I'm not worried about masculinity in crisis: I've seen where it leads

Blood, mud and splinters.

Diane Abbott is not the first public figure to generate headlines with the phrase “masculinity in crisis.” (Though she may be the first to use the ungainly word “pornified” in a speech.) I remember it being quite the bumper-sticker slogan around the publication in 1990 of Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book about Men which advocated that the male’s proper place was in the woods, gnawing the heads off gazelles and felling trees with his bare hands, usually while shirtless (weather permitting). The burgeoning consensus was that men had been emasculated and feminised by the whole New Man revolution; in the process of changing nappies, watching thirtysomething and waxing our chests (often all at the same time), we had lost something vital and visceral in ourselves.

Having become a parent for the first time in the early 1990s, these matters were occasionally on my mind. It’s true that I did spend a lot of my time pushing the pram; sometimes I even remembered to place my baby daughter inside it first. The concept of masculinity in crisis was not one which affected me personally; if I was not hunting or playing rugby or putting up a shelf any more, it was only because I had never done it in the first place, what with my disabling fear of blood, mud and splinters.

But I had witnessed it played out enough times in films to know that my generation could not reasonably lay claim to its inception. If you have seen John Wayne grappling with his own brutishness in The Searchers, or Jack Nicholson snarling and sniping at the women around him in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, you have seen a phenomenon that predates by many decades Abbott’s slightly bizarre vision of a culture characterised by Viagra and Jack Daniels. Latter-day cinemagoers have not been short of examples, many of them properly connected to the culture of isolation and misdirection that Abbott identifies in her speech as arising from “movements in the labour market”—look at what the absence of work does to the men in Brassed Off or L’emploi du temps.

The new thriller The Liability, starring Tim Roth as a seasoned hit-man taking on a cocky apprentice (Jack O’Connell) for a job in the North of England, provides a neat glimpse of male vulnerability in the context of violence. I should declare an interest—the film’s screenwriter, John Wrathall, is a friend and colleague of mine—but it’s the performances of Roth and O’Connell (and that of Peter Mullan as their imposing boss) that I want to highlight here. Roth has himself been on the other end of this relationship: he was the yapping upstart to an older assassin (played by John Hurt) in Stephen Frears’s road movie The Hit, and there’s a pleasing continuity there. Roth’s character Myron didn’t survive The Hit (few did) but if he had done, it is plausible that he would have grown up to be like Roy, the weary old hand whose irritation at O’Connell’s Adam softens into an intermittently paternal protectiveness.

As the instigator of their gruesome mission, Mullan happens also to be Adam’s mother’s boyfriend, which brings another distorted father/son relationship into the mix. The problem is not merely the fatherlessness that Abbott highlights but the influence of the wrong sorts of fathers. The connective tissue between The Hit and The Liability is helpful here. Myron was already under the influence of a toxic kind of masculinity—the 1980s soccer-yob culture which you can see in the scene in which he smashes up a Spanish bar and everyone in it—but to have John Hurt’s Braddock (as weary there as Roth is in The Liability) as a mentor is never going to keep you on the straight and narrow. Similarly, Adam may have to face his own stepfather in the brutal climax of The Liability, but even if he defeats him, there’s no real prospect of him escaping the cycle of violence given his tutelage by Roy—and by his alliance with another character later in the movie. Think of the eloquent final scene of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: two violent men lying in the dust. That’s where violence gets us.

So The Hit leads almost 30 years later to The Liability, which leads to… what? Well, perhaps some enterprising writer will put together the next instalment in another three decades, and a canny casting director will have the good sense to hire Jack O’Connell as a grizzled, grown-up version of Adam and we can check back in to see if the cycle has been broken.

The Liability is released 17 May. The Hit screens tonight (16 May) at BFI Southbank, London SE1.

jack O'Connell and Tim Roth in The Liability.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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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.