The season finale of The Great British Bake Off was the third most popular programme on television last year – outflanked only by two World Cup football matches. The final episode of this season, airing tomorrow, will in all likelihood be the most-watched show of 2015. Over the last five years, in fact, Bake Off has so thoroughly entangled itself with the consciousness of the nation that it has become easy to forget how very, very strange it is that 10 million Britons switch on their TV sets each Wednesday evening to watch a baking contest filmed in a tent in the countryside.
No one predicted the scale of its success. Richard McKerrow and Anna Beattie, who founded Love Productions, which makes the show, tried to sell the idea for four years before BBC2 finally picked it up. Their original inspiration, they told me, was the rural baking competition at a village fete; they liked the idea that bakers were naturally generous – making delicious things for others. And they felt that baking said much about Britain and its regional quiddities, from Dundee cakes to bara brith to Bakewell tarts. But their pitch was repeatedly passed over, for the perfectly understandable reason that TV commissioners felt that watching people make cakes would be unutterably dull. Imagine that someone had told you in 2009 that by 2015 the great television success would be a baking competition presented by two decidedly unglitzy middle-aged women, one of them gay, and judged by an octogenarian cookbook writer and a Liverpudlian professional baker of whom you had never heard. You might have cheered for the sisterhood, but you probably wouldn’t have believed it.
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Much of the tone of the show – as light and sweet as a sponge – is carried by its presenters, the impish Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, and their end-of-pier, Carry On-style humour. “I’ve never eaten a nun before,” Sue remarked solemnly after the contestants were set the task of making a French choux pastry called a religieuse. If Mel and Sue give Bake Off its wit, the judges – the grandmotherly, somewhat patrician Mary Berry and the flinty-but-twinkly master baker Paul Hollywood – are its twin deities. “Alvin has really got to pull up his socks,” is a typically nannyish remark from Mary, who reacts to baking disasters more in sorrow than in anger; “Queen Victoria would be proud” represents the zenith of her lexicon of praise.
Paul and Mary treat each other with an indulgent respect, across a gaping class divide. Squarely built, Paul has a particular way of standing: legs apart, shirt cuffs tucked once over his sleeves, hands on hips. He employs a Paddington stare through narrowed, Arctic-blue eyes to impart scepticism when bakers head off on the wrong track – daring to introduce gritty pomegranates to a silky bavarois, for instance.
The genius of The Great British Bake Off - Podcast
The rules of the show are simple. At the beginning of the series, 12 amateur bakers are introduced to viewers. Each week is designated a broad theme: bread, say, or pastry, or desserts. Within the hour-long show (compressed from a weekend of filming), bakers compete in three rounds, after which the weakest is dispatched and the strongest accorded the title “star baker”. This continues until three bakers are left, when the grand final unfolds. For the viewer, an hour in the Bake Off tent is like peeping through the window into a charmed land of plenty: a fairytale landscape of tottering choux towers, charlotte russes filled with trembling expanses of bavarois, gingerbread houses and cheesecake tiers and lady fingers and sponges and macarons and frangipanes. But the competition throbs with drama. Will the sponge sink? Will the custard split? Will the ice cream melt? Has the doe-eyed, bashful junior doctor Tamal Ray, one of this year’s finalists, used the strong flour necessary (it turns out!) to make eclairs that are sturdy enough to hold the weight of a further tier of iced eclairs? Will prison governor Paul Jagger underbake his eclairs, causing them to be soft, and bend – “which would be ghastly”, in Mary’s words?
In the moment of watching, I find myself punching the air, or gasping in excitement, or clutching at my head in despair. The characters might be attempting to scale a mountain or swim an ocean, so badly does one begin to care about their fates. As the series progresses, one begins to recognise their particularities. A nation’s eyes rolled when Ian Cumming, another of this season’s finalists, declared that he was baking with eggs laid by his own guinea fowl: of course he fashioned his own device to cut lady fingers to precisely 9cm long; of course it was he who constructed a wellhead from tempered chocolate with a bucket that drew a lemon-flavoured, white chocolate drink from its depths. It was the moment when Tamal affixed crescent moons and delicate pastry roses – inspired by the Arabian Nights and Persian gardens – to his raised game pie that I really fell for him. When Nadiya Hussain, lip trembling with trepidation, presented her sculpted chocolate peacock to the judges (and secured her own route to the final), I cried.
