LONDON — Noel Fielding paused at a cartoon of Amy Winehouse.
“I used to hang out with her,” he said, gazing at the sketch in the Cartoon Museum. “It’s so sad. God, if I’d died at 27, I would have missed out on so much.”
Back in the mid-2000s, when he and Winehouse were deep in the drug-soaked North London party scene, Fielding, a comedian, would never have predicted how he spends most of his time today: hosting “The Great British Baking Show” and hanging out with his daughter.
“It kind of gets better as you get older, in a weird way,” he said. Back then “it was all crazy and fast. It reminds me of a different person really.”
When Fielding signed on a few years ago to host the “Baking Show” (known as “The Great British Bake Off” in Britain), he was still famous as that hedonistic person: Britain’s most charming goth; a poster boy for weirdos everywhere, thanks to his show “The Mighty Boosh”; an indie darling who wore capes, makeup and sequins for his TV appearances.
Unlike the shows Fielding frequented, the “Baking Show” has always aired before British TV’s 9 p.m. watershed for “offensive content,” creating a pastel world appropriate for viewers of all ages. After seven seasons, it was moving from the BBC to Channel 4 and replacing the hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. (Season 10 is currently airing in Britain; on American Netflix, where it’s known as Collection 7, new episodes arrive on Fridays.)
When Fielding was announced as one of their replacements, the tabloids’ reactions made him think he’d just ruined his career. “Can you believe this is the new face of Bake Off?” asked the front page of the Daily Mail under a photo of Fielding wearing eyeliner, necklaces and a mullet. Paparazzi hid in the trees outside Fielding’s house.
On “The Mighty Boosh,” one of the strange and beautiful characters he played was a merman who shot light out of his “man-gina.” The naughtiest comedy on “Bake Off” came from double-entendres about a cake’s “soggy bottom.” It seemed like a bold choice by Channel 4, but with a younger audience than the BBC, executives seemed to be hoping that Fielding would bring a little edge to their version of the “Baking Show.”
On their first day of filming, he and his co-host, Sandi Toksvig, felt as if they were “going to the gallows,” Fielding said, the fear of ruining a beloved show weighed on them so heavily.
For Fielding, accepting the job meant reframing the way he saw himself and his work. “Unfortunately for me, I did go to art school, and I do have that snobby art school cool thing,” he said. His more avant-garde tastes felt at odds with fronting a popular reality TV show.
But he loved the “Baking Show,” having become a fan when he binged an entire season during an especially terrible hangover. That, combined with the appeal of working with Toksvig, convinced him to take the job.
Here, in this museum of comic strips and satirical sketches, Fielding’s trademark mullet, eyeliner and skinny jeans wouldn’t look out of place on the walls. In conversation, he is generous and witty, and much more self-reflective than his TV persona. He zipped among topics like a hummingbird, hovering on a subject just long enough to dip into its absurdity or poignancy before another more appealing option presented itself.
He wondered where once-popular cartoon characters are now. (Biffo, a strange man-bear hybrid who wouldn’t look out of place on “Boosh,” was “probably in rehab.”) In front of a cartoon of Prime Minister Boris Johnson sitting on the Shard, the famously jagged London skyscraper, Fielding noted: “He was kind of fun when he was the Mayor of London. It’s a little bit frightening now.”
A girl with a portfolio case under her arm turned a corner and stopped short.
“Wow, it’s you; you’re here,” she said to Fielding. “You’re fantastic.”
Not missing a beat, he beamed and replied, “Yes, I live here,” gesturing at the colorful walls before complimenting her purple hair.
Three seasons in, Fielding has proved the doomsayers wrong: Fans of the “Baking Show” have more than accepted him and Toksvig (and Prue Leith, who replaced Mary Berry as Paul Hollywood’s co-judge). The opening sketches have become weirder, and the banter with the bakers has become loaded with a few more innuendos and jokes about sexuality, but the producers make sure it all falls within the show’s safe, comfortable world.
When he’s collaborating with Toksvig and others on the opening sketches, Fielding knows that the very off-the-wall style of comedy he usually writes wouldn’t work for the show. “You can’t push your vision onto something that already has a tone, you have to respect the tone,” he said.
He also subdues his zany style for the show in order to avoid distracting from the bakers. Even so, there are many roundups devoted to his colorful sweaters and shirts (which have featured smiley faces, ice cream cones, tomatoes and tigers). “It’s good for boys who wear makeup and aren’t regular people,” he said.
Fielding, who is 46, has called himself “a bit of a Peter Pan character.” He describes the “Baking Show” as “the realest job I’ve ever had,” one for which he gets picked up at a certain time and recites certain lines and records certain voice-overs. It was a bit of a shock to the system after what he described as the “ludicrously arty” and unstructured working style he had with his co-creator Julian Barratt on “The Mighty Boosh.” (The creative energy Fielding brought to that show is now channeled mostly into his painting, he said.)
“You end up going a bit stir crazy in the tent,” he explained: Day after day, little on the show changes besides the faces behind the stations. Talking to the contestants is his favorite part of the job, he said; he sees his role as part therapist, part friend and part clown, keeping things loose and comforting bakers when cakes collapse and ganaches stay dull. (Occasionally his surreal jokes don’t quite land with the contestants — in the current season, Alice has often looked a little confused by him.)
He knows nothing about baking, although Hollywood did once show him how to bake a loaf of bread. (“It was like that scene in ‘Ghost’ with Demi Moore,” Fielding said.) He framed the recipe Hollywood wrote out and hung it in his kitchen, but he hasn’t been tempted to attempt another bake.
As seen in his most popular work, Fielding functions best as part of a team, playing off the energy of others. His dynamic with Toksvig works, he said, because “she’s quite male and I’m quite female.” Toksvig — who is a lesbian, founded her own political party and has written more than 20 books — is also his go-to source off the air if there’s something in politics that he needs explained.
When Fielding became a father a year and a half ago, everything shifted again. “I didn’t really count on the fact that once I had a baby I’d want to hang out with them all the time,” he explained. He has writing projects at various production stages — a children’s book, a film, a Netflix show — but all have taken a back seat to dancing to ’80s music with his daughter, Dali (named after Salvador Dalí).
Out on the street, Fielding posed for photos in a giant pink and yellow fur coat, chatting with people walking past.
“Oh, sorry, is this your wall?” he asked two construction workers who were rolling cigarettes a few feet away. They looked up, smirking, and one said: “Nah mate, you’re all right. Carry on.” So he did.
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