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7 September 2018

Paul Hollywood’s handshake is a horrifying display of masculine insecurity

I hate that handshake.

By Anoosh Chakelian

I can’t remember the exact point in Great British Bake Off history when the “Hollywood Handshake” became the sweaty, hairy, grasping pinnacle of success.

It wasn’t that much of a gimmick in the earlier years, I don’t think. Just a weird thing Paul sometimes did after deigning to force a hunk of amateur loaf down his uber-discerning gullet and not hating it.

No one thought much of it back then. The chosen one would just give a rictus grin and allow their flour-caked paw to be enveloped by the giant bear mitt of macho acceptance.

But over the years, it has morphed from a random quirk barely worth comment into the holy grail of validation – a golden ticket to Bake Off greatness. And I hate it.

I hate the way it’s supposed to be some kind of rare honour, bestowed once in a blueberry moon upon a contestant who is then expected to genuflect in gratitude. The hand of god is upon you, my child. May your panna cotta tremble with reverence in his presence.

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In a 2014 column for WalesOnline, commenting on an episode from series five, former Bake Off contestant Beca Lyne-Pirkis described a Hollywood handshake – given to contestant Luis Troyano in bread week, no less – as “like gold dust”.

“A Paul Hollywood handshake; rarer than a unicorn riding a flying pig,” declared Tamal Ray in 2015, when Hollywood extended his great racket of flesh to series six’s runner-up-to-be upon tasting his particularly delicious pie.

Since then, however, the power of his handshake has clearly gone to Hollywood’s head. Nowadays, he takes any opportunity to whip out those five meat sticks of approval for the camera.

Series seven’s eventual winner Candice Brown accused Hollywood of “giving out handshakes willy nilly tonight” in one episode, when she was given a handshake but her rival Jane Beedle made headlines by receiving a double-handed handshake – labelled “The Roman Clasp” by then presenters Mel and Sue – soon after.

The Radio Times even accused the show of “Hollywood Handshake inflation” during last year’s series, after Pudding Week saw a record number of three of his signature shakes – labelled a “personal best” by presenter Noel Fielding.

“The Hollywood Handshake has been devalued,” posited the Radio Times writer Eleanor Bley Griffiths. “Paul is shaking hands all over the place. Take a look back at the first episode this year: he doled out two of the coveted handshakes in the signature challenge.”

It’s even worse this year, with three handshakes being delivered in the second week alone. According to the Sun, he left fans “furious” with his handsy generosity. Even the man himself acknowledged his profligacy: “I’m disappointed with myself,” he told the camera.

The whole sorry ritual has been particularly hammy this series, preceded by string crescendos and tense close-ups of Hollywood’s big cube head having a long, deliberate think. “Rahul, can you come here a minute please?” he smirked during the build-up to one of the three handshakes this week, making his target do a humiliating about-turn back towards his flexing fingers.

Rather than bakers becoming more talented, or Hollywood going soft, I think the prevalence of this gesture is pretty much a perfect example of masculine insecurity. It’s as if he has something to prove.

Handshakes – with their forceful pumping action and mine’s-harder-than-yours competitiveness – have historically been a show of hollow, performative machismo.

And you can just see the blokey pleasure twinkling in Hollywood’s eyes when he swings his right arm out. The smug smirk. The eyebrows raised in can you believe I’m praising you? mock-benevolence.

I can’t help but feel there’s a particular nice one, mate attitude towards the men on the show. (In fact, last year’s winner Sophie Faldo revealed that she received the first handshake of the series – but it was edited to seem like her competitor Steven Carter-Bailey had that honour.)

Plus, neither former judge Mary Berry nor her replacement Prue Leith have had their own hot-ticket gesture of congratulation – as if a bake can only truly be great if Hollywood deems it so.

What was once a mildly amusing rare moment in the show has morphed into a self-satisfied, attention-seeking display of insecure masculinity, which should be retired from our screens and immediately replaced with the Prue Leith Arm Wrestle.

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