Bake Off is rapturous, it is agonising, it is hilarious. And yet, how minuscule and how utterly ridiculous, after all. This is an economy of minor anxieties and insignificant dangers: the emotional range of a comfortable life, fretted by quotidian storms – a parking ticket, a stressful day at work, a forgotten lunch date. Bake Off validates the small quiet dramas of the trifling everyday.
None of this has come about by chance. The Bake Off formula has developed and matured since its debut in 2010. In season one, the mix was a little stodgy. The tent travelled around the country, sometimes pitched (implausibly, it now seems) in carparks, with passersby peeking in. Mel and Sue were not quite funny, yet, and much of their job consisted of interviewing food experts (six alone in the first episode) for lengthy exegeses of baking history. Mary, limp-haired, had not yet been given the casual-chic wardrobe of bright, tailored jackets and jeans. In season two, the format began to firm up: the star baker idea was introduced, and Mel and Sue began to chant: “Ready, get set, bake” before each challenge. It was in season two that Bake Off really took off on Twitter, when the camera lingered for a second on a squirrel displaying a pair of enormous testicles, a cause of enormous hilarity among the commentariat.
In season four there was an all-female final with a memorable cast: the designer Frances Quinn, who was always having “ideas”; the confident, self-assured Kimberley Wilson, who, to no one’s surprise, knew a word in Japanese for the notion of always being able to push yourself beyond your apparent limits; the coltishly beautiful Ruby Tandoh, who flavoured her bakes with a brooding melancholy. (Sue: “You’re studying Wittgenstein!” Ruby: “That’s nothing compared to this.”)
The programme makers only gradually learned to set tasks pleasing to the eye: in the first season, one challenge consisted of making three puddings, one with bread, one with suet, and a crumble – brown blobs in Pyrex dishes. Over time, challenges became more perilously architectural – a croquembouche (choux puff tower) in season two, and in season three a gingerbread building (the eventual winner, John, re-created the Roman Colosseum). Season five’s final saw the construction of a cake-and-sugar coal mine, complete with winding gear. That series contained a full-on tabloid scandal when one contender, Diana Beard, was widely accused of sabotage when she removed an alaska, not hers, from a freezer. (It belonged to Iain Watters, and he presented his ruined pudding to the judges from the murky depths of a fliptop bin, whither he had cast it in a fury; this event was even more scandalous than the custard theft of 2013 – don’t ask.)
Bake Off is, in fact, as much about a secondary discourse played out in the press and social media as it is about the show itself. This conversation has been harnessed by the BBC itself, with its cheery spinoff show An Extra Slice, presented by comedian Jo Brand, in which “celebrity fans” gather to discuss the preceding week’s events in a studio carefully styled to resemble the Bake Off tent. At the time of writing, the Daily Telegraph had published 73 articles about the programme since 1 August; supermarket aisles groan with muffin tins and piping bags and cake stands come Bake Off season. The show has shrugged off the bonds of mere TV, and garnered a cultural presence rarely seen since the shows of the 1970s – the so-called “golden age” of television.
The Great British Bake Off is a fully fledged cultural phenomenon – and it may be the perfect show for Britain, now. We exist in a world where the difficult words “Great” and “British” cannot safely be applied to much. But they can be applied to a baking contest.
Bake Off has shrugged off the bonds of mere TV and garnered a cultural presence rarely seen since the shows of the 1970s
* * *
In the summer of 2009, the year before Bake Off first aired, Britain was reeling from the financial crisis. One sunny Manchester morning, Jeremy Deller – an artist who put flower arrangements made by members of the Women’s Institute in the Tate – staged a procession, complete with embroidered banners and lovingly decorated floats, that he had created with members of the local community. The following day, the artist Antony Gormley began a project in which members of the public occupied the normally empty fourth plinth in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square, London: for an hour at a time they sang, or danced, or simply enjoyed their time in the sun (or rain). The project had been conceived long before the crash, and in more prosperous times, might have stood as a monument to vainglorious individuality. As it was, it had a kind of unforced charm; it became a celebration of ordinariness.
There was a new spirit in the land, one that had been quietly gathering strength in the boom years, and found new resonance in a post-crash Britain. Knitting circles became chic. New branches of the Women’s Institute, hitherto firmly associated in the national imagination with the dowdy, jam-making elders of rural communities, began to be founded by thirtysomethings in fashionable urban neighbourhoods. (A branch calling itself the Shoreditch Sisters, set up in 2007, has concerned itself with crocheting protest signs and campaigning against female genital mutilation.)
To the cynical, such activities represented self-deception and false consciousness: people used to knit clothes because they couldn’t afford to buy them, not as some kind of folksy hobby. The knitters, by and large, seemed to recognise that. The activity was simultaneously a knowing re-creation of something that might never have quite existed, and a sincerely enjoyed, personally enriching, everyday act of creativity. This is the spirit that Love Productions has so successfully mined – the way in which these small daily acts, if you only looked at them afresh, might become extraordinary. They have followed the success of Bake Off with The Great British Sewing Bee and, coming this autumn to BBC2, The Great British Pottery Throwdown.
The Bake Off may have appealed to a nation that, in economically bleak times, cleaved to domestic comforts, but it has also tapped into a plangent sense of Britishness, one that recalls some unspecified and ungraspable past. The tent is calculated to recall the marquees of the rural flower and produce show. The set dressing, in each series more skilfully achieved, waxes nostalgic, in the carefully manufactured way of Cath Kidston, the designer of floral tea towels and spotty cushion covers. The contestants work in their own mini kitchen islands, wooden-topped units painted in pale ice-cream colours. Electric mixers are similarly pastel-coloured, as are the retro fridge-freezers. The walls are set about with union jack bunting, and at the front of the tent are tables with gingham cloths, little assemblages of wicker baskets to evoke a picnic outing from the 1950s, and eggshell-blue-painted dressers and chests adorned with china, enamel jugs and vintage bread bins.
The whole aesthetic evokes the notion of the cheerful farmhouse kitchen, despite bearing no resemblance to the dark, scruffy farm kitchens I remember from growing up in the country – cats perched on dog-eared piles of Farmers Weekly, shelves lined with ancient, grimy newspaper. It is important that Bake Off is not set in the antiseptic surroundings of an urban studio, but rather in a carefully chosen and people-free landscape, which can be glimpsed through the windows of the marquee. (This year and last it has been pitched in the gardens of Welford Park near Newbury in Berkshire.) This is the English countryside in all its May-time loveliness – which the viewer actually watches months later, as they contemplate damp September – to be admired through lovingly filmed heads of cow parsley nodding under the weight of spring raindrops, or via long shots of fields of buttercups.
Bake Off is pure English pastoral: it is Delius, Vaughan-Williams and Blake. It is Miss Marple. It is the National Trust. It is the first tableau in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics: a village cricket match played out in a green and pleasant land. It is the England that then prime minister John Major vowed would never vanish in a famous 1993 speech: “Long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.” Major was mining Orwell’s wartime essay The Lion and the Unicorn, whose tone was one of reassurance – the national culture will survive, despite everything: “The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies.”
Orwell and Major were both asserting the strength of a national culture at times when Britishness – for both men basically Englishness – was felt to be under threat from outside dangers (war, integration into Europe). The Bake Off tent operates similarly. There it sits, in inviolable splendour, a blessed plot, an island amid a sea of green. Into this demi-paradise the dangerous clamour of less happy lands cannot intrude. The tent stands in for a utopian little Britain in which all – the firefighter, the student, the grandmother, the doctor, the nurse, the prison governor, the full-time mother, the musician – exist in harmony. This little world is rather middle-class (some people in the real world are too posh to bake, some too impoverished, and they are not in the tent). It is a world in which any number of distinctions have been erased, and many pressing and anxious-making things are left outside. In the real world, Tamal may tweet about the iniquities of the government’s contracts for junior doctors, but this side of him is never expressed in the tent, just as it is unthinkable that Paul-the-prison-governor might so much as mention the criminal justice system. It is, of course, a wish-fulfillment, this equalising Albion of common purpose, meritocratic effort and vanished difference. But how delightful and seductive it is, this little world, where all that matters is the rise of your sponge.
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