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From Big Brother to The Great British Bake Off: Alison Hammond’s chaotic rise to national treasure status

From crashing through a garden table in ‘Big Brother 3’ to giving Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling the giggles, Alison Hammond is the born show-off that the nation fell for. As the presenter joins ‘The Great British Bake Off’ line-up, Katie Rosseinsky looks at her unique appeal

Friday 13 October 2023 22:48 BST
Hammond undeniably has a light touch, but is also an empathetic presenter who excels at tackling bigger issues
Hammond undeniably has a light touch, but is also an empathetic presenter who excels at tackling bigger issues (PA/iStock)

Should you ever need an instant serotonin boost, simply type “Alison Hammond” and “Harrison Ford” into YouTube. The 2017 interview, originally broadcast on ITV’s daytime staple This Morning before the release of Blade Runner 2049, is four minutes and 12 seconds of pure unadulterated silliness. “Bleak, dystopian, an absolute nightmare to be honest with you – and that’s just my interviewing technique,” Hammond jokes in her opening gambit, leaving the notoriously grumpy Ford and his co-star Ryan Gosling in hysterics. The presenter soon has the pair singing and knocking back whiskey shots, at one point prompting Gosling to walk off camera in faux outrage. It couldn’t be further from the usual formulaic back and forth between media-trained A-lister and deferential interviewer.

This week, Hammond will make her debut as the co-presenter of The Great British Bake Off, replacing outgoing host Matt Lucas. Her sit-down with Ford proves why she is such a brilliant signing for the latest series of the long-running show, which has started to feel a little past its sell-by date in recent years. She’s funny, authentic, a little bit chaotic and quick to burst into infectious laughter – whether she is having a run-in with Italian police live on camera in Pisa, playing Connect 4 with Beyoncé, serenading Mariah Carey or accidentally pushing an unsuspecting model off the famous This Morning weather map and into the chilly waters of Liverpool’s Albert Dock. It’s a formula that has helped her become one of Britain’s best-loved presenters in the two decades since she first appeared on our screens.

It’s a real full circle moment for Hammond, who first found fame as a Big Brother contestant best known for crashing through a garden table during her two-week stint in the notorious house. The 48-year-old has always been an entertainer, though. Growing up in Kingstanding, Birmingham, an area with a significant National Front presence, she would head to the top of a hill known as “The Pimple” to perform songs from West End shows. “I used to go up there and sing Sound of Music, and do my own musicals of West Side Story,” she told Bustle“It was my escape really. Where I could scream, shout, dance, do what I want.”

Her mother Marie had emigrated from Jamaica to the Midlands, and juggled a handful of jobs to support her three children, including a gig as a Tupperware manager, which made her a popular figure in the local community. “She was connected to all the mums in the area because of her job,” Hammond told The Guardian. “I was in a National Front area but I always felt safe. It was bizarre.” It was Marie who helped secure her daughter’s first screen roles, including an appearance in school series Palace Hill and in Artemis 81, the dystopian sci-fi TV movie starring a bowl cut-wearing Sting. Aged 11, Hammond started going to drama classes at the Birmingham outpost of the Central Television Workshop, which offered performing arts training for local youngsters (other graduates of the Birmingham branch include actor Felicity Jones; the Nottingham venue has fostered talents such as Samantha Morton, Vicky McClure and Bella Ramsey). 

Once her eight-year stint at the workshop had come to an end, though, she couldn’t afford further drama training. Instead, Hammond took on a string of jobs, entertaining kids at a holiday resort in Tunisia, ushering in a cinema and continuing to pick up roles as a TV extra. “Basically, I was grafting as an actress but I wasn’t getting the work as a Black actress,” she recalled to gal-dem. In Hammond’s late twenties, friends started telling her that she should apply for Big Brother. Several thousand pounds in debt, she headed to an internet cafe to fill out the form on the Channel 4 website; she’d also secured a spot on Blind Date, but the prospect of having a shot at Big Brother’s £70,000 prize proved more appealing. Cilla’s loss was the nation’s gain, you could say.  

