Precipitously timed as we head into deeper, restrictive Covid-19 measures in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off is a breath of fresh air.
Yes, I’m a fan of this show, particularly in recent years. I didn’t get on with Mel & Sue generally but once they left, and the charming mixture of Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig filled the breach when the show transitioned from BBC1 to Channel Four, it rapidly became a show I enjoyed with my wife as opposed to doing other things while she had it on. As with any ‘reality’ show, the combination of presenters and on-screen talent are the key ingredients to engagement. These kind of shows are, as a result, entirely subjective – I may have found Mel & Sue irritating, but many would have turned away from the show with Noel & Sandi taking their place, or the posh, grandmotherly Mary Berry being replaced by the equally posh, schoolmistress-y Prue Leith.
For me, the combination worked, and it allowed the fantasy of Bake Off to engulf me whole. And it is a fantasy. Bake Off exists in a hermetically sealed, English-rose depiction of Britain, one where the sun always shines on canvas tents surrounded by bunting in the gardens of manor houses and stately homes. It’s as if the 19th century gentry allowed the peasants to have a bit of fun on their grounds, yet at the same time it never strives to be elitist. Bake Off feels inclusive, warm and good natured, even if ultimately it’s not really about baking. It’s about personal empowerment, building self-esteem, and proving worth in a fantastical, alternate-universe England where we all live in harmony.
In 2020, more than ever, Bake Off is a pleasant fiction.
Bake Off also shows how far Channel Four has evolved over the years into a quasi-BBC, a liberal-minded purveyor of positive values as well as challenging ideas.
When the show first moved away from the BBC, after budget cuts (amongst other things) led to the corporation abandoning the series – a bizarre move given how ingrained in popular culture Bake Off became, and the legion of imitators across TV networks it spawned – one might have suspected it would signal a death knell for the show. Mel, Sue, Mary – they were touchstones of the concept and without them, surely it wouldn’t work? And Channel Four as a replacement? Really?
Channel Four when I was growing up was a channel you went to for hard-hitting, depressing northern soaps like Brookside or soft-core late night erotica and edgy programming. Had Bake Off been made in the ‘90s on Channel Four, it might have been presented by Paula Yates where contestants would have baked blood pies in an avant garde warehouse, or fronted by Antoine de Caunes and all of the bakers would be naked. Granted, Channel Four stays on brand with occasional smut with shows such as Sex Box or Naked Attraction, but as ever their tongue is always firmly in cheek.
It seems weird to argue that Bake Off logically belongs in a stable next to shows like that, but hear me out. Modern Channel Four content, down to a news programme which has rapidly challenged the BBC as an arbiter of a clear-eyed, realistic lens on modern Britain, is reflective of a nation who are far more divided and existentially traumatised than Bake Off suggests. Bake Off allows us to detach and engage in a collective fantasy of unity, even if the representation is governed through the white, middle-class lens under which modern British television is largely made. The show is inclusive but deliberately so – lest we forget a Muslim woman, Nadiya, won a few years ago, and she now has her own show on Netflix. Bake Off is still primarily white, primarily Home Counties, and primarily a safe depiction of a liberal-minded, multicultural England. It doesn’t rock the boat because it doesn’t really depict who we are.
These sound like negatives but, rather, programmes designed such as Bake Off can work as a salve. Rather than making us forget the dystopian maelstrom of Covid-19, Brexit and beyond encompassing the U.K. Bake Off suggests behind all of that everything really is quite lovely in the end.
The line-up in the first instance, who recorded the show in a self-isolated bubble during the lockdown period, are appropriately as diverse as always on Bake Off, fitting various internal series stereotypes. Hermine is African-born and cheery; Loriea, the unfortunate first to go, a friendly young woman from Durham who sadly made one too many mistakes; Peter is the young, smiley, nervous lad with baking skill (a more accessible version of last years bumptious Henry, and who much like Henry will likely be in the final reckoning); the two Mark’s (Mark and Marc) are affable, likeable chaps (one middle-aged, one not).
There’s Makbul, a quite serious Mancunian who evokes 2018’s Rahul; Lottie is this years Alice – a bit posh, looks like Cara Delevingne, though she seems much less likely to turn Norman Bates on you if your criticise her raised loaf. And so on. Bake Off almost has archetypes now that the producers look for, roles within the dynamic of the group that fit not just an ethically but culturally diverse, liberal Britain. Insert contestant A into slot B. Dave is perhaps the only one who doesn’t quite fit; with a hard to read glare and social awkwardness to spare, he early on gives off the vibe of a guy more likely to tell you what to wear on a night out than bake you a bounty of delicious treats.
Those that standout at the beginning are Linda, a strange blend of earth mother and working class cockney who might luck her way through week by week; ditto on that score Rowan, almost a walking cliche of a middle-aged, middle-England homosexual man, tinged with flute-playing eccentricity who even if his baking falls flat, audiences will likely enjoy watching. The two fan favourites early on are likely to be Laura, a jolly ‘everywoman’ who could end up the soul of the group, and Sura, a Muslim woman with a super-dry sense of humour and a hyper-critical lack of esteem that will engender her quite possibly to the nation.
After episode one, my money on the final three is Peter, Laura and Sura, with possibly Hermine, Makbul and Lottie in the frame too. But who knows? Bake Off being recorded in advance means the winner will not be solely, unlike other reality shows that rely on audience participation, based on personality, but that will be a factor. Ultimately though, being a great baker is what gets you there. Alice wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the final last year if it was based on personality alone, let’s face it!
Ultimately, the joy of Bake Off is lining up with the personalities you as an audience like the most. Last year, my wife and I were #TeamSteph, partly because she was a damn good baker but also for the fact she was genuinely likeable and modest. The fun will be coming to root for someone as the contest carries on and, in no small part, relaxing into a programme which is as much about showmanship and presentation as good baking. Just look at the main task this week – to create from cake the bust of a celebrity the contestants admire.
Mark produced a very good Charles Darwin but you hope Lupita N’yong’o never sees Hermine’s reconstruction of her, lest she be traumatised by vivid nightmares. Such outlandish challenges are the point of Bake Off, to help produce the fantasy we are buying into. And much laughter ensues; we were in bits at Prue laughing at Laura’s Mario-esque, stunted Freddie Mercury, and new host Matt Lucas (replacing Sandi) immediately fits like a glove, following a naughty, post-Boris Johnson briefing skit with him as Boris that, frankly, made much more sense than anything the Prime Minister said to the nation.
Bake Off might be an idealised Britain filled with sunshine, lovely food and aspirational middle-class people from our multicultural sphere, but that’s no bad thing. It’s an optimistic tonic, divested of our pandemic-ravaged, tribal, anxious present. It has come out of the oven at just the right time.
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