I’m back! I’ve had a pretty busy week with my other half’s birthday, but today I return with a little piece of British tradition.
For those who may not be aware of the Great British Bake Off, let me quickly just explain this great British institution. Bake Off was first shown on BBC Two in 2010 (the BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation, is the biggest group of telly channels we have over here, and the only one that doesn’t have adverts – that’s commercials to those of you across the pond – in its programming, because it’s funded by public money), and quickly became an absolutely enormous… I daren’t even call it a hit. It became a phenomenon. You can pretty much divide Britons into those who follow GBBO and those who don’t, and those who do will spend hours of their lives each week discussing exactly whose soufflés were the bounciest and whose frangipan just didn’t cut the mustard. It’s pretty similar to other cooking shows of the kind that everyone’s familiar with: we start out with a bunch of contestants, they cook some stuff each week, a couple of judges laud them as the greatest cooks since the first people to stick a chicken on a fire or deride them as the worst cooks since the first people to presumably attempt to eat their own poo, and we lose one in an almost gladiatorial series of knockouts until one Star Baker rules supreme over the universe. Despite its apparent simplicity, however, Bake Off is indubitably the most popular show of its type in the UK, surpassing the much longer-running Masterchef with ease.
It’s not been without controversy, though. I think everyone in the country remembers where they were when Bingate happened to poor Iain, whose baked Alaska was ‘accidentally’ thrown in the bin by fellow contestant Diana. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it was a bigger deal than the royal wedding. The latest Bake Off scandal, however, is of monumental scale. See, it was presented by cheeky not-chappies Mel and Sue, and judged by two sort-of legends of baking: octogenarian and higher placer on FHM’s Sexiest Women 2015 than Jennifer Lopez (no, really) Mary Berry, and blue-eyed possible serial killer Paul Hollywood, and broadcast, as we know, on the Beeb. Last year, though, Channel 4, a broadcaster probably best known for bizarre documentaries with lots of closeups of genitals and the occasional niche drama, bought the format of the show for something like seventy-five million quid, in possibly the most divisive event to hit the British Isles since the Norman conquest. Paul Hollywood would stay on as a judge, drawing enormous vitriol, but all three of the other mainstays left the show. Rumours persist that the BBC are planning to put out a sort of rival show using the original Bake Off team, but I suspect it’ll be slated for being ‘a bit like Bake Off, but not as good’. Our new judge was to be Prue Leith, whom almost nobody had ever really heard of and who is both younger and less fine than Mary Berry, and the hosting team would consist of Sandi Toksvig, a Danish lady who recently replaced Stephen Fry as the host of QI, another mainstay of the BBC, and The Mighty Boosh‘s oddball Noel Fielding.
These announcements were all met with… pretty much just disdain and despair. But, hey, the new series is finally here! And, naturally, I have to watch it. So I may as well review it!
Our reboot opens with a scene of Toksvig and Fielding in a hot air balloon, because why wouldn’t it, before launching into the same opening credits we all know and love. It feels really surreal watching this, just knowing that it’s trying to be the same but isn’t, and Fielding’s slightly over-enunciated narration (which sounds really odd if you’re familiar with what he usually tends to sound like) only adds to the feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Prue’s opted for what looks like a pair of 3D glasses from the cinema, which Mary Berry would never have worn, darling, while Paul looks pretty much the same as ever. It’s like watching an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, except everyone except Mr Krabs has been replaced with characters from Breaking Bad. (I’d watch that crossover, by the way.)
It’s hard this early on to get attached to any of the contestants, since there are quite a few and we don’t really get to spend much one-on-one time with any of them, but my early favourite is probably Yan. She won’t win it, of course, but she does have some cracking one-liners (standouts being ‘it might not look like much, but hopefully it’ll get the job done. It’s the Peter Beardsley of cakes’, ‘banana ramen’, and ‘pew, science’), and she seems to be developing a sort of partnership with student Liam. It won’t last, since Bake Off is designed to do nothing if not tear people apart and force them to fight to the death, but it’s always nice to see people helping each other out in the early stages before they realise that the surest path to victory is to throw their rivals under as many buses as possible.
I was also impressed with Steven, who ended up this week’s Star Baker, almost the equivalent of a knighthood, after baking an impressive bonfire-like ‘fruity cake’ (there was an odd insistence on the terminology, as if everyone had been told not to let the words ‘fruit cake’ slip out or the entire tent would be filled with angry bees) and getting a formerly-rare-but-probably-easier-to-get-this-time-around-because-let’s-face-it-this-show-needs-ratings handshake from Paul, and to a lesser extent Chris. Yeah, he didn’t do too well, but he’s already using a spreadsheet to get his proportions right, and that’s a winner’s mindset right there.
That’s something else that sets this show apart, by the way: it is, nominally, a show about baking, but in practice it ends up being at least half about the contestants’ structural engineering abilities, putting together cakes of enormous complexity that require homemade moulds and protractors to assemble. It’s almost more like Robot Wars sometimes, and one of last year’s more successful participants was a nice young chap doing a degree in engineering, which served him well.
Who else have we got? There’s the aforementioned Liam, who got a cracker in this episode with his ‘I like loafs. Trust me, Paul’; Flo, whose watermelon illusion cake was truly impressive; Julia, a slightly intimidating lady from Siberia; and first eliminated, the friendly Peter, who… really just did not do very well. Sorry, Peter.
I think you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy the rebooted Bake Off at least a little bit: the new hosts can’t really be faulted on throwing themselves in and trying to keep the fun spirit of the whole thing, even if Toksvig does seem to be trying to channel elements of both Mel and Sue and ending up with something not quite as good as either – Fielding, as ever, just sort of floats around like a blimp filled with hallucinogens. The show’s kicked off with some decent rounds: the fruity cake, a technical challenge (a blind-judged follow-the-recipe task which basically just allows the judges to be as horrible as they like without knowing who they’re talking about, at least until the pool of tears under one poor sod’s chair gives it away) of creating ‘mini rolls’, and a showstopper all about making cakes which look as little like cakes as possible, giving rise to some truly impressive creations and… whatever it was Peter was trying to do. Sorry again, Peter. You tried.
Next week is biscuit week, so prepare for lots of puns about people crumbling under the pressure or rising to the occasion or custard creaming their pants with excitement. Maybe not that last one, but then Noel did get in a joke about a ‘moist clutch’, so you never know.