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Prue Leith: I was amazingly selfish and amazingly unaware as a teenager

Great British Bake Off's Prue Leith opens up on her teenage years in this week's Letter To My Younger Self

At 16 I was at school in South Africa, just shifting my passion from horses to boys and parties. We lived in Johannesburg in what would seem now to be a very luxurious style. But in those post-colonial days it felt normal – all well-off white families in South Africa lived in nice big houses. I was the daughter between two brothers. My mother was an actress, my father was a businessman. We were a ridiculously happy family, all very close. We didn’t have a lot of outside friends, but we did a lot together as a family. I think we had an idyllic childhood. I would attribute all my success to being constantly encouraged as a child. No one treated me differently because I was a girl, I was just expected to do well.

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My mother [actress Margaret ‘Peggy’ Inglis] was very glamorous and I resented that. I wanted a fat mum who came to the school fêtes and made cakes like all the other mothers. One day my headmistress told me she’d asked my mother to come to talk to the senior school about Shakespeare. I thought, oh God, I’ll die. I stood right at the back thinking it was going to be the most embarrassing day of my whole life. She was about 45 at the time, and she came on and played the 14-year-old Juliet in the balcony scene. Then she played the old nurse with the arthritic back. Then she played Hamlet. She was completely mesmerising. We were all just agog. I walked out of that hall being so proud, thinking, my mother’s an actress. Of course she can’t come to the school fête. She’s far too important. It completely changed the way I saw her.

I thought I was liberal but I had no idea what a non-segregated society was like until I came to Europe

Young white South Africans didn’t go into the townships. So all we saw were lovely servants like my wonderful nanny Emma, who I absolutely adored. I can still remember how great it was being held by her. She wore a white pinny with a lace collar and I can still remember the feeling of her collar against my cheek. My mother was very liberal though, she was a founding member of an anti-apartheid protest group, The Black Sash. I remember her coming home after standing on the town hall steps, her black coat covered in splodges after people threw eggs at her. She was trying to get black actors to be allowed to work alongside white actors in her theatre group. You couldn’t have black musicians on the stage. You couldn’t even cast a black man as Othello. Black people couldn’t come to the same performances as white ones. It was ridiculous.

Prue pictured with first husband Rayne Kruger and children Daniel and Li-Da

If I could go back to the teenage Prue now I’d tell her to be more sensitive about what it was like to be repressed. We were the oppressors so we never thought much about the oppressed. I’m ashamed to think how, when I was 16, I skipped down the street giggling away with my girlfriends, and venerable old black men would get off the pavement and walk in the gutter so these idiots, who didn’t even notice him, could pass by. I thought I was liberal but I had no idea what a non-segregated society was like until I came to Europe. I found it quite amazing, almost shocking, the amount of black people in Paris. I could just sit down with them in public, have coffee with them. I found it so awkward because I’d never done that. I was amazingly selfish and amazingly unaware.

In 1956 the year Prue Leith turns 16…

  • Pakistan become the first Islamic republic
  • Heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano retires undefeated
  • The hard disk drive is invented

My father would be astonished that the teenage Prue, who kept changing her mind about what she wanted to do, would end up with the career path I’ve had. I had wanted to be an actress, an artist, all sorts of things. But I never had any interest in cooking food. We had a wonderful Zulu cook, Charlie, for that. In my family food was rather like money and sex – you didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until I got to Paris that I found everyone was interested in food and took it seriously. When I was working as an au pair I saw the care Madame took preparing fantastic dinners for her children, and I though, aha, food is something proper people really care about.

I’m an egotist and I’m quite happy to be interviewed and photographed and have people in the supermarket say, “Are you that lady off the telly?”

I left The Great British Menu on the BBC after 11 years, intending to retire from TV. I’d sold my business, and I was writing novels, so I thought I’d just write. Then along came Bake Off. And I couldn’t resist it. I knew Mary Berry because she’s a friend and I thought it was great for her. She’d worked so hard all her life, ploughing along, so it was fantastic at that stage of her life to have such wonderful success. Then I thought, well now I’ve got the chance to have that. But I hadn’t watched it and I had no idea what a phenomenon it was. I wasn’t expecting the amount of attention. But I like it. I’m an egotist and I’m quite happy to be interviewed and photographed and have people in the supermarket say, “Are you that lady off the telly?”

It was hard when my husband [author Rayne Kruger] died in 2002. We’d made the same mistake as my parents. We’d been so happy in the family unit, tucked away in our house in the Cotswolds, we had hardly any friends. Rayne had always been somewhat reclusive. He barely left his study to even go into the garden and no one except family came to visit. I didn’t mind because I would go up to London a few days a week to work at my company [Michelin-starred restaurant Leith’s until 1995, then the Prue Leith College based in South Africa] then we’d all meet up at weekends. I didn’t want to sell up after Rayne died, but it meant coming home late at night to a big empty house. I remember one night driving home in the rain from the train station, bawling my eyes out, thinking, what am I going back to? But my brother was very good. When Rayne was alive and I was away, one of us would phone the other at seven o’clock. After he died I’d often find myself reaching for the phone at seven. And sometimes I’d pick it and phone my brother instead, and he’d say, “Ah, seven o’clock – time for some brotherly love.” And gradually I made some local friends, then I got married again, just two years ago [to clothes designer John Playfair]. 

Prue Leith
That's un oeuf – Mary Berry, Prue and journalist Jack De Manio take part in an egg-tasting test in 1974

If I could back to the happiest time in my life it would be summer 1976. My son was not quite two. My adopted Cambodian daughter arrived at 16 months. We had been staying in a tiny flat in London with no more outside space than a little balcony. And then we moved into this beautiful old house in the Cotswolds, and started revamping it. There’s nothing more exciting than making your own nest. It was the year of the huge drought so it was very dry, but that meant the children were running around in the sun. They were very happy, and we were happy. It was just the most beautiful year.

Prue: My All -Time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith is out now (Bluebird, £25)

Image: GARY-DOAK, Alamy-Stock-Photo