Despite glowing reviews, The Great British Bake Off is definitely worse

But it’s all we have in this hateful world.

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We open with a wide shot of a rainbow hot-air balloon. Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding are in it. Noel is, obviously, wearing a top hat and fingerless gloves. Sandi is wearing a pilot’s leathers and goggles. They’re lost, looking for a (very obvious) big white tent. What is this quirky scene?! Why, it’s The Great British Bake Off, of course!

After a controversial move to Channel 4 (honestly, if you learned something new in those seven words, where on earth were you last year), the Bake Off is back, with new presenters Sandi and Noel replacing Mel and Sue, and new judge Prue Leith stepping into the enormous court shoes of Mary Berry. Only The Worst Judge, Paul Hollywood – only useful as someone Mel, Sue and Mary could mock – remains. To make this awkward, “wacky” intro slightly worse, Sandi nods to her predecessors by saying into her iPhone, “Sorry, Sue, you did say ‘white’ tent, didn’t you?” How dare you speak her name in this house? After everything you people did to her! Such disrespect!

But after this stilted introduction, we have to familiarise ourselves with Channel 4’s changes. What about Prue Leith? “Prue’s got 50 years experience in the business,” Paul explains by way of introduction, which, you know, sounds great and all, but I can’t be the only person thinking, “Yeah, but Mary had over 60, didn’t she.” But we must try and be fair and neutral to poor old Prue. I try to withhold judgement until she’s spoken for herself.

The very first thing Prue says is the following sentence. “Baking is such a treat, but it has to be the very best. And it has to be worth the calories.” Barely one minute of screen time has passed and we’ve already heard the dreaded C word. This is a show about producing and enjoying delicious baked goods. It provides us with a brief sanctuary from our terrible lives, in which we are encouraged to remember that hey, at least we all live in a world that has donuts, and donuts are good. The very, very last thing the Bake Off needs is little verbal reminders that we live in a world that hates the mere concept of body fat, that refuses to allow us to eat without shame. This comment can get in the bin alongside Iain’s Baked Alaska. I pretty much tuned Prue out for the remainder of the show, and she didn’t seem to say anything interesting, anyway. Paul remains irritating.

What about Sandi and Noel? In the first episode at least, the pair seem hyper self-conscious of the pressure of their new jobs, smiling nervously and tiptoeing around the contestants. Both make self-deprecating jokes. This doesn’t prevent the odd cringe-worthy moment: Noel says predictably zany things like “if this was a fruit party, sultanas would not be on the guest list”, “unfortunately, time isn’t an illusion,” and “that tasted like a clown’s nose”. At one point, he spontaneously decides to cram an enormous inedible flower into his mouth. Thankfully, he mostly stays away from sexual puns (what might be twee and naughty from Sue would be creepy from Noel). Together, Noel and Sandi have a quite sweet platonic chemistry that I enjoy, but the two are at their best when most closely approximate Mel and Sue. And then you remember that they’re not Mel and Sue.

Reviews about the new show were glowing.  The Telegraph’s five star review labelled Channel 4’s new recipe as “as winning as ever”, while the Daily Mail called it “impossible to hate”. The Guardian’s Mark Lawson added that “only someone desperate to dislike” the new show could argue it was a disaster. But as much as I love optimism, for me, every single change to the show has been for the worse.

The best thing you can say about it is that at least some things haven’t changed. Channel 4 aren’t total idiots, they know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The format remains pretty much untouched. We still have signature, technical and showstopper challenges. There’s still a big white tent. It still rains.

Most importantly, the contestants are, as usual, irresistibly likeable. A 71-year-old Liverpudlian, Flo is a particular delight, chiding Paul for teasing her about their shared accent, and pausing mid-bake to ask Noel how he’s coping with his new job. I adore Yan, who is down-to-earth and seems notably unfussy in the tent, yet produces a beautiful, intricate ramen bowl illusion cake that looks nicer than the food in a Hayao Miyazaki film. Liam, 19, has an adorable mix of confidence and nervousness, while 50-year-old Chris, is, in no uncertain terms, A Bit Of A Joker. Sophie and Steven, both in their mid-thirties, emerge as early front runners.

Bake Off Best Bits:

  • Kate saying, “I’ve never made a mini roll. In my life. Ever. Why would I?” Same, Kate.
  • Flo, responding to Noel asking her how it’s going with the question, “And what do you think? About your new job?”
  • Liam’s words of self-motivation.
  • Flo clutching her enormous watermelon cake with pride.
  • Peter’s face of horror after his stressful knife disaster.
  • Liam “That’s the… circumference of the cake? Or the diameter? I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I did maths.”
  • Yan’s genuine joy at the complex scientific methods she uses to make little bubbles in her ramen cake, complete with a little exclamation of, “Science!”
  • The Chris and Sandi banter.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.