You’re not really allowed to dislike the Great British Bake Off. Even hardened cynics are expected to praise it because it is oh-so-self-aware, armed with innuendos, irony, reputable comedians and the success of its former contestants – from Nadiya Hussain to Tamal Ray to Ruby Tandoh, all now TV chefs or food writers shaking up our white and middle-class food media.
Ok, you were briefly allowed to hate it – just a little bit – when the show was bought by Channel 4 in 2017, having previously been broadcast on BBC One. Many viewers were simply disgusted that the British institution would sell out by willingly saying goodbye to fan favourites Mel and Sue and Mary Berry to make more money elsewhere.
But, despite those cast shake-ups (Mel and Sue replaced by Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding; Berry replaced by Prue Leith), little else changed. The show remains resolutely dedicated to the seriousness of buttercream and union jack bunting and is still held, inexplicably, in a marquee. Last night’s episode – the first of the new series – was no different, from the homely sound effects of the opening sequence (eggs cracking, batter mixing) to “ready, steady, bake”!
The majority of viewers were, understandably, relieved to see the Bake Off continue in this sugary style. But I find this maintaining of familiarity and tradition bleakly representative of the show’s foundations in twee, outdated notions of jolly-good, safe-and-sound Britishness. This has only become more extreme with time. In its old age – now in its 10th season – the show has become cosily self-referential, stale and sickly sweet. In last night’s opening skit, when the presenters and judges cosplay Wizard of Oz characters, with Noel Fielding as Dorothy in a checked dress, Sandi remarked, “I don’t think this show can have too much gingham”.
Of course, I can see that the Bake Off still has some enjoyable elements. The contestants themselves tend to be excellent: it is their humanness that makes the show enjoyable. Their triumphs and mistakes have resulted in pleasing memes (like Diana’s sabotage of Ian’s Baked Alaska in 2014, yielding the hashtag #JusticeForIan) and genuinely moving clips (winner Nadiya Hussain declaring in her emotional 2015 acceptance speech, “I’m never gonna say ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.”)
It’s always a joy to meet those contestants that rub up against the 1950s pastel setting, from 2016’s motorcycling banker Selasi to 2014’s Scottish retired naval officer Norman, who described a tarte au citron as “exotic”. This year, there’s Helena, who is a bit of a Goth, was raised in Lanzarote, and is obsessed with Halloween. There’s lorry-driver Phil from Essex who is quietly skilled, embedding a flawless cylinder of marzipan inside his fruitcake (though the judges aren’t so keen on his flavours, tut tut). And there’s 20-year-old Jamie from Dorking, who’s obviously a little bit cool but also sweet and good-humoured (“I’m doing, like, a Simnel cake, it’s gonna have, like, chicks on it”).
But this mildly heart-warming smashing of taboos (boys can bake too!) requires a backdrop of stuffiness in order to function. And Bake Off often reverts to eye-roll inducing gags from another era. The editors include a clip of Phil, who, when using his wife’s recipe, joked, “I just do what she says, like any normal married man!” Meanwhile, Steph quips that she’s “getting a bit OCD” about weighing her ingredients. It’s not that Bake Off needs to be flawlessly woke, but finding humour in such dated jokes is either thoughtless and lazy or deliberate and depressing.
Bake Off has a long-running trade in its own clichéd catchphrases: references to “soggy bottoms” and “crème pat” litter the show’s surface like hundreds and thousands. These winks-to-camera used to be pleasingly self-aware, but now feel predictable and smug. The Bake Off can only continue to sell itself as a marketable brand by perpetually recycling its own identity.
This was once a show about amateur bakers. But the quality of baking on display has steadily increased over the decade: now, the final products are all simply too good. Nobody bats an eyelid when, in week one, Alice casually knocks up a gingerbread fruit wreath, Michael pipes in Henna patterns and Priya sculpts tiny marzipan pineapples.
Forget the humble enthusiasts of yore – today’s contestants are all primed and ready for the Bake Off to be their first step in a long career of TV baking, predicting which pesky little bun Paul will set for them, spending weeks practising every possibility and producing increasingly Instagrammable bakes. Somebody needs to tell them that this is not normal. Even when the facade of amateurism is punctured, the contestants make their professionalism seem cosy. “I just do strange things to cake sometimes!” says Rosie the vet. So random!!
Of course, one ingredient in particular leaves a sour taste. Without it, I’d probably accept that Bake Off was “overbaked” and “too sweet” with the “flavours not quite there”, but just shut up and scoff it all down like everybody else. That ingredient is Paul Hollywood, a man so self-satisfied it is quite simply unbearable to witness. The “peacocking manchild” (thus described in a tweet by 2013 contestant Ruby Tandoh) was the only presenter to retain his judging role in the BBC-Channel 4 transition, and so has had longer to hone and polish his personal brand. Inexplicably, he’s chosen to go for chaotic, arrogant superiority – the kind of bullish dominance that suggests he’s been snorting lines of caster sugar in his dressing room.
The contestants intensify this charade by cowering in his presence. “That is a beautiful cake,” Paul says to Alice, with the solemnity of a bishop. With any such compliment, a great hush falls. When he joins in with classic Bake Off innuendo (this week tittering about Helena’s edible fairy garden, which he mishears as “furry” – hee hee, hoo hoo!) it turns from twee to out-and-out creepy in 0.3 seconds.
I know, I know. There are probably worse things. In the past, if I’ve been wrapped up on the sofa with the flu having watched five hours of Bake Off, I expect I’ve snapped defensively at my boyfriend that the show is “ultimately harmless” and that it’s “actually really good when people are passionate about something?” And yes, it’s true that the contestants’ sense of achievement is cheering to watch. It still has moments of gold, often at its least manicured: like when newbie Michael slices into three of his fingers on three separate occasions chopping fruit for his cake, and spends the rest of the show with most of his hand cartoonishly covered in plasters. But the longer Bake Off goes on, the less I am convinced by its “irony”. It has tipped from fluffy-but-silly escapism into a big, shiny, Great British Brand.