In every situation in life, there's always a way to make a tit of yourself
Once again into the TV melee of dark and graphic detective shows, “gritty” dramas, and lame BBC 3 excuses to make as many knob jokes as they can in a half hour has stepped The Great British Bake Off, a gleeful and unashamed weekly dose of watching people in a tent wearing aprons and trying not to balls up a sponge cake on national telly. And we love it.
We love everything from Mary Berry, who seems to be equal parts friendly granny, baking goddess, and Cotton Traders cover girl, to the contestants who seem just about bonkers and unhinged enough to be completely normal people. We even love the educational segments where Mel Giedroyc has an amiable chin-wag with someone who has had the remarkable good fortune of forging a career as a notable cake historian. And yet everyone involved, from the bakers to the audience, continue to be baffled by two things: why is this so entertaining, and how come it’s making me care so much about the consistency of egg whites on a Tuesday evening?
The Bake Off, along with its good-humoured hosts, comes with a bemused air of “No, I don’t know why an hour of people whisking, folding, and staring into ovens is so fantastic either. But it bloody is, isn’t it?”
While at 8pm on BBC 1 some poor sod is busy bleeding out on a Holby City operating table and two conniving consultants are plotting in the on-call room, over on BBC 2 and the Great British Bake Off, the nearest thing to drama is a middle-aged woman accidentally using someone else’s custard to make her trifle and being genuinely mortified about it, and the nearest thing to villainy is a devilishly stripped-down set of technical challenge instructions informing the bakers to simply “poach the meringue” as if that’s the sort of thing that one just intuitively knows how to do (actually Mary Berry probably does).
When almost every other programme on primetime TV seems to come with a “contains strong language/sexual violence/scenes viewers may find upsetting” warning, the Great British Bake Off, like a perfect Genoise sponge, provides some light, fluffy relief. The closest things to swearing are the dreaded references to soggy bottoms, and the only scenes we may find upsetting are the ones in which someone’s ginger cake gets stuck in the tin.
I defy any of the cleverest, most critically acclaimed screenwriters to hold a 6-million-strong audience’s rapt attention for 59 minutes whilst sticking strictly to the topic of cake. It could not be done, it wouldn’t work. The Bake Off shouldn’t work either, and yet it does. And I think that is for three very good reasons: it’s warm, it’s friendly, and it has its feet firmly on the tent floor in a sort of nutty as a fruitcake, mad as a hatter kind of way.
It is a contest show, but there are no over-egged and self-indulgent back stories here, only brief and cheery cut-aways to snippets of the contestants feeding a stray biscuit to their dog or presenting mounds of profiteroles to their (surprisingly) super-supportive friends and family. When someone gets booted out, they have group hugs and (I like to think) sit around with cups of tea, eating each other’s pastries. There are no bright lights, swivelling chairs, or giant buzzers, there is a tent, some electric mixers, and two hosts gleefully cracking baked goods-based puns. There are no lingering, tearful post-mortems when things go wrong, there is Mary Berry giving a sly wink and saying “but actually, I rather like it”, and Sue Perkins to give them a hug and remind them that it’s not the end of the world, it’s just cake.
And that’s just it, it isn’t the end of the world, it is just cake. Despite what most of the TV might have us believe, sometimes we don’t want dark, we don’t want violent, we don’t want the end of the world. Sometimes we want a nice, warm, friendly piece of cake. And that’s exactly what the Great British Bake Off gives us.