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23 September 2020

How The Great British Bake Off became the UK’s pandemic escapism

In a year lacking in comforting familiarity, the TV show’s formulaic charms have renewed appeal.   

By Emily Bootle

Within two minutes of the first episode of the Great British Bake Off’s eleventh (yes, eleventh) season, judge Prue Leith reminds us of what we already know. “Same old Bake Off,” she says. “Familiar, comforting, lovely.”

Of course, the only reason she has to qualify that Bake Off remains familiar, comforting and lovely is that it has been filmed during the coronavirus pandemic (which has been around for about six months now, you might have heard of it). The episode had to be pushed back by 15 minutes, to accommodate Boris Johnson’s televised address to the nation outlining new coronavirus restrictions. “Great British Bake Off will be DELAYED to make way for Boris Johnson”, read one aggrieved Daily Mail headline yesterday. Twitter users joked that the clash was just soooo British.

Though Bake Off usually lets its familiar, comforting loveliness speak for itself, last night was different. Before the opening credits rolled, the show included an unprecedented (and, presumably, last-minute) sketch of political satire, with new co-host Matt Lucas in a blonde wig giving a pitch-perfect impersonation of Boris Johnson (a follow up to his earlier viral Twitter video satirising the government’s mixed messaging). “We are saying with regards to baking,” he says at a podium in front of Union Jacks, “if you must bake in a tent, bake in a tent – but please don’t bake in a tent. We are asking people to use common sense with regards to the distribution of hundreds and thousands.” To really hammer home the joke, Lucas’s fellow presenter Noel Fielding takes on the role of a journalist at a press conference, asking the correct way to pronounce “scone”. Lucas turns to his chief advisers – Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood – and they give different answers. Lucas whips off his wig. Welcome to the Great British Bake Off

Bake Off has always been unabashed escapism. The spurious marquee in anonymous, National Trust-esque countryside has long represented a safe, twee microcosm – a world outside of politics, where the worst thing that could possibly happen is a cake being dropped on the floor. But this year – as we spend more time indoors with a desperate need for distraction, at a time when many other TV shows have been put on hold – Bake Off will perhaps take on even greater significance. The prospect of another lockdown has the nation in the mood for hiding under a blanket and watching the most unthreatening fluff imaginable. And in this opening skit, Bake Off does what it hasn’t done before: address our political landscape directly. 

The Bake Off tent has always been a bubble, but this year in more ways than one. There are no two-metre restrictions inside the marquee, no bemasked Paul Hollywood, because cast and crew created their own isolation “bubble” while filming – holing up together in an idyllic location for seven weeks in a self-sacrificing move to make inventive cakes and tricky little choux buns for the entertainment of the British public. So aside from the first two minutes when Bake Off acknowledges the graveness of the “present situation”, and when contestant Laura says she felt very sad on her last night at home when she had fajitas with her husband, this is a coronavirus-free zone. Except, of course, it’s not, because it has deliberately framed itself within the context of coronavirus, and used its inconsequential fodder  scones, hundreds and thousands as a stress-free alternative. Come in, it says, we are the antithesis of the pandemic. Nothing bad can happen to you here. Apparently, the public agrees: last night’s series opener peaked at 7.9 million views, up by more than a million on the previous year’s, and making it the show’s biggest overnight launch audience since its move to Channel 4.

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The membrane of the Bake Off bubble gets thicker each year. The show has become so self-referential that it is now essentially Bake Off-squared. What were once cheeky innuendos are now cosy in-jokes (thankfully, there was no mention of a soggy bottom on last night’s episode, but it feels like there’s always a risk). Fielding describes the weekly technical challenge as “a gingham-covered mystery”. Hollywood, the only remaining original of the judges and presenters, peacocks around with the superior expression of a worldly-wise Year Six who knows exactly which school toilet cubicle you can get away with beating someone up in. At one point, music teacher Rowan explains that his favourite opera is Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and as such his Battenburg represents the forces of darkness on the outside and the temple of enlightenment within. In Bake Off-world, it’s not that much of a stretch.

Matt Lucas is the newest presenter and third iteration of judge-presenter combo, and has little choice but to ironicise his role within such a rigid formula. He’s an endearing, kind host – much better than Noel Fielding, who is clearly vaguely embarrassed by the whole thing and whose trendy shirt doesn’t compensate for his failed attempt to say in earnest the words “3D cake bust” – but his newbie presence somehow highlights the show’s tiredness. “Ready for those magic words?” asks Fielding at the beginning of the first challenge. Lucas deliberately gets it wrong, does an extra-long pause; they josh around for a minute. The nation screams “ready, steady, bake” at their televisions with the outrage of children at a pantomime who know the villain is, in fact, behind you. 

Bake Off is at its most absorbing when its extremely mild peril is invoked. It’s an art at which the producers are by now well-practised. Ominous music plays as the contestants furiously roll out marzipan, which must be just the right thickness, or else. Timpani boom as Rowan’s temple of enlightenment is sabotaged by his undercooked sponge. When there’s half an hour remaining in a challenge, the montage becomes faster paced along with our pulse. And then it happens. As the contestants gather to put their miniature pineapple upside-down cakes on the “gingham altar” (yuck) to be judged, Sura flaps around a bit to get rid of a bug, or a bit of fluff, on hers. Her arm flings back. She does not realise Dave is behind her with his slate of cakes. Flesh meets sponge. Sponge, cream and cherries meet floor.

A deathly silence follows, before poignant piano music starts to play. If you were worried about coronavirus before, you’re not now. Sura is devastated. Dave at first looks incredulous, then rises above it. Lucas and Fielding scramble to salvage the cakes, Sura weeps and Dave, suddenly surrounded by lads, says “accidents happen” (that’s Bake Off for “it is what it is”).

Every year, as Bake Off becomes a more concentrated version of itself, it becomes slightly more insufferable: all fondant icing, handshakes and Union Jack bunting. All this is usually eye-rollingly twee. But in a year where the comforts of familiarity are hard to come by, the Bake Off is set for a resurgence in popularity; and by acknowledging its context, the show has made itself relevant again. Now, there is a greater joy to be found in an emotional landscape where the greatest disappointment is some unrisen dough, the purest thrill some beautifully neat piping. Yes, it’s the same old Bake Off – but it’s a slightly different world.

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