Donald Clarke: How do we know autumn is here? The Great British Bake Off is back

Anna Beattie pitched for four years before the BBC took a punt in 2009

Get ready ...bake!  Paul Hollywood, Noel Fielding, Prue Leith and Matt Lucas of The Great British Bake Off.

Get ready ...bake! Paul Hollywood, Noel Fielding, Prue Leith and Matt Lucas of The Great British Bake Off.

 

It is autumn again. 

Gathering swallows in the skies. Full-grown lambs bleating on hilly bourns. Something, something, clammy cells. Something, something, swelling gourds. Oh, I don’t know.

The Keats baloney really works only if you are unlucky enough to live in the country. For those of us surrounded by civilisation, The Great British Bake Off, which returns on Tuesday, is a more useful herald of the russet season. See it sitting careless on a granary floor. And so on.

The success of the cake show is among the more remarkable stories in recent television history. In an era when, as any harried producer will tell you, “format” is the currency that matters, Bake Off demonstrated that creativity on set can still matter more than the brilliance of your initial pitch. After all, there is nothing much to the brief here. It is a cooking contest with cakes. As in Masterchef, ordinary people get booted out on a weekly basis. 

It is hardly surprising that Anna Beattie, initial producer of the show, pitched for four years before the BBC took a punt in 2009. Even then, it required a tweak for the show to properly register with viewers. One could meet no better illustration of the strange alchemy that makes television gold than the contrasting energies between series one and series two. 

Mary Berry, one of Beatrix Potter’s sweeter creatures, reassures that a 'soggy bottom' is not the end of the world

Much of what we came to love is there in the opening season. The casting is sound. Paul Hollywood, bronzed Liverpudlian bread fanatic, brandishes the metaphorical knuckledusters. Mary Berry, one of Beatrix Potter’s sweeter riverside creatures, reassures that a “soggy bottom” is not the end of the world. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc enthuse.

But something is not quite right. The shifting of locations each week breaks the sense of continuity. When Stephen Noonan’s voice appears as narration, it seems (to us now, anyway) as if some stranger has barged uninvited into the party. The editing is not so fluid as it became a year later.

There are no dramatic alterations to the core format in series two, but the pinches at the edges – we are now in one location, the voiceover is from the presenters, the cutting is more relaxed – transformed a decent show into a 21st-century classic. Like many others, I became addicted by having that season on in the background as I pottered about the house. Through a process of osmosis, I came to care for the carefully chosen contestants. I savoured the soothing ambience. I finished watching the episode I had idly flicked to halfway through and have not missed one since. 

If you want further testament as to how beautifully made Bake Off was then, note how little Channel 4 changed the format when it acquired the show in 2017. The opening credits remained much the same. The setting looked similar. The station lengthened the broadcasting slot by 15 minutes to accommodate commercials without cutting running time. The shift was so smooth that it even got away with losing 75 per cent of the regular on-screen talent. Only Paul Hollywood took the C4 soup.

So what is this world they have created? What is this mood that appeals to so many millions?

Here we get into slightly tricky territory. The show is to be commended for picking an eclectic range of contestants. There is usually more than one baker from the LGBT communities. The Scottish and the Welsh get to show off those nation’s delicacies. Iain Watters, a bearded Northern Irish competitor, contributed the show’s most notorious moment when he dumped his thawing baked Alaska in the bin. The most celebrated winner, Luton’s Nadiya Hussain – as much a TV natural as were Patrick Moore or Barbara Woodhouse – has been a proud representative of British Bangladeshi communities. All seem welcome.

England remains sentimental about that largely mythical environment. Fair enough. It’s their country

The overall ambience is, nonetheless, rooted in an old-fashioned, cosy version of disingenuously unthreatening, traditionally white Englishness (not Britishness, whatever the title may claim). Beattie has explained that she was inspired by the classic English country fete. Hence the tent. Hence the bunting. Hence Miss Marple turning up halfway through to explain how a pastry knife became embedded in Noel Fielding’s frontal lobe. 

The show has translated across the world – The Great Irish Bake Off began in 2013 – but all “overseas” versions miss that defining, conservative-with-a-small-c, sub-sylvan atmosphere. Nick Drake is whispering just beyond the trees. Ralph Vaughan Williams is making much of the birdlife. “Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?,” Rupert Brooke asks before dying.

England remains sentimental about that largely mythical environment. Fair enough. It’s their country. The rest of the world’s obsession is more puzzling. Still, should we be so sensitive as to bristle when the show returns, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that, once again, the line-up of contestants is bracingly diverse. 

Little Bumpington on the Folde is, in this version anyway, for all sorts of British folk. Call that progress.

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