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Mel Giedroyc, interview: 'We wanted to take Mary Berry clubbing in Ibiza but she'd already been'

The i logo The i 11/10/2018 Emily Jupp
a person standing posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Mel Giedroyc zips out of her rehearsal room, into to the café beside it, where I’m waiting, hugs me like I’m an old friend and starts chatting a mile a minute. She is in rehearsals for Company, the Stephen Sondheim musical, which is directed by Marianne Elliott, whose credits include War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (she won a Tony for both) and Angels in America.

“A woman at the helm changes everything,” says Giedroyc, happily. “It gives the room a totally different vibe. She listens, she is like a safety blanket. An all-enveloping ear, like the one in Monty Python. Marianne is very, very clever and she is interested in women of a certain age which I love. She doesn’t just care about the fresh young 20-something out of drama school.”

The production is notable for Elliott’s decision to switch the main role from bachelor Bobby to bachelorette Bobbi, played by Rosalie Craig, who at 35 is suddenly faced with pressure from her friends to settle down.

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Read more: Company - revival of Stephen Sondheim musical switches characters’ genders to make it a show for today

“It brings a whole new layer onto what’s already a brilliant show. If I was watching Company now with a guy in the main role I would enjoy it, but I’d think it was of an era. I’d think, okay, that guy’s got lots of girlfriends, slight yawn.”

Elliott had to get Sondheim’s blessing for the project; he was uncertain at first but came on board after watching a showcase at the end of a week-long workshop. Broadway legend Patti Lupone (“Lady Pat”, says Giedroyc, “her name means big wolf and like a big wolf she straddles, prowls over our show.”) plays Joanne.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in,” says Giedroyc. “We are all cogs in the machine, and if you bugger up, it all goes wrong. Sondheim is all precision, it’s like a 14-person conversation.”

Giedroyc plays Sarah, Bobbi’s friend, a foodie struggling to diet who practices karate moves on the other characters. “She wants to be seen on the outside as a fun character and laid-back but there’s actually a passive-aggressive side to her. So it is great.”

It being a musical, Giedroyc will need to sing, which doesn’t seem to daunt her even though, looking at her CV, it’s the most she’s ever done. “I really love singing,” she says cheerfully. “I’ve sung in choirs at school, I’ve done the odd musical but nothing as demanding as this.”

a man and a woman sitting on a stage © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Mel Giedroyc plays Sarah, with Gavin Spokes and Rosalie Craig in Company. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Giedroyc is looking toned, tanned and happy; she has been working on complex choreography all week and has begun counting steps in her sleep, she jokes. When I mention how well she looks, she points out her braces, discreet white ones. Why braces? “Mid-life crisis,” she says, quick as lightning.

“And I’ve got glasses for the first time ever - but I feel I shouldn’t wear glasses because that’s Sue territory. I’ve got my glasses on gold chains, because I figured that if you’re over 50 in the West End it’s de rigueur; copy of The Stage rolled up under your arm, glasses on chain.”

Earlier this year she played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Theatre Kingston, generally regarded as Shakespeare’s best comic role for a woman. “I knew I was going to turn 50 and I thought, this is probably my last chance to do the role of Beatrice. I never want to stay in the comfort zone. When something comes up that sounds like a real challenge I want to do it. It’s a cliche but life is short isn't it? It really bloody is, and I don't want to just sit and fester, I want to keep doing stuff, meeting people, listening."

Giedroyc’s CV is a pick ‘n’ mix of different projects, from Shakespeare to comedy, TV to stage. She and Perkins started out in the Cambridge Footlights as students and started a comedy double-act, performing at the Fringe but they didn't get noticed.

Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc met at university and almost gave up on comedy careers in 1996. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty

“We came to a standstill around 1996. We were sat in Perks’ bedroom and I was like, mate I just can’t do this anymore. I am going to have to go somewhere and apply for a job, I’m not qualified for anything, I’ve got a s**t degree and she goes, ‘yeah, I agree’.”

