The BBC will mourn the defection of Bake Off. But it will rise again

The show was precious to the corporation, but it will surely be replaced. The real threat is to GBBO itself The BBC will mourn the defection of Bake Off. But it will rise again

It is hard not to suspect that it’s all over for The Great British Bake Off. Its delicately balanced recipe depends so much on the flavours of its presenters and judges. When Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins confirmed that they were unwilling to follow the show to Channel 4, they deprived that recipe of its spice and salt.

Like many members of the show’s enormous audience - 15 million watched the last season finale, and the current series’ ratings hover around the 10 million mark - they clearly feel that the programme’s spiritual home is the BBC. And, perhaps, that money should not be - need not be - the ultimate deciding factor in any moment of decision. But in allowing such a state of affairs to occur - a popular show travelling to another channel but leaving its beloved stars adrift - Love Productions, which makes the programme for the BBC, may well have destroyed the thing it created. The viewers will be the poorer for it.

Yet we should not be surprised that the right to broadcast Bake Off has been sold to Channel 4, which is reported to have offered GBP25m for the show per year, as opposed to the GBP12.5m the BBC was either willing or able to pay. The programme radiates English pastoralism

. It is flavoured with the simple pleasures of the village fete, and scented with middle England (plus, to the sensitive palate, spiced with just a faintest background waft of Brexiteer). It is beloved because it champions the lopsided, good-hearted charm of amateur craft - of ordinary, everyday creativity.

READ MORE

Is the Bake Off deal all about the dough?

What it projects, however, stands in complete contrast to the way it is made. It works because it is machine-tooled with ruthless precision by Love Productions - a highly successful, ambitious company 70% owned by Sky.

The same company also makes the controversial Benefits Street, which some argue has unpleasantly stereotyped benefits claimants.

The BBC has long been part of an aggressive, highly competitive market. It has long needed to set the values of the market uneasily alongside its ethos of public service and public ownership. That’s the world we live in. It is the world ushered in by successive governments and by the BBC’s former director general John Birt when he marketised the corporation (out of necessity, he would argue) in the late 80s and 90s.

The current situation that besets Bake Off seems to exemplify that curious doubleness: the show’s stars seem impelled by loyalty to the BBC; its makers are apparently motivated by a combination of cash and a desire to grow the Bake Off brand (it has said so in its statements) in directions the BBC is unable or unwilling to go.

Is there any fighting chance for GBBO on Channel 4? The problem for the broadcaster is that everything about Bake Off is particular. It has been refined over its six years on air. It began as a rather po-faced pedagogical show that contained seemingly endless items on the history of baking. That has largely fallen away, while the end-of-the-pier humour of Giedroyc and Perkins has blossomed, and the onscreen personae of its judges - flinty Paul Hollywood, grandmotherly Mary Berry - took time to settle into their current form.

While exports of Bake Off have flourished, with versions produced in 21 territories, the show has struggled in some countries, notably the US. There, CBS dropped The American Baking Competition (with Paul Hollywood) after one season in 2013, and even Mary Berry was not enough to save its successor, ABC’s The Great Holiday Baking Show, from floppinglast year. The formula, then, is not enough. It needs its people.

There are intriguing questions hovering over the BBC’s motives in all of this. Had it simply agreed to Love Productions’ terms, Bake Off would be galloping into the future without a hitch. The BBC has let it be known that its refusal to match Channel 4’s offer was because “resources are not infinite”.

It is quite true that the BBC, thanks to last year’s funding settlement, is operating in straitened circumstances: it is now having to pay for licence fees for the over-75s, formerly borne by the government.

That will cost it GBP750m by the financial year 2020-21. Given the way it has grown and nurtured the show, the BBC possibly expected a certain level of loyalty from Love Productions that it hoped would transcend the crude realities of cash. By refusing to stump up, it is perhaps sending out a signal to other production companies that it cannot, in the future, be milked ruthlessly.

Guardian Service