Diana, framed by some crafty editing. Photo: BBC/Love Productions
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Diana was framed: why did the Great British Bake Off throw an innocent WI judge to the wolves?

Accusations of a stitch-up are flying after the baking show’s most controversial episode to date.

Something terrible happened in Britain last night. Some ice cream melted, and then was thrown in the bin. A man with a beard had a strop about it and stormed out of a tent. A woman was the victim of an entire nation’s assumptions that she had done something underhand. The country erupted.

I am, of course, talking about the Great British Bake Off. I’ve tried before to explain why apparently minor events on what is just a reality show about cake cause such upheaval. It’s the essential niceness of the programme – the checked table cloths, Mary Berry’s oh-so-blue eyes, Mel and Sue’s puns, the shots of a lovely garden in the sunshine – that makes even the smallest disruption seem like the worst thing that’s ever happened ever. And so it proved last night.

For dessert week, the fourth episode of the fifth series, the contestants were required to make a Baked Alaska as their final, “showstopper” challenge. If you’re not familiar with this particular confection, it’s a big dome made of sponge and ice cream, covered in meringue. It’s really difficult to make even in the most professional of circumstances, owing to the ice cream’s tendency to melt and ooze out through the cake in a rather disgusting fashion, and the problems caused by trying to cover the whole wet mass in something as unstable as beaten egg whites mixed with sugar. Let’s be clear: nobody likes Baked Alaska. It’s a strange Seventies concoction that’s oddly gooey and firm at the same time. Its repulsiveness is part of the challenge – if you can make it taste nice, you’re a bloody good baker.

It was even harder than usual for GBBO’s contestants, though, as they were trying to produce these monstrosities in a tent, on an extremely hot summer day. The Incident occurred when Diana, a 69-year-old Women’s Institute judge from Shropshire (and GBBO’s oldest-ever contestant) appeared to remove another contestant’s ice cream from the freezer and leave it on the side, where it promptly melted all over the counter.

Iain, a Northern Irish engineer with a ruddy beard like a Viking, lost it when he saw that his black poppy sesame seed ice cream had become a sloppy grey mess. He threw it in the bin and stormed out of the tent, refusing to complete the rest of the challenge. From what we saw on screen, it certainly looked as if Diana had deliberately sabotaged her fellow competitor, destroying his chances of a set ice cream in the time allowed. Twitter erupted in violent condemnation of her, and GBBO’s Wikipedia page was even briefly edited to reflect her new role as the nation’s most hated Ice Cream Melting Supervillain:

Except that she isn’t. In this new Britain where we all have to take sides over some soggy cake, I will proudly out myself as being on Team Diana. No doubt hoping for exactly the kind of drama they have caused, the programme’s editors made it appear as if Iain’s ice cream had been removed from the freezer deliberately, and for ages, hence its liquid state. In fact, presenter Sue Perkins has since confirmed that the ice cream was out of the freezer for 40 seconds, maximum, and that Iain’s subsequent strop was – as he himself said – the result of his own frustration at the difficulty of the challenge. After she saw the way the incident had been portrayed on screen, Diana was very upset, and has now said that she feels like it was “a stitch-up”.

Iain let his passion for cake get the better of him.
Photo: BBC/Love Productions

The fact that Iain was the contestant eliminated at the end of the episode has only fed the anti-Diana sentiment, of course, but it should be noted that nobody made him throw it all in the bin and storm off (as Paul Hollywood said on Twitter, they need something to judge). Another competitor, Chetna, also had problems with the heat and ended up presenting some sponge with ice cream on it, rather than the whole ridiculous edifice, and received nothing but kindness and understanding from the judges. Also, Iain hadn’t exactly covered himself with glory in the rest of the episode, coming 6th out of the 9 contestants in the tiramisu “technical” challenge. As he said himself, when he shamefacedly brought the bin up to present to the judges: “I had some issues with the ice cream and I let the frustration get the better of me.”

Diana herself made a slightly wobbly meringue swan, which was well-received by the judges. But Paul Hollywood had an additional bit of advice for her, telling her not to come up to be judged with her head down anymore.

“You should hold your head up,” he said. “Like a swan would.”

I, for one, hope that she glides, swan-like, through the rest of the competition.

Update 28 August 16:15

Diana will not be appearing in the Great British Bake Off again, following last night's controversial episode. The BBC say her departure was due to illness and not the events of episode 4. A spokesperson said:

“The night before episode five, Diana made a decision not to come back. This is not connected in any way to what happened in episode four.”

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories