like to see it.”
But Claudia is circumspect when it comes to pro-dancer Brendan Cole’s axing from the show three months ago, admitting “there is no way of me answering this because I’m going to annoy someone”.
She goes on: “I phoned him. I was like, ‘Brendan’. All I can tell you is I love him and I spoke to him and he was brilliant. I think there will be lots of new opportunities for him.”
As for the constant romantic relationships sparked by the show, Claudia gets it – but refuses to endorse the notion of the Strictly curse.
She explains: “Of course I understand, it’s very intense. I don’t believe in the curse, but I think lots of people have come in single and they might have met somebody or had a little romance.
“It’s intoxicating, Strictly, because you’re all part of this extraordinary juggernaut. So I don’t think people fall in love with people, they might just love the experience.”
Claudia reveals she is returning to the show this year with co-presenter Tess Daly and insists the pair now come as part of a package deal.
On her negotiations to return, she says: “We do everything together. We text I go, ‘Tess are you in?’ She goes, ‘I’m in’. Fine.
“She’s the kindest girl I know and it is a joy to go into work.”
Would you quit Strictly if Tess left or was axed? She answers: “I’d go. Yeah, yeah. It feels like the polite thing to do and let two new people start.”
Claudia refuses to watch the show — or anything she appears on. She shakes her head ferociously, fringe bouncing everywhere, then says: “Of course not. Are you mad? It’s a hideous experience.
“I’ll know how I came across: Orange, screechy and annoying. I don’t need that confirmed by watching it in real time.”
That’s not to say she’s bothered by what others think of her.
Claudia explains: “Let me just say this – I don’t think other people’s opinion of me is any of my business. I get it.
“When I was little I used to say, ‘what is she wearing?’ when someone was on telly.
“That’s absolutely fine. They often thought what I wore on Strictly was repulsive.”
Claudia also steadfastly sticks to her newspaper editor mum Eve Pollard’s tradition of banning mirrors in the home.
“So we’ve got no idea what we look like,” she says.
“So if you ever see me out and I’ve got eyeliner down my face and my fringe is like literally I could chew it, and tan lines, that’s why. There’s nowhere to check.”
That said, she has reversed a decision from earlier this year to quit Instagram, even though she deplores the self-obsession of social media.
She recalls: “Being with people who want to take photographs for social media is annoying. It’s weird.
“We’re wasting all this time giving off some nonsense life — just live it.”
Winkleman on Wages
The embarrassing release showed she was the Beeb’s top- earning female star, taking home up to £499,000, but only eighth overall, with the top seven being men.
Speaking about the figures for the first time since their release last July, Claudia says: “I believe in the BBC, it’s public money.
And because of that, good things will happen in terms of the gender pay gap.
“It’s good the debate is happening. Of course women should be paid the same as men if they’re doing the same job.
“If my daughter and son both decide to become sound engineers, I would feel very strongly that they get paid the same.”
As for the release of her own pay information, she adds: “I didn’t know where I was on the list. I found it interesting.
“There are lots of things on that list that we didn’t see – a presenter working through a production company whatever it is.”
She also backs ex-BBC China Editor Carrie Gracie’s high-profile battle with BBC bosses over the issue, saying: “I’m completely supportive of BBC Women.
“Also for women it’s about opportunities and should a female producer be paid the same as the man? Of course she should and I think that will change.”
- Britain’s Best Home Cook starts Thursday, 8pm, on BBC1
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