Prue Leith’s family’s nickname for her is ‘Mersey Mouth’ because, according to her brother, her mouth is as wide as the Liverpudlian tunnel – she’s hopelessly indiscreet and she can spin a story out of anything. So who better then than Dame Prue to launch her first nationwide one-woman live tour, Nothing In Moderation, in which she will talk, rant and regale her audiences with tales from her extraordinarily jam-packed life.
Nothing will be off the menu, she promises, in a frank and revealing show that will see her share anecdotes from her successful careers as a restaurateur, novelist, businesswoman and Great British Bake Off judge, as well as from her colourful private life.
‘I’ve never done a stage tour before and at 82 I’m probably nuts to try it, but it’s going to be huge fun,’ she says. ‘I’ll be travelling across the country for two months, and when I told Paul Hollywood he said, “You’re mad, you’re off your head, it’s totally exhausting.”
Prue Leith has launched her first nationwide one-woman live tour, Nothing in Moderation, in which she will talk and regale her audience with tales of her life
‘But we’ve done some try-outs now in Bath and Leamington Spa and I absolutely loved it.’
Many of her stories have not been aired before – like the time she poisoned 30 people at lunch. Her catering company had been asked to serve 25 with chicken mayonnaise as one of the dishes, but at the last minute five more guests were added to the numbers.
So the cooks poached another chicken while the flesh was still warm, and then mixed it with the chicken that was already prepared. The lunch started late and the venue had no refrigeration, so the food was left out on an exceptionally hot day.
‘I poisoned all 30 of them,’ she says. ‘All but two of them ended up in hospital and one of them was in critical care.
‘He could have ended up in the morgue! But people love disaster stories – and royal stories.
The 82-year-old Great British Bake Off judge has a very colourful private life. She reveals never before heard stories such as poisoning 30 people at lunch
‘I’ll also talk about serving the Queen a cup of tea at a function. I asked if she wanted it black and I put a piece of lemon in, and then she said, “No lemon.”
‘So I got a cocktail stick and fished out the lemon and topped it up with hot water. She then said, “I like it strong.”
‘A lot of people have asked if I’ll be cooking on the tour, and the answer is no, no cooking. I shall just chatter away about my life and some of the funny stories about my catering disasters, like the day I planned to put a raspberry ripple through some vanilla ice cream.
‘We’d made the raspberry purée but what I took out of the freezer was beetroot purée, so I had to ripple the ice cream with beetroot and put a bit of extra sugar in it. Nobody noticed – I’m very good at winging it,’ she says with a wry smile.
Prue’s Mersey Mouth has landed her in hot water many times, and I wonder if she ever wakes up worrying at night.
I fished the lemon out of the Queen’s tea and topped it up with hot water, then she said, ‘I like it strong’
‘I do occasionally. I felt absolutely ill with anxiety and shame when I accidentally tweeted the winner of Bake Off hours before the final. That was not a good moment.’
The tweet in 2017, the year she stepped into Mary Berry’s shoes on the show, was hastily deleted, but not before many people had noticed. It happened because Prue was in Bhutan and, confused by the different time zones, she thought that the final had already aired.
‘The next day, every single headline was about me tweeting the winner,’ she recalls ruefully. ‘It wasn’t about Sophie Faldo winning, and she’d worked for six months to do it.
‘I just felt desperate, but she was thrilled about it. She said, “Don’t worry, because many more people watched it than would have normally.” And it is just a cake, after all.’
The second half of the show will be a question-and-answer session with questions from the audience, but Prue is under no illusions about what that will entail. ‘All people endlessly want to know about is Bake Off,’ she says.
Prue with her second husband John Playfair at their home in the Cotswolds, which they designed together
‘The question I’m most asked is, “Are Paul Hollywood’s eyes really that blue?” Yes, indeed they are.
And also, “Is his tan real?” It is real. In fact, if he lies in the sun for 20 minutes he comes back and the make-up artist complains she has to re-do his face because he’s turned a couple of shades darker.’
Prue’s been judging The Great British Bake Off for six series now, and next year she and Paul will also judge on its US spin-off The Great American Baking Show. She’s just published her 13th cookbook, Bliss On Toast, and built a new home from scratch in the Cotswolds with her second husband John Playfair – where we meet today – and after we finish speaking she’s off to the States to make a documentary about assisted dying with her son Danny Kruger, the Tory MP for Devizes in Wiltshire.
She champions that cause because her brother David suffered a drawn-out death from bone cancer in 2012.
I’D NEED A BORING DIET TO LOOSE ANY WEIGHT
With her hectic lifestyle, Prue often finds herself rushing about so much that she ends up eating on the hoof.
‘I gave a talk at a school last night and they thanked me with the gift of some Marks & Spencer brownies and chocolate cakes,’ she says. ‘And my husband had brought along a miniature bottle of whisky as I love whisky. So that was last night’s supper,’ she laughs.
‘But I’ve always felt I’m a stone overweight. I’m nearly 13 stone and when I first opened my restaurant I was three stone lighter, yet I don’t think I’d like to go down to ten because I’d look haggard. I would dearly like to just lose a stone, though.
‘I don’t eat breakfast, I have a fairly light lunch and I eat dinner early, but that doesn’t lose weight for me like it does for younger people. Maybe it’s because if I have mashed potatoes I have butter with it, and if I have a salad I have dressing. And I always have a couple of glasses of wine – probably half a bottle. So I could obviously lose weight if I made my diet very boring… and if I stopped drinking.’
One sensitive topic she won’t shy away from in the show is her affair with her first husband – Danny’s father, the late writer Rayne Kruger, who was married to her mother’s best friend, actress Nan Munro.
