Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Manchester Literary Festival, until 23 October

Over the coming week Michael Chabon will be reading from his new novel Telegraph Avenue at the beautiful Whitworth Gallery, poet laureate and patron of the MLF Carol Ann Duffy will perform a selection of poems culled from her extensive back catalogue at the grand City Hall, and Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford will discuss his first novel since 2006, Canada. Next week’s line-up also includes Amiri Baraka, David Constantine, Patrick Gale, Penelope Lively, Iain M Banks and evenings curated by Faber and local presses Comma and Carcanet. Full details of venues, prices, dates and times are available in the festival brochure.


RA Now, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly W1J 0BD, 11 October – 11 November

An open studio of grand proportions, RA Now offers a snapshot of the work being produced by living Royal Academicians, who will exhibit side by side for the first time. A total of eighty artists working across multiple disciples from sculpture to architecture will feature, including Antony Gormley, David Hocknet, Allen Jones, Tracey Emin, Richard Long, Jenny Saville, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Grayson Perry. If you have a bob or two, all the work will be auctioned by Sotherby’s on Tuesday (9), two days before the exhibition opens to the public. Funds are being raised to support the Academy’s Burlington development project. Christopher Le Brun, President of the RA, said: “This is a unique opportunity to view and buy significant works donated by renowned artists. The Burlington Project’s aim is to make the Academy the leading international centre for visual culture for the twenty-first century, offering an independent voice for art and artists.”


Ether Festival, Southbank Centre, Oct 5 – 19

Tonight the Southbank’s annual festival of innovation, art, technology and cross-arts experimentation opens with the Brant Brauer Frick Ensemble, who blend the electronically-roduced minimalism of techno with the virtuosity and complex theory of classic music. With a twist of soul groove thrown in. Here’s a video of them in rehearsal in Berlin. The festival will include a John Cage centenary celebration, plus new and established producers, artists and conductors including Ghost Poet, Jonathan Harvey and former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton performing with the London Sinfonietta. A number of the concerts and events are free. Also at the Southbank this week the Booker Prize shortlist will come to life as authors read and discuss their work with Radio 4 presenter James Naughtie.


Radiohead, 02 Arena, 8, 9 Oct

Radiohead and their impressive stage and light technicians will fill the 02 arena with a wall of music and visual effects next week as the band play songs from their most recent album “King of Limbs” alongside choice selections from every album since 1993’s “Pablo Honey”. Quite a leap from the Jericho Tavern in Oxford where the band played their first gig in 1986. The 02 dates will be the band’s first in the UK since 2008, Rolling Stone had this to say about their return to the stage in Miami earlier this year: “Radiohead began the opening night of their first US tour in four years with a perfect description of their new state of rhythmic and creative elation; a silvery rushing momentum and exultation that set the pace of virtually everything that followed. Radiohead are one of the greatest touring bands of the modern rock era. They have also been one of the most reluctant. But, in Miami, everything in the drive, shine and delight said they were glad to be back.”


The 56th BFI London Film Festival, cinemas across London, 10 – 19 October

This year’s London Film Festival opens on Thursday, clogging up a good number of the capital’s cinemas with back-to-back premieres, talks, restored classics and red carpet divas. Beyond the disappointing bookends of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, both of which look mediocre (I could be wrong...), there lies a wealth of cinema waiting to be discovered. Check out Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sapphires, Amour and The Stoning of St Stephen for art house excellence from the US, Australia and France. The BFI website and Time Out are two of the best place to search for leftover tickets.

Christopher Le Brun, Grason Perry and Allen Jones. Photo: Getty Images.
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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.