The Great British Bake Off has risen to the challenge with a record audience on Channel 4, but at one stage this year Prue Leith feared she wouldn't be part of it.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic the series was postponed and then some reports suggested judge Prue, who turned 80 in February, might not be on the show as bosses would struggle to get health insurance for her during the pandemic.

“I began to feel guilty about being so old and then the Bake Off publicist said ‘Nonsense!’ So I didn’t worry about it, but I would have understood.

“I mean, if they’d said, ‘Look, insurance is going to cost a fortune because you’re too old…’ I would have understood it. But I have to say, it turned out not to be true.”

The relief for Prue was huge as she loves being on the show, and fans love watching the show as on Tuesday night it enjoyed its best ever launch ratings on Channel 4 averaging 6.9 million viewers and peaking at 7.9m.

Prue is finally back on our screens

Speaking to the Mirror about the filming process this year, Prue told how she really enjoyed the new filming conditions which saw 130 cast and crew in a giant bubble in Down Hall Hotel in Hatfield Heath, Essex.

The set up meant once there Prue, Paul Hollywood and hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas couldn’t leave for six weeks, as the contestants slowly left one by one before the final.

It has arguably led to a friendlier show on screen as contestants lived together and the judges and hosts are closer than ever too.

“It was a little bit like being on a Butlin’s holiday camp or something,” Prue explains.

The star shared some inside secrets from the show

“We all socialised – more than I have ever done in my life. And it was extraordinary. You wouldn’t think you could do that in a sort of socially distanced COVID time. But it was partly because we were in this complete bubble. I mean, I never felt safer.

“I had my two spaniels and I went walking with them every day for an hour.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked so much. They had walks through the woods because the site itself is 115 acres.

“And that was great for Bake Off too, because they had space to put the tent and that was exactly as it always is and then we had Paul and Matt and Noel and I had little shepherds huts for green rooms. And then there was the makeup tents and the wardrobe, which which were actually in big winnebagos and then there were an another whole set of kitchens – 12 kitchens for the bakers to practice in.”

Prue believes new judge Matt is a complete hit

The opening show saw Prue tucking into three rounds of 12 cakes including lots of battenburg which is one of her favourites, and there is plenty more to come over the series. But whilst Paul added “four or five pounds” to his waistline, she had a clever way of not piling on weight.

“I didn’t put on in any weight, but that may have been partly the dog walking. But also I never ate lunch. I would have yoghurt for breakfast.

And the cake we eat would provide certainly more calories than you need for breakfast and lunch! I would have supper. I was quite disciplined about it, but I put on some weight since I came home, I’m sorry to say.”

That said, it wasn’t easy to not eat more. Viewers should prepare themselves for some close rounds.

Prue admits during one of the baking contests of the series it was so close she and Paul “had to go back and re-taste all the bakes” which is almost unprecedented on the show.

She also says to watch out for another savoury bake which was so good she stole the recipe and has been making it at home.

Aside from filming in a bubble, the other big change this year was the arrival of Matt Lucas as a host, replacing Sandi Toksvig who chose to leave.

Initial viewer reaction to him was positive, not least thanks to a sketch mocking Boris Johnson to kick the show off. But Prue says part of his charm and success is down to a lack of knowledge, a complete contrast to her five decades of experience cooking on screen right back to shows in the Seventies.

“Matt was like a Martian in a way coming down and looking at something completely strange,” she says.

Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, and hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas

“And that was wonderful because he would ask, to everybody else, obvious questions, but that was lovely for the bakers because the bakers would be telling him what they were doing and why they’re doing it. And he was genuinely interested. He wasn’t just acting the part. He would often ask me things afterwards. We need to teach him. A lovely guy.

“I thought he was a bit nervous about the programme altogether but like many actors, once they start, they lose the nerves. He recovered instantly.”

And with Matt another successful ingredient in the Bake Off series, it seems everyone is pleased to see Prue back on screen. Except possibly her own family sometimes.

Whilst she has been away filming she has been staying in touch with her two grown up children Daniel and Li-Di and their own kids.

“You know, when you zoom little children, they find it so boring,” she admits.

“And they just can’t be bothered with it. You realise you’re a pain in the neck. Their parents are saying: ‘Talk to Nanna, talk to Nanna, look at the phone.’ And they want to get hold of the phone and push it onto Peppa Pig haha.”

Prue with husband John Playfair

Family has always been important to Prue and turning 80 this year and the life changes caused by coronavirus have made her reassess things.

A prolific novel and cook book writer, her work life balance is set to change, although her children have their doubts about this pledge.

Prue, who married second husband John Playfair in 2016, enjoyed some downtime at hope and says: “I wondered why I’m always rushing around and work so hard. I kept saying to myself, ‘why don’t I do more of this?’

“It was the first year for many years when I’ve actually been here(at home) in the early spring for long enough to see the garden changing and the woods changing and walk the dogs and have time to cook for John.

“I haven’t done much writing. I’ve done a bit because I do a lot of journalism. But I’m dithering about whether I want to go back to writing novels or not. I sort of feel that passing my 80th birthday gave me licence to stop if I can.

The Bake Off star has always been a whizz in the kitchen

“I can’t say I’ve made any fast decisions. My family just laugh when I say I’m going to take it easy and I’m going to do less and I’m going to be at home because it’s so wonderful at home and I can do more gardening and that’s what I’ll do. They just roar with laughter and say, ‘Mum, you’re a workaholic. You never rest.’ They never see me sitting still.”

Her children would not have believed their eyes during some of the downtime during Bake Off, as the cakes were not the only thing turning a golden colour and Prue really did switch off for once. It will also explain how glowing and healthy she looks on screen as the series continues.

“I spent quite a lot of time when we first arrived with one of these golf buggies looking for a place nobody would see me,” she says with a glint in her eye.

“And one of the things they had provided was huge beanbags, really comfortable big beanbags – quite light to pull around. So I’d take a beanbag onto the buggy and find somewhere where I could sunbathe where nobody would see me. And I found a couple of places and I honestly spent hours just reading lying in the sun.

“But I wasn’t going to be looked at with not very many clothes on. I was not entirely stripping off, but I was in my bathers shall we say.”

The Great British Bake Off continues next Tuesday night on Channel 4.

First evictee Loriea Campbell-Clarey will join Jo Brand and Tom Allen on The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice on Friday also on Channel 4.