New ingredients for ‘The Great British Bake Off’, but does it taste the same?
After its controversial move from the BBC to Channel 4 this year, the baking show returns
“What’s wrong with Mel and Sue?” I wonder as that very duo careen into view, riding a striped hot air balloon (the manner, to be fair, in which I always assumed Mel and Sue travelled).
“What’s wrong with their faces?” I ask again, panic rising in my chest.
Something is certainly amiss. Mel is now shorter, posher and crisper of consonants than the Mel of yore and Sue has evolved into a strange, lanky witch thing. It may be an optical illusion caused by Channel 4’s inferior film stock but they now look like a pair of mismatched Moomins (editor’s note: that’s actually new presenters Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding). Okay, they’re pretending that they can’t find the Bake Off Tent which is, admittedly, a hilarious ruse, but I am disturbed nonetheless.
The sense of dislocation doesn’t stop there. “What are we? Americans!?” I yell, when we arrive at what my wife tells me is an “ad break” (like most Bake Off viewers I’ve never watched anything other than BBC One before now).
And when the Mary Berry-usurping Prue Leith hoves into view, peering out at me through her imperious yet “fun” spectacles, pretending to care about “cake” while garbed in her blood red vestments of power, I can’t stop myself. “You’re not my real mum!” I cry and stomp off to my room (I’m obliged to add here that Mary Berry isn’t my real mum either, according to both DNA tests and her lawyer).
As you can see, I am trying to approach the first episode of the new series of The Great British Bake Off with an open mind. The programme moved last year from the BBC to Channel 4, which is, if I understand the subsequent outcry correctly, owned by French showgirls and is based in France or something. Due to an accident of history, this event is the most upsetting thing that’s ever happened to the British and, when we watch The Great British Bake Off, we are all basically British.
British soft power
Yes, the Bake Off, a food show as influential as Game of Scones or House of Carbs or The Food Wife, is as British as garden fetes or Alan Bennett or institutional classism or the plantation of Ulster. To watch and enjoy it is to applaud the march of British soft power and the illusion that “niceness” and not colonialism is the most quintessentially British phenomenon. That said, you can also just about imagine the production team pitching their big white tent on the edge of your town and converting you all to the joy of baked goods at the point of a sword (“I can indeed,” says you. “Bring it on”).
So non-British iterations of Bake Off just don’t work. The Great Irish Bake Off, which aired for a while here on TV3, had to be cancelled when the show was partitioned and the southern bit was taken over by priests. The Great British Bake Off is harder to kill. Despite my misgivings, little has actually changed. Incredibly wealthy cake-traitor Paul Hollywood is still here with snow-white hair and steely blue eyes as cold as his heart (“I hope all the cakes taste like ashes in your mouth, Paul,” I mutter when he first comes on screen). He rules the roost now, a dark and lonely “Bread King”, his pockets jangling with gold doubloons, his precious blood money.
There are 12 new salt-of-the-earth cake-enthusiasts here to bake for the Bread King – widows, students, oldsters, youngsters, software engineers, chemistry boffins, stay-at-home mothers, people who engage in hobby blacksmithery and military types who have battered their swords into spatulas rather than ploughshares. This assemblage makes cakes while tiny “Mel”, now resembling a small floral child, and lanky “Sue”, now looking like a sort of bewigged animatronic sports mascot, double their entendres and raise their eyebrows dutifully as contestants wrestle with phallic ingredients. “I meant to squeeze my courgettes!” says one lady and Fielding nearly explodes with delight (okay, I accept “Sue” is a tamed Noel Fielding now).
And the ad breaks aren’t so bad, I realise. They allow me to supplement my viewing with food runs to the kitchen, although eating mayonnaise with a spoon probably doesn’t quite fit your own lofty standards (la-di-da, your highness). Anyway, while I have never baked myself due to an old sporting injury, Bake Off still makes me feel like a master of the craft. So I shout witty yet technically-savvy advice at the stressed-out contestants as they try to make tiny Swiss rolls: “PheNOMenal!” for example, or, “Flantastic!” or, when they disappoint me, “You’re s**t at cakes!”
Shameless and tasty-looking
Stylistically it’s all much the same. Whimsical pizzicato string motifs remind us that all is well. And there are still plenty of soft-focus glamour shots of wanton baked goods being all shameless and tasty-looking. Sometimes, between you and me, I don’t know whether I want to eat this food or make sweet (not savoury) love to it. Would it be so wrong to do both? “Yes,” I’ve just been told by my editor. “Yes, it would.”
This week’s “showstopper challenge” involves the contestants making what I call “cake lies” but the judges call “illusions” – architecturally complex cakes that resemble things other than cakes – watermelons, ham sandwiches, handbags, a plant-filled green house and Russian dolls. Hollywood and his new cake-wife, Prue, sample these deceitful confections and bring their damning judgment down upon them. Ultimately, Peter is removed to the cake-less outlands (Wales?) while smiley marketing executive Steven is deemed the best at cakes and crowned cake king (or something). And, all in all, even though Paul is dead to me and Prue isn’t my real mother and Mel and Sue look all weird, I find myself feeling quite invested.