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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge