Can Alison Hammond stop Bake Off going stale?

Everywoman warmth: Alison Hammond at the Bafta Film Awards last month - Iona Wolff
Everywoman warmth: Alison Hammond at the Bafta Film Awards last month - Iona Wolff

Buckle up, bab. News that Birmingham's Alison Hammond will be the new co-host of The Great British Bake Off has been warmly welcomed – and rightly so. She might be the shot in the arm that the flagging cake-making contest badly needs.

The new series of The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer, which begins this Sunday, will be helmed by the duo of Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas. However, when the “civilian” series returns in the autumn, it will be Hammond alongside Fielding in the familiar bunting-draped tent. So how did this down-to-earth 48-year-old land one of the highest-profile gigs on primetime TV? It’s an unlikely journey which has taken her from working-class Birmingham to reality bloopers, Harrison Ford hysterics and national treasure status.

Hammond was raised by a single parent in the Kingstanding area of north Birmingham, learning her ferocious work ethic and irrepressible attitude from her mother, Maria - a Jamaican immigrant who juggled several jobs to provide for her three children. Hammond was a born performer who attended children’s drama workshops run by Central Television, where she shone. However, a lack of funds meant she was unable to take up a place at drama school. Her showbiz dreams seemed to have fallen by the wayside until reality TV came calling.

She first registered on the public radar in 2002 as a housemate in the third series of Big Brother – the series which introduced Jade Goody to the viewing public. Hammond’s stint was mainly memorable for a mishap when she jumped up on the garden furniture to peep over the perimeter wall and broke a table. She was second to be evicted but her TV career soon took off outside the house.

Hammond was hired as a roving reporter by ITV’s daytime stalwart This Morning, becoming a firm favourite among viewers and regularly setting social media alight. She accidentally pushed a topless male model into Liverpool’s Royal Albert Dock and was almost arrested live on camera in Pisa. Moving sideways to become showbiz reporter, her unfiltered presence in the company of Hollywood A-listers was a consistent delight.

More fan than journalist, she was an endearingly natural presence, treating household names like old buddies and just having a good gossip. She fed chocolate to Hugh Jackman, forced The Rock to propose, and played board games with Beyoncé. Arguably the star-making moment of her career came in 2017 when she made Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling crack up during a chaotic interview on the Blade Runner publicity junket. She plied them with whisky while admitting she’d never seen the original film. The clip went viral and Hammond was clutched to the nation’s hearts.

She was promoted to co-presenter in 2020 and now hosts every Friday alongside Dermot O’Leary. Freewheeling and full of spontaneity, it’s the most enjoyable edition of the week. They were hired to give Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby a day off but ultimately have upstaged them. The same year, viewers saw a different side to Hammond when she made an emotional speech about the murder of George Floyd and how it made her feel as the mother of a teenage black boy. She was duly commissioned to make Alison Hammond: Back to School, a documentary about overlooked figures from black British history.

She’s continued to pop up regularly on reality TV, with appearances on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! in 2010 and Strictly Come Dancing in 2014. She’s also been excellent value as a Loose Women panellist and appeared on Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes as Nina Simone. Hammond moved behind the judges' desk in 2021 for BBC singing contest I Can See Your Voice.

She’s already made her mark in the Bake Off marquee, taking part in the celebrity version in 2020. Judge Paul Hollywood memorably compared her decoration skills to those of a five-year-old, which she took in trademark good humour. As Channel 4's chief content officer Ian Katz said today: "Alison is much loved, effortlessly funny and the owner of the best laugh in Britain. She was a huge hit when she appeared on Celebrity Bake Off and we're thrilled to have her back in the tent.”

A rare blip in Hammond’s steady ascent to TV’s top table was last month’s Bafta film awards. She was recruited as co-presenter alongside the visibly nervous Richard E Grant but Hammond was banished backstage to conduct awkward snatched interviews with a motley collection of VIP guests. It was the format’s fault, not Hammond’s.

Her Bake Off appointment comes as a slight curveball. When Lucas announced last year that he was stepping aside, Hammond was hardly mentioned in speculation about who might replace him. She’s not a Channel 4 face nor a comedian like recent incumbents. Yet this could all count in her favour.

Alison Hammond co-presented this year's Baftas with Richard E Grant - Stuart Wilson/BAFTA
Alison Hammond co-presented this year's Baftas with Richard E Grant - Stuart Wilson/BAFTA

The comedic duos of recent years – first Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, then Fielding and Lucas – have divided opinion. They’ve provided intermittent amusement but particularly last year, became a self-indulgent irritant. Over-elaborate skits took up too much airtime. Their daft antics often seemed to get in the way. As contestants scurried from fridge to oven to workbench, creating delicious magic against the clock, the last thing they wanted was an attention-seeking funnyman trying to engage them in wilfully surreal banter. As a presenter rather than a comic, Hammond’s casting will hopefully signal a return to the heyday of Mel and Sue.

Bake Off has gone stale post-pandemic. Hammond is potentially the antidote. The past few contests have been criticised for losing the kindness that made Bake Off so beloved. Challenges became more obscure, time constraints grew tighter, judging got harsher. Contestants cried and had meltdowns more frequently. It became more of a cut-throat contest than a cutting-cake-and-pouring-a-cuppa one.

Programme makers Love Productions, to their credit, have acknowledged that it’s not been working and promised a “back to basics” revamp when the show returns. New recruit Hammond will be a key part of that. She’s a winningly natural screen presence who could charm the squirrels down from the Welford Park trees. She’ll bond with Prue Leith and affectionately tease alpha male Hollywood. Her accident-prone clumsiness promises to create havoc. She knows such contests from both sides, having competed in several herself, so will be empathetic to the bakers.

Hammond announced the news in typically ebullient style today, posting a Twitter video of a spoof press conference, featuring miniature icing figurines. “Let's have it!” she wrote. “The cake that is. So excited.”

Her casting also redresses the gender balance among the four presenters (Leith has been the sole woman since Toksvig’s departure four years ago) and adds racial diversity. Hammond also becomes the show’s first presenter of colour in its 14-year history. At last it’s caught up with Junior Bake Off, which has had a more diverse blend of presenters since 2016. For Channel 4, this can only be a bonus.

Alison Hammond’s everywoman warmth and infectious guffaw promise to add a large tablespoon of joy back into the Bake Off recipe. It could prove the icing on the cake for a resurgent franchise.