Mary Berry: Flour power

Baking is having a big moment – for which one of TV's unlikeliest stars takes a lot of the credit

In the suddenly murky world of television broadcasting, the ever-burgeoning success and popularity of Mary Berry, like a soufflé that simply won't stop rising, is an uncomplicated pleasure. Yesterday, at Windsor Castle, the Prince of Wales presented the 77-year-old doyenne of British baking with her CBE, for services to the culinary arts. Had it been a damehood, there would have been no sniff of dissent. Yet the more tangible reward for Berry, after a lifetime of teaching people to cook, is the recognition she is getting for her contribution to the phenomenon that is The Great British Bake Off, the latest series of which reaches its conclusion on BBC2 on Tuesday.

Although the wider viewing public is claiming new acquaintance with Berry, keen household cooks have admired her writing and telegenic qualities for years. A generation younger than her fellow cookery writer Marguerite Patten, she is fashioned from the same sturdy mould: elegant, dignified, brisk when she needs to be, but warm, and of course as quintessentially British as spotted dick.

But it is not her Britishness so much as that of her audience which explains why the nation has so clutched her to its bosom. Collectively, we like an older mother figure, and television has yielded plenty down the years, whether in the bossy form of the dog-training expert Barbara Woodhouse, the eccentric form of the art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, or the caring, nurturing form of Mary Berry.

Apart from which, just as sugar needs salt, so is she the perfect foil to her co-judge on Bake Off, the plain-speaking Merseysider Paul Hollywood. Hardly an episode of Bake Off passes without him breaking a contestant's heart, and her following up with bandages and ointment. In the cake that has collapsed, she will find delicious flavour. In the flavourless cake that stands proud, she will find excellent structure. "It's a little untidy," is about as critical as she will get of a misjudged jam roly-poly that looks like roadkill. She is the teacher – and some would say – the mother we all wish we'd had.

She is marvellously, unashamedly wholesome – when asked in a newspaper questionnaire to name her guilty pleasure, she said figs, as someone else might say trashy novels or shoplifting – and yet she is not insipid. Sweet but bland works no better in TV presenters than it does in pie crust, and Berry, whether instinctively or responding to sage production advice, is anything but bland.

Indeed, Berry has become something of a fashion icon, recently causing a small sensation by turning up on screen in a £29.99 floral bomber jacket from Zara, and igniting long online discussions as to what she might wear next. For some time, Bake Off has had a dramatic impact on sales of whisks and spatulas. Now the Berry effect has extended further. Not only did the bomber jackets quickly sell out, some turned up on eBay, priced at £200.

Moreover, while it might be expecting too much even of the fragrant Berry to make much of an inroad into endemic ageism on television, it is undoubtedly uplifting to find a woman in the late-ish autumn of her years as telly's flavour of the month. This might come as cold comfort to Miriam O'Reilly, the presenter who fought an age discrimination case against the BBC, and of course we're not about to see TV talent scouts handing out business cards in Britain's old people's homes. But it is splendid, nonetheless.

The most splendid thing about all this acclaim, though, is that Berry so clearly deserves it. She must sometimes feel like a 42-year overnight success, having written the first of her 70-plus cookbooks in 1970. More than five million of them have been sold, so she was an institution long before The Great British Bake Off was a gleam in anybody's eye, yet until just three years ago, the human synonym for cake-making was the actress Jane Asher. But Asher has had to move over. Now it's Mary Berry.

It has taken prime-time TV exposure to turn her into a household name; that's how the process works. But consider how many reality shows have made household names of people with negligible talent and little experience of life. It is hugely heartening to see the fame game working as it should, for once.

As for Berry's own experiences of life, there has been profound darkness as well as plenty of sunlight. The one overwhelming tragedy was the death in a car crash of her son William, one of her three children, more than 20 years ago. He was 19 and had driven away from the family home in Buckinghamshire one Saturday morning, in a small sports car that Berry's husband Paul had restored, simply to get a newspaper. His sister Annabel went with him. She survived the accident, and now has three children of her own. (She and Berry have worked together, producing their own range of condiments, Mary Berry & Daughter Dressings and Sauces.)

"William's death has taught me all sorts of things," Berry told an interviewer last year. "If there's a tragedy in someone else's family, I would go straight up to them... because when it happened to us, even some people we knew would cross the road to avoid talking to us. But the best thing you can do is go up and let them talk. The worst thing you can say is, 'You'll get over it'. You feel like socking them when they say that. You never get over it. You learn to live with it." Living with it means a seismic shift of perspective. "Something like that, it does harden you," she has said. "If I drop a favourite cut-glass bowl or reverse the car into a wall, I'll think, 'It doesn't matter... nothing worse can happen'."

Berry's own childhood was happy and fulfilled, although her parents, characteristically of the 1940s and early 1950s, were stinting with their praise. Maybe that's why she dishes it out by the ladle now. And maybe, too, that's why she has such a vivid memory of coming home from a domestic science class at Bath High School and reheating a treacle sponge pudding she had made, under the careful tutelage of her teacher, the wonderfully named Miss Date. "That's really good, as good as Mummy's," said her father.

Little though either of them knew it, her father – together with Miss Date – had lit a pilot light. After school, she took a catering course at the local domestic-science college, and yearned to move to London, but her father – a respected surveyor and, at one time, the mayor of Bath – would not allow it until she turned 21. So she stayed in Bath and got a job as a home service adviser for the electricity board, driving around the region in a Ford Popular showing people how to operate their new cooker. Aptly, she would always make a Victoria sponge to test a domestic oven. Much later, she applied the same test to every television studio oven provided for her. There is surely no one alive who has cooked more Victoria sponges.

At 21, she was finally able to leave the family home, but it was not the end of her father's watchfulness. When she landed a job in London as a cookery demonstrator for the Dutch Dairy Bureau, he arrived the following day to interview her new employers.

Eventually the parental apron strings were loosened, and with every new career move, Berry became a better cook. She worked as a demonstration cook for the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board, and in 1966 – the year she married Paul Hunnings, an antiquarian bookseller – became the cookery editor of Housewife magazine. In 1970, she moved to Ideal Home. And in the 42 years since, she has hardly ever stopped working, never taking more than five weeks' maternity leave, and still, in grandmotherhood, toiling as hard as ever. With or without her floral bomber jacket, she is an example to us all.

A life in brief

Born 24 March, 1935, Bath.

Family Daughter of Alleyne Berry, a surveyor and mayor of Bath. Her mother was a housewife. Married Paul Hunnings in 1966, a bookseller. They have two children; a third died in a car accident aged 19.

Education Bath High School; Bath College of Domestic Science and Cordon Bleu cookery school

Career Became cookery editor of Housewife magazine in 1960 and later of Ideal Home magazine. She published her first cookery book in 1970, and has written more than 70 titles since.

She says "When everybody leaves school, what do they have to do in the home? Produce a meal. And they haven't been taught to do it. Teaching cooking should be absolutely essential."

They say "Mary Berry is the queen of the kitchen." Woman magazine

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