Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

In praise of the Great British Bake Off

You don’t get good decent reality TV anymore. Most programmes that trade on the idea of people competing against one and other do so cruelly, with tasks that always seem to culminate in someone ending up with a collection of Australasian …

Mon, Oct 1, 2012, 16:25


You don’t get good decent reality TV anymore. Most programmes that trade on the idea of people competing against one and other do so cruelly, with tasks that always seem to culminate in someone ending up with a collection of Australasian insects down their jocks. Others bring together a demographic who view the public release of a sex tape as a career move, and are filmed whoring themselves around nightclubs only to return home to vomit in their hot tub or hump some brainless lug they picked up somewhere between New Jersey, Newcastle and Tallaght. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the hypnotically vacuous lifestyle programmes that document such riveting outings as going to the shops or talking about the latest inane drama in their relationships over Froyo. Then we have the variety talent and singing ones, all of which have been storyboarded to death resulting in the manufacturing of audience emotion via the inclusion of an instrumental Snow Patrol track over a scripted backstory.

Television is a ultimately dishonest beast, all smoke and mirrors, snappy scripting and rehearsed gags. There is so little room for spontaneity that the recent London Olympics were heralded as some sort of New New Testament version of television, just because footage was live and involved people doing stuff that didn’t involve talking lustfully to the camera about who they wanted to bone or having incredibly boring conversations with their sisters in a hotel room about what they should or shouldn’t pack in a suitcase, which somehow, we’re meant to believe, constitutes a plot device. Too often, these days, when you sit down to watch something that isn’t DVRd or SkyPlusd or boxsetted, you’re left with that modern residual feeling throughout and after: why the hell am I watching this? For all the drive for ‘reality’, we’re generally left with surreality.

Enter: cakes.

The Great British Bake Off, now in its third series on BBC2, has managed to do something quite miraculous. It has created event television that really on paper should not be event television. In an era of extremism in televisual entertainment, it presents something as calm and sedate as baking. It doesn’t have celebrities or personal dramas or massive cash rewards or cruelty or sex or tantrums. And it reaches an audience so diverse that it has perhaps become television’s new common denominator.

You’d never think that a bunch of nice British people keen to perfect the rise in a pie’s pastry or a glossy bagel or a tart without a soggy bottom could be captivating, but Bake Off isn’t accidental. Humour, frivolous and polite double entendres are taken care of by Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, possibly one of the best presenting duos in the history of television, making Ant and Dec look like over-excited pundits, with their deft friendliness, kind contestant interactions and obvious amicable respect for one and other. The villain of the set up – if you can call someone who just likes bread made properly a ‘villain’ – is Paul Hollywood, a steely-eyed Merseysider who thankfully forsakes pantomime viscousness for firm fairness. And then there’s the cherry on top, Mary Berry, the twinkly expert and Le Cordon Bleu graduate with 70 cookery books to her name. Berry is 77. When was the last time you saw a 77-year-old female presenter on TV (leaving aside the 79-year-old Joan Rivers on Fashion Police)? Television values youth, looks and novelty in its presenters. But Perkins, Hollywood and Giedroyc are all in their 40s, and along with Berry, all have a welcome catalogue of experience and knowledge that is preferable to someone just out of the BRIT School looking like they fell backwards through a Top Shop sale rail gurning at an audience.

The Great British Bake Off shows that sometimes, television that is simple and traditional with a kind of innocent purity doesn’t actually need any bells and whistles to sell it to the masses. Its virtue is that you know it’s genuine reality TV – well, as real as TV can get anyway. Personal determination and the pursuit of perfection will always be compelling, especially when they aren’t constructed to purposely and obviously push our emotional buttons. Viewers are by now used to the tricks of production designed to provoke reaction. Bake Off, although a rudimentary concept – a cooking contest with some diversions into food history – doesn’t insult, lie, or create controversy. Respectful, intelligent, quaint and delightful, its makers can be proud that by sticking to the basics of quality TV, they’ve created something brilliant – soggy bottom, or no soggy bottom.