Big Brother’s third season would become the show’s most viewed season to date, and Hammond entered the house alongside the likes of Adele Roberts, now a radio DJ, eventual winner Kate Lawler and runner-up Jade Goody. But following that calamity with the garden table (which she’d climbed up on in an attempt to spot any security guards patrolling the perimeter), she was voted out after just 15 days. Instead of fading into post-reality TV obscurity, though, Hammond managed to land a spot on This Morning, appearing in a feature called “Diet Camp” (it was, remember, the early Noughties, when shows about celebrities and civilians losing weight were everywhere). 

Hammond mingled with Hollywood stars earlier this year as the BBC’s backstage reporter at the Bafta Awards, supporting ceremony host Richard E Grant (PA Wire)

She was booked to appear for just a few weeks, but proved such a hit that she was invited back again and again. Her first interview was with George Clooney, who she ended up hitting in the face with a microphone “because [she] was shaking so much”. It set the tone for her sometimes calamitous but always entertaining celebrity run-ins, from dancing with Britney Spears to staging a televised “wedding” to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Even when her subjects are an entirely different species, Hammond remains unfazed: in 2020, she had a chat with a contender for European Tree of the Year, communicating with the 1,000-year-old oak in question via a “tree whisperer”. With this ability to churn out viral moments, it’s no wonder she’s been adopted as the patron saint of Love of Huns, the Instagram meme account dedicated to sometimes banal but always brilliant bits of niche British pop culture. 

It would be unfair, though, to pigeonhole Hammond as only providing comic relief. She has an undeniably light touch, but she’s also an empathetic presenter who excels at tackling bigger issues, too. In 2020, she earned praise for delivering a moving speech in the wake of George Floyd’s death, in which she implored viewers to “reflect and re-educate” themselves. “Firstly, I’m a mother to a 15-year-old Black boy,” she told viewers, referencing her only child Aiden, who she shares with ex-husband, taxi driver Noureddine Boufaeid. “So when I saw that image of George Floyd, I saw my brothers, I saw my father, I saw my son. I saw everybody’s son, and I was disgusted to my core.” Since that address, she’s hosted an ITV series spotlighting figures from Black British history; last year she released Black in Time, a book exploring those stories for a younger audience.  

With Noel Fielding, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith on ‘The Great British Bake Off’, where Hammond has already raised the show’s ‘cuddle count’ (Channel 4)

Her ascent to the top of the TV world has sped up over the past couple of years. In 2021, she and Dermot O’Leary were paired up to present Friday editions of This Morning, cementing her position on the show’s A-team. Since Phillip Schofield’s well-documented departure this summer, the pair have been on our screens more frequently. The crisis-ridden show certainly needs Hammond’s sense of fun right now, not to mention her popularity with viewers (she has bounced back with ease from her only brief brushes with controversy, such as when she apologised to “the incredibly talented theatre performers” after joking that she would be “devastated” to be banned from singing during a musical). And earlier this year, she mingled with Hollywood stars as the BBC’s backstage reporter at the Bafta Awards, supporting ceremony host Richard E Grant. She might not have managed any viral moments on a par with her interview with Ford, but she brought some spark to an awards format that’s been set in stone for decades.

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Similarly, Hammond’s new Bake Off colleague Noel Fielding has promised that her arrival has “given [the show] a reboot”, prompting her new co-stars to “rais[e] their game”. Her natural, spontaneous humour should provide a counterweight to Fielding’s studied zaniness, and her co-presenter has also praised her “easy warmth with the bakers”: you can just as easily imagine her cracking up while trading accidental innuendos with contestants as you can see her providing a shoulder to cry on when their crème pâtissière just won’t set. By her own admission, she has “raised the cuddle count” on the show. And if she managed to make Ford crack a smile, taciturn judge Paul Hollywood will seem like a pushover.

National treasure status surely beckons – and Hammond is absolutely fine with that. “It’s what I’ve been thinking most of my life, to be honest,” she told The Guardian in 2020, with a trademark burst of laughter. “I am national and I am a treasure.” 

‘The Great British Bake Off’ is on Channel 4 from 26 September at 8pm

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