‘I had an affair for 13 years with the man who became my husband, and he was someone else’s at the time,’ she says candidly.
‘I can’t pretend it was right, but I’ve never regretted it as I loved him and he loved me. It all ended well, but it was very painful for a while.’
She and Rayne married in 1974 after he divorced Nan, and it took immense courage for Prue to face Nan and reveal the truth. ‘It was very difficult at first, but I went to see her and I told her what had happened.
‘It was extremely hard but I owed her that at least, the poor woman. I had thought, “This is terrible. We’ll never see any of that family again.” But I loved him so much, I said, “Well, it’s a price we have to pay.”
‘But Rayne was determined we would all stay friends, so Nan used to come and stay with us at weekends. Obviously she was miserable and angry with me, but she was 20 years older than Rayne and I was 20 years younger than him.
‘When Nan and Rayne were going to marry, my mother said to her, “You know, darling, you’re 20 years older than Rayne, it’s a huge problem.”
‘And Nan said, “Honestly, if I can have five years with him it will be worth it.”
‘Then later she said, “Well, I had 25 years with him.” People think that if you fall in love with somebody else, it simply means you can’t stand your partner.
‘But Rayne still adored Nan. He saw her every day and when she died he was really distressed and miserable.’
Prue had been largely single after Rayne’s death in 2002 when she met John, 74, a retired fashion designer, at a dinner party in 2011. They married in 2016, but it wasn’t until December 2020, after they sold their respective homes and built their new one, that they moved in together.
Before that John would stay the night, make Prue a cup of tea in the morning and then disappear to his own house a mile away. It was something Prue swore was ‘a great convenience’ until she came to accept she’d need more ‘companionship’ in her old age.
Now John helps with the laundry and cleans her shoes, and the co-habiting’s working out very well thus far.
The house the couple designed together has a big rotunda in the middle, around which there are two upstairs bedrooms.
With her hectic lifestyle, Prue often finds herself rushing about so much that she ends up eating on the hoof. She says that her diet would be very boring if she tried to loose weight
‘We sleep in my big bedroom, but this is what we call the “banishment” room,’ says Prue, walking towards a smaller red and pink room on the opposite side of the dome. ‘John chose the decor for this one and it’s full of his Indian artefacts and pictures, so if we’re fed up or furious with one a not her – or even ill – we can at least have our own space. But so far it hasn’t been used once.’
The only thing they do argue about, she says, is John’s clutter, but there’s plenty of room to accommodate it. The house, built around a converted barn which forms a long gallery with an impressive banqueting room and library, is a kaleidoscope of primary colours, decorated with quirky touches like a china teacup chandelier, a rocking horse and a tree adorned with plastic lemons and oranges standing by the enormous metal entrance door.
When she’s not flat out working, Prue can often be seen holding on to John as they whizz around the Cotswolds pubs on his Harley-Davidson motorbike. ‘It’s actually a trike because it’s got two wheels at the back so I’m not frightened about falling off.
‘John’s not much of a drinker so he does the driving and I do the drinking.’ When they first met, John wooed her with his home cooking, particularly haggis, a favourite of hers.
Prue can often be seen holding on to her partner John as they whizz around the Cotswolds pubs on his Harley-Davidson motorbike
‘It worked, and then he stopped!’ she says. ‘He hasn’t cooked since, until our sixth wedding anniversary a few days ago when he surprised me by cooking my favourite sausage and mash.
‘But he complains our home’s a cake-free zone even though he’s married to a Bake Off judge. He says, “I should’ve married Mary Berry.”
‘But I’ve never pretended to be a baker. I often ask the competitors for their cake recipes and I might make them occasionally, but if I’m anything I’m a really good set of tastebuds.
‘I’ve spent so much of my life teaching students and spent 11 years on Great British Menu tasting top chefs’ food, so I’m well qualified to judge.’
John will accompany her on her 34-date tour around the UK and Ireland. He takes the pictures of Prue with her fans, but he also plays a more vital role.
‘He says he goes with me so I won’t stray,’ she laughs. ‘What he means is, so I won’t fall over.
‘He’s very protective and he always carries my handbag. I’m quite energetic and I look strong enough, but he’s aware that I’m no spring chicken and I’m very clumsy and quite likely to fall over.
The Harley is a trike, so I’m not frightened of falling off. John does the driving and I do the drinking
‘So I get a lot of looking after from John, which is lovely.’
But there are other signs at home which suggest Prue’s vigour isn’t what it used to be. She has installed a lift in the house and there’s a hammock on the panoramic roof terrace overlooking the Cotswolds hills.
‘Even though we put this lift in I said to John, “We’ll keep using the stairs because it’s good for us.” But we haven’t used them once,’ she laughs.
‘And I got the hammock because there’s a lot of downtime on Bake Off while the contestants are baking. We each have a shepherd hut but the boys usually watch footie on TV, so I started to take a nap in the hammock. Now I really love it.’
It’s hard to imagine that Prue has anything left on her bucket list, but she would like to see her trilogy of novels, The Angelotti Chronicles, made into a TV drama, a kind of ‘Downton Abbey meets Bake Off’. Meanwhile, having been made a dame for her services to food, broadcasting and charity, she has to choose a motto for her coat of arms.
At first she considered the phrase ‘Just Do It!’ until she realised it was the slogan for Nike sportswear. ‘Then I thought of Nothing In Moderation,’ she says with a smile.
It couldn’t be more apt.
- Prue Leith’s Nothing In Moderation UK tour runs from 1 February until 6 April 2023. For tickets and venues visit mickperrin.com.