Holey private: dreams of health for loadsamoney. Photo: BBC
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Theatres of the absurd: the unadulterated horror of Harley Street

Six months of treatment for cancer? A mere £30,000 at London's most exclusive clinics.

Inside Harley Street

Don’t be misled by the outwardly jaunty tone: in her new films about Harley Street (Mondays, 9pm), the documentary-maker Vanessa Engle has opened a vein of unadulterated horror. How desperate people are, and how deluded. I suppose we all know that human beings will cough up almost any amount of cash in pursuit of hope. But it’s surprising and rather devastating to find that they also write vast cheques in exchange for hugs, handshakes and empty blandishments. “You look great!” trills a plastic surgeon to her seventysomething-year-old patient as she arrives at her consulting room post-facelift, looking like something out of a Channel 4 drama about domestic violence. Beneath her gaze, the patient, bruised and battered, blooms like a flower. It seems not to occur to her that the doctor is merely praising her own (very expensive) handiwork.

Engle (Jews, Women, Welcome to the World of Weight Loss) has a satirical eye and is known for asking her interviewees blunt questions (“What’s your worst fear? That he might die from cancer?”). But what I like best about her technique is her swift, minimalist way with folly. So deftly does she lay it out – she is the surgeon here – that we’ve no option but to fall into line in the matter of judgement. Will a hair transplant change a young man’s life? It seems unlikely, and perhaps his mother is weeping because she already knows that it won’t. Will a husband appreciate, or even notice, his wife’s umpteenth cosmetic procedure? Well, anything for a quiet life; but no. Is it really possible to believe that, as a doctor, you were put on the earth to perform liposuction on sad young women? Definitely not, for all that you might well have a carefully prepared line about making people “feel” better.

Engle’s series is in three parts. The first film focuses on those who visit Harley Street because they are sick and the doctors who treat them. The second (airs 20 April) is about plastic surgery (I watched a preview because once I’d seen the first film I couldn’t bear not to). The third is about complementary therapies (ditto). The last two films are, I think, better than the first, and you should certainly try to catch them; I can’t remember a bit of observational TV that made me feel more disapprovingly Protestant, feminist and, above all, rationalist. But the first film had its moments, too. I do see that if you have cancer, and enough money, you might want to opt out of the NHS. Then again, if the highly qualified professional I was paying hundreds of quid an hour addressed my mother with the words “Hello, Mum!” I think my fear would temporarily shade into indignation. Equally mystifying was the young woman who wanted to be treated for breast cancer by the same clinic that had cared for her father. She wanted, she said, to share the same cancer “journey”. This dear dad, by the way, had since died.

The sums involved made your eyes pop. Six months of treatment for cancer? A mere £30,000. I tried to unpick the complicated mathematics of risk, faith and profit, but it was tricky. All the doctors involved confessed to having private insurance. Then again, the leading urologist Professor Roger Kirby admitted that the NHS had the same equipment as his clinic; the difference is that he offers a more personalised service (for instance: making the effort to learn the Norwegian word for “cured” while treating a patient from Oslo). How did they feel about working in the private sector? Not too conflicted, I would say. Only one, Professor Justin Stebbing, who runs a cancer research unit in the NHS alongside his Harley Street practice, said it sat “badly” with him.

And how did the patients feel about handing over their credit cards? Pretty good. One woman, pterodactyl-like behind glasses as big as television screens, had no idea how much her medical bills came to. “This is like asking Cameron how much a bottle of milk is,” she said, en route to her Bentley. Still, in the matter of serious illness (as opposed to the chap who rings his private GP at 2am and demands to have his blood pressure checked on returning from the casino), pity usually trumps politics, or so I find. Save your outrage for the next two films, which are Engle at her very best – and that’s really saying something.

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 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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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.