'Sixteen years ago everything went a bit quiet and you’re sitting there thinking, everyone thinks I’ve died! People think I’ve died because I’ve had a baby!'

So Giedroyc waited tables in restaurants and her mother paid her to clean her house once a week while Perkins did door-to-door sales. Then Light Lunch came along with Mel and Sue at the helm. Their viewers, according to Giedroyc, were “stay-at-home mums, prisoners and teenagers bunking off school”. It was an unconventional, freewheeling format. The audience would all bring a packed lunch to eat and there was a house band, which included Dylan Howe from the Blockheads on drums.

The duo stayed together, quietly carving their own path in the entertainment industry then Giedroyc had children with husband, TV director Ben Morris, in 2002. “Sixteen years ago everything went a bit quiet and you’re sitting there thinking, everyone thinks I’ve died! People think I’ve died because I’ve had a baby! Then I picked myself up and took a couple of things I wouldn’t have ordinarily taken.”

One was a musical called Eurobeat – “a loving pastiche of Eurovision song contest”, another was The Games which involved celebrity contestants doing Olympic-style sports each night. “I was feeling; don’t put me in a box man, I’ve had a baby and I’m a mum, but so I wanted to do things you might not expect me to do. I’m quite bolshie like that.”

And then The Great British Bake Off came along and charmed the nation with its gentle humour. Season one peaked at 5.1m viewers, the highest ratings for any BBC Two show at the time.

Sue Perkins, Mary Berry are posing for a picture © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

“Bake Off was completely unexpected,” Giedroyc says, still looking faintly surprised. “Sue and I got the call and we were like, what? A food show? Again? This will be twee, but we did it because we thought no-one would ever watch it. We just thought we’ll pay a bit of the mortgage and it would get us working together again which is always a boon.”

'Mary Berry is made of metal. My mum has it, she is just really gritty. I think it comes from having been through a war'

“I really miss Bake Off because we just hung out loads and laughed and laughed until we cried and I just can’t believe we get paid to do it.”

The duo will reunite on screen in 2019 for Sky One’s new six-part comedy Hitmen, written by Joe Parham and Joe Markham. Mel and Sue will play two best friends who are also hired killers.

She and Perkins call each other at least once a week, and they still meet up with Mary Berry, too. They even hatched a plan to take Berry clubbing in Ibiza, but it turned out she had already been to Pacha aged 71. “We had a booth”, she told them.

'We only did Bake Off to pay off a bit of the mortgage': Mel Giedroyc with Sue Perkins, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry on the original Great British Bake Off. Photo: Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon

“Mary is made of metal. My mum has it, she is just really gritty. I think it comes from a different place, and having been through a war. That is what worries me about the new generation” she says doing a mock old-lady accent, but then she becomes earnest. “Generations below me are like weeds wavering in the wind. There are so many get-outs now but those women are rock solid. That’s what I want to be.”

The conversation turns inevitably to Brexit: “I think it’s devastating, I’m embarrassed. I feel humiliated, feel mortified.” Her father, a Polish-Lithuanian aeroplane designer, arrived in the UK from Poland when he was 17 after being imprisoned in Siberia with his mother aged 11.

'I am actually thankful that my father is no longer here to see what’s going on because he would be… it’s just awful. He loved Britain and he felt so proud to be here and part of Europe'

“He came here with nothing, believed in this country, renounced his Polish citizenship, took on British citizenship and swore allegiance to the Queen. I am actually thankful that he is no longer here to see what’s going on because he would be… it’s just awful. He loved Britain and he felt so proud to be here and part of Europe.”

“I’m scared by it. Our generation haven’t had a massive cataclysmic thing threatening us and I think we are due one.”

Then she shifts gear once again, perhaps not wanting to leave on such a dismal, apocalyptic note. “But I feel I’ve got military training now from all this dancing. I’m a machine, bring it on! I shall build a bunker to a musical beat.”

Company is at Gielgud Theatre, London, to to 22 December (0844 482 5130)

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