The latest season of The Great British Baking Show — officially the 14th, though on Netflix it's marked as "Collection 11" — has been a rebound from the last few underwhelming installments. A big part of that has been the shakeup in hosts, with actress and TV host Alison Hammond joining a returning Noel Fielding. Hammond's fresh enthusiasm and easy rapport with the bakers has been a welcome change from the aloof stylings of Matt Lucas, on whom many of the show's fans had loudly soured by last year.
With Matt gone, though, we're free to have the conversation we've been putting off for several years now: Has judge Prue Leith outlived her usefulness on this show? Is she the next weak link in the chain who needs to be replaced?
The idea to replace Prue as judge isn't merely tinkering for tinkering's sake, but a next necessary step for the show. It also doesn't have anything to do with Prue as a person, who seems lovely in her interactions with the contestants. The problem with Prue on The Great British Baking Show came into stark relief during the judging of the signature bakes in Biscuit Week of the current season. As Prue and head judge Paul Hollywood assessed Tasha Stones' marshmallow sandwich biscuits, Paul extended to Tasha one of his now-famous handshakes. One step behind Paul, Prue clapped in appreciation, and once Paul was out of frame, Prue leaned into Tasha and said, "That pleases me as much as it pleases you."
That seemingly anodyne moment speaks volumes about the position that Prue holds within the Great British Baking Show universe. There she was, reduced to standing behind Paul Hollywood and applauding his handshake, reacting like nothing more than a member of the audience. It was a reminder that over the course of seven seasons, Prue has made herself less and less essential to the show, at a time when it needs a judge to stack up next to Paul Hollywood's increasingly dominant presence.
Prue joined the show in Season 8 ("Collection 5"), during the big casting shakeup, when the show moved from BBC One to Channel 4 in the UK and original judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins all left. Among other things, that exodus left the impression that remaining judge Paul Hollywood had pulled off a hostile takeover. But Prue had the cooking chops to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Hollywood. She'd studied at Le Cordon Bleu, opened a Michelin-star restaurant, and founded a culinary institute in her native South Africa.
The Paul Hollywood-Mary Berry dynamic wasn't always friction-less, but that was part of the fun. It was something of a cold war. Mary was set in her ways, unyielding but in a grandmotherly way, while Paul always wanted to take a more aggressive approach with the contestants. With Mary gone, Paul was free to remake the judge/contestant dynamic in his own image. But that didn't happen all at once. If you go back to Prue's first season on the show, it's like watching a different person. She's confident and commanding, stepping into what was Mary Berry's role as a lead judge. Over the course of only a few seasons, Paul's overbearing presence — the handshakes, the flirting, the increased willingness to be the butt of Noel's foolishness — allowed him to take over the show.
But even if Prue was never destined for that top judge slot, that didn't mean that she couldn't carve out a niche for herself. She's made a few attempts at establishing a distinctive GBBS identity. She had the "it better taste good enough to justify the calories" slogan early on, which could feel judgmental, but at least it was an ethos. For a few seasons there, her thing was that she was kind of a boozehound, perking up her ears whenever someone slipped a nip of bourbon into their pie filling. Nothing ever quite stuck, and by this point, in terms of judges, Prue places a distant third, behind Paul Hollywood and Paul Hollywood's shaking hand.
If the current season has taught us anything, it's that in the post-Mary, Mel, and Sue version of The Great British Baking Show, change can be a good thing. Swapping Matt for Alison has been a big success. The casting this season seemed to remember that we like plucky older people on this show just as much (if not more) than hapless 20-year-olds. The time has come to find a new energy to place next to Paul at the judging table.
I'm not here with a casting wish list for Prue's replacement, just some suggestions for the kind of person to step into the co-judging shoes. Most crucially, the show needs a counterweight to Paul Hollywood. Begrudgingly, I will admit that GBBS works well enough with Paul as the arbiter of taste and the deliverer of benevolent handshakes. It's obnoxious, and so is he, but it makes the contestants happy, and if the hosts can keep poking at that inflated ego of his, the dynamic can cruise right along.
What is needed is a second judge who will challenge him on the merits of baking: his sometimes stubborn palette, his ignorance of foreign cuisines, his inconsistencies when it comes to preferring substance over style (unless he decides he wants to prioritize style at that moment). A second judge with a strong identity as a baker — especially a baker who comes from a different culinary background than Paul — could certainly do far more than clap at Paul's handshakes like a breathless spectator.
Prue Leith has been an amiable presence on this show. She seems like a very nice person. Her accomplishments in her field speak for themselves. Observing that she hasn’t made the same impact on GBBS as Paul Hollywood isn't intended as a slight on her character. But it's time to see how someone else can shake things up underneath that tent.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.