By Izzy Harris
In 2019, Durham University’s Henry Bird appeared on The Great British Bake Off and quickly became known for his impressive bakes, commitment to ties and as a sweetheart for many mothers across the country (including my own). In a Zoom interview with Palatinate, Henry recalled his time on the show, the impact it has had on him as well as his current work and future plans.
Henry described the application process to the show saying, “you have to really want to apply, it’s a long process but if you have the desire, go for it!” He recounted the experience that began by sending photos of lots of bakes and ended in a test kitchen audition. He explained how it was important for the producers to see a contestant’s personality, as well as their baking skills, in order to be cast.
The production team seem to have left a lasting impression on Henry who asserted that they are “as much part of the show as any of the bakers, the hosts and the judges”. He explained that seeing behind the scenes was a big part of his experience on Bake Off, especially as someone who had followed the show since he was 12 years-old. “I had only ever seen the surface layer. What we all see on television is the tent and the personalities. The first week there, you are in a little bit of shock as you are placed behind the scenes.”
Like this year’s winner Peter Sawkins, Henry was the youngest contestant on his series but he suggested that age isn’t an important factor in Bake Off. “You arrive on the first day and see that some people are older and some are vaguely your age. As soon as you get down to filming, age becomes irrelevant. Your abilities are pretty similar because you have all been chosen for the show.” He went on to describe how he’s stayed in contact with his fellow contestants, saying “out of that series, some of the people I remained closest to are in their 30s and 40s, which you may not have expected.”
Age certainly didn’t hold Henry back in the competition as he progressed up to week eight, with impressive bakes including his Swedish Chocolate and Cardamom Buns which he described as his favourite of the series. These buns earned him star baker and a notorious Hollywood handshake, which Henry described in the illustrative words of an English Literature undergraduate as “a thick handshake, not limp, it’s firm, it’s sturdy, and it’s good,” going on to say “you can tell that he has made bread in his life because it is a strong arm”.
Henry has continued to watch Bake Off but, now in a slightly more analytical way as he reviewed the recent series for The i newspaper. He stated “it was a different way of watching it. I had to watch with a critical eye even though I have been on the show and love it so much. I had to think of how I would judge it as if I was an impartial observer.” He is still a fan of the show and praised their flexibility continuing to film following Covid-19 restrictions. “It was a really lovely series that came at a time when everyone really needed it.”
An iconic showstopper challenge from the first week of the 2020 series was to create a head bust out of cake. Henry reckoned that the trick for this task was to choose a bald inspiration to avoid making hair and suggested Gandhi. He went on to state that he would be an especially good choice as you could add glasses for decoration. I had recently made a cake bust of my own, based on a picture of my housemate’s boyfriend; Henry kindly gave feedback on an image of this during our interview saying that it had a real likeness.
Beyond his kind words about my slightly terrifying cake, Henry is known for his generosity, having made birthday cakes for Durham Union guests. When asked about cake requests he stated that he had received quite a few last year and that he had said yes to most of them. Fulfilling cake expectations was evidently not an easy task, Henry explained “you can think a single-tier cake is not that much work but, especially if it is for an event, quite a lot of thought goes into the costing of ingredients, timing of work and assembling it as well as thinking about flavours and design.” This year, he stated that he is more careful with how many he makes, saying “to do all these things as a business is one thing but, in a student kitchen, which is always going to be crowded and small, it is always going to be a bit trickier.”
Alongside cake requests, being an English finalist, and his organ playing (which he described as having taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic), Henry has been pursuing a journalistic career. In our interview he stated that he was in the process of writing a piece for The Times, which has since been published and is available in print and online.
Journalism is a passion that Henry was interested in before Bake Off, he described how he had emailed editors and journalists at various publications asking for opportunities with CVs attached before he had applied. In the summer that he filmed the show, Henry undertook work experience at various newspapers, explaining that that it was important to him to have had this experience. He went on to state “it was a nice summer of work under my belt and a foot in the door. Going into Bake Off, it is important not to have any preconceptions about the opportunities that come afterwards, if you do you are immediately set up for failure.”
Henry described how the combination of his journalistic experience and being on the show has allowed him to move forward with his writing, “my love of journalism has, just by chance and good luck, paired nicely with Bake Off and has allowed me to write things for big publications.”
Other Bake Off contestants have taken on culinary careers, pursuing food writing and cookbooks. Henry stated that this wasn’t the path for him, humbly stating “I know that I get so much of what I cook and bake from Instagram, recipe books and other chefs. I wouldn’t feel comfortable pursuing a solely culinary angle knowing it was off the back of all these different ideas from these different people. I feel more comfortable indulging my other interests and writing about them as it feels more personal and more original.”
Henry notably has a large following on Instagram, with 172,000 followers at the time of publication. When asked about whether he’d entertain a career on social media he explained, “I don’t really understand and haven’t made an effort to understand the influencer side of Instagram because although it’s a feasible job opportunity for a lot of people, I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I feel much more comfortable sharing images I would have shared two years ago, just nice pictures of things that I have made and promoting various causes should they arise.” He continued “Instagram is something that people come to for visual relief, although there are notably arguments how sincere or fake parts of it are, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel using that platform where people have come to me for light-heartedness to sell things over and over again.”
Given his recognition from the show and work after, I was interested as to how Henry has been impacted by celebrity in his daily life. He said “It’s not a particularly disruptive show, any attention that comes after is not likely to be overwhelming because (unless you do something appalling) it is a nice connection to a show to have compared to other reality shows that have more of a stigma attached to them.” On being recognised, he said that he didn’t think he went on enough nights out last year to be recognised; however, he did recount a very sweet festive anecdote.
”Last year, while Christmas shopping in one of the charity shops on North Road, I was waiting outside for a friend who was getting a Secret Santa present. A mother and her four year-old daughter came up to me and the daughter was frozen and silent. The mum said ‘she has been following you around the shop for 10 minutes wanting to ask for a photo’. That moment showed me that Bake Off is a nice thing to be known for, that people get a lot a lot of joy from watching the show and it gave that girl a lot of joy meeting someone from it.”
As Henry finishes his time at Durham, he is continuing to write articles for national newspapers, cook up posts for Instagram and will be appearing on our screens again in the 2021Great New Years Bake Off.
Image: Henry Bird