They're out to get you

An intriguing, if paranoid, series probes the loss of our democracy

<strong>The Trap: whatever hap

The documentary-maker Adam Curtis has said that when he's at work on an idea, he spends days sitting in a darkened room watching old news clips, trying to make connections. As a technique, it has served him well. For The Power of Nightmares - in which he posited that al-Qaeda is essentially a creation of western governments who use fear to connect with their populations - he dug up footage of Donald Rumsfeld saying the same things of the USSR as he later did of Osama Bin Laden, an echo that had liberals rubbing their hands in glee.

However, his new series, The Trap: what happened to our dream of freedom (Sunday, BBC2), is so jumpy and feverish, you do wonder if his mole-like antics might finally have taken their toll. In using just about all that has happened in science and economics in the past 50 years to boost a single, spooky argument - we are in a cage! - Curtis is now scarily close to becoming what the neo-cons always said he was: a conspiracy theorist. He needs to get out more.

His new series suggests that the paranoid ideas born of the cold war, inspired by game theory, and pushed by the muscular young analysts of the Rand Corporation, have come to influence political thought pretty much ever since: in Curtis's hands, in fact, this paranoia explains everything from Prozac, to Labour's devotion to "targets", to the invasion of Iraq. Part one (of three) was called: "Fuck you, buddy," a reference to a game invented by the mathematician John Nash, the father of game theory, which was supposed to demonstrate that human beings are isolated, suspicious, selfish units, keener on betrayal than co-operation. This theory, in Curtis's hands, chimed with that of Friedrich von Hayek, who thought altruism had no place in any economic model. You can see where this is going. If self-interest is the best deterrent and incentive there is, who needs the state to referee our activities?

Hmm. So far, so good. I tried not to worry too much about the fact that John Nash is a paranoid schizophrenic and, thus, somewhat unreliable on the matter of who is after whom (and, sure enough, he now thinks his model was too savage). Curtis had conjured some amazing stuff: his interview with Nash was surpassed only by the creepy film he'd found of the psychiatrist R D Laing, looking sinister in a polo neck as he expounded his hunch that even those who care for one another are more interested in "strategising" than simple acts of love. But still, Curtis's rhetorical leaps were unsettlingly giant. One minute he was telling you how psychiatrists developed a way of diagnosing mental disorders based on computerised questionnaires, the next, we were in Downing Street, where Margaret Thatcher was getting excited about the American economist James Buchanan. It was disorientating - to put it mildly - to find that, in the blinking of an eye, the skull-like R D Laing had morphed into Antony Jay, the creator of Yes Minister.

The longer the film went on, the more it became obvious that its huge, sweeping argument didn't add up. Curtis often gets cause and effect mixed up. Worse, he links everything sinisterly to everything else, in an often quite batty way. The visual rhetoric - his use of silent movies, his Fritz Lang-style shots of drones in cubicles - is mesmerising. But it is also corrupting. Give yourself over to these images, and to Curtis's calming narrative voice, and there is the danger that you forget that his argument is one among many; that this stuff is provocative, but not necessarily true. Have we really, as he suggests, sent ourselves mad, by rushing to embrace terms such as obsessive-compulsive disorder? (How he gets from game theory to OCD is just too labyrinthine a journey to explain here.) Of course not. Nor is Prozac, however much it may be over-prescribed, enslaving entire western nations. I'm glad Curtis exists, and that the BBC allows him to get on with his strange, nightmarish projects. It's never a bad thing to be made to think. But in his own stylish way, he's as much of a propaganda merchant as the ideologists he sets out to unmask.

Pick of the week

Mansfield Park
Sunday 18 March, 9pm, ITV1
Billie Piper stars as mousy Fanny Price, which is quite odd.

Life on Mars
Tuesday 20 March, 9pm, BBC1
The long-awaited Camberwick Green episode.

The Trial of Saddam Hussein
Wednesday 21 March, 11.25pm, BBC2
Account of the infamous trial.

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 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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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.