Posted inOxford News

The Great British Bake Off – why it’s become soggy bottoms all round

Illustration by Rūta Ashworth

You might say, “Thang! What do you mean Bake Off is bad? It’s been the best British TV show these past 10 years! It has sustained us for a decade and through a pandemic!” To this I reply, “Well, that’s because you’ve been living off Bake Off nostalgia, unable to see where this once marvellous institution of television has gone wrong.” Unlike some others who believe that the quality of Bake Off has diminished due to its move over to Channel 4, I think there’s far more at play, a symptom of every reality TV talent show: overhyping the competition.

Ironically, the wonderful thing about this show is its total lack of prize for winning: you simply get a nice glass cake stand and the honour of being named the best amateur baker in Britain ( and being featured on the monthly supermarket magazines – a true source of glory). Despite all this charm upon the first viewing, watching it in Michaelmas term with my household, I couldn’t help but become irrationally angry at it all. I may not have watched the series from the very beginning, but, regarding those episodes that I did watch, my frustration grew and grew each week. This all culminated in the infamous Japanese Week – an episode I got so angry at that I was moaning and groaning and beating my chest for an hour straight. No one had asked for a “Japanese Week” and even then, each challenge ended up being Japanese only in name. The baking was almost insultingly unauthentic  (who knew panda-shaped buns and steamed burgers were distinctly Japanese?) and it seemed that there was practically no research into the wonderful world of Japanese culture by the producers – did Love Productions just completely ignore anpan (red bean buns) and karepan (fried curry buns) and melonpan?

But let’s go back to where it all started: the format. The recipe for Bake Off, as I’m sure everyone knows, is incredibly simple: gather together a baker’s dozen of bakers, sweat them down until three bakers remain with three challenges a week (say it with me now! “A Signature, Technical, and Showstopper”), then top this with a glass cake stand for the best baker in show. It’s “Keep It Simple, Stupid” at its finest; but really, it was the little garnishes that really made the programme back then.

I want you to cast your mind back to BBC era Bake Off: Mel and Sue constantly hitting it out of the park with innuendo after innuendo; the short documentaries through which the audience could explore a tiny world of baking like Grasmere gingerbread; the overall warmth of the show where every baker’s departure felt like another dead houseplant (cherished but never lamented). That’s what I remember most about the show. But, in the last series, it felt like that formula was falling apart: note the uneasy balance of Matt Lucas (as “the silly one”) and Noel Fielding (formerly “the silly one”, now “the sensible one”), and the total lack of character to the show. Paul Hollywood has turned from stern but nice teacher to a Zoolander Blue Steel caricature , while Prue Leith – even though she pulls off the most extravagant necklaces and gaudy dresses – makes her best attempt at being Mary Berry, rather than being her best self as in Great British Menu half a decade ago.

The format is not what is wrong here. The format works just fine (see The Great Pottery Throw Down).The real problem is the hype around Bake Off now; it is rightly one of the most popular TV shows every year, pulling in millions of UK viewers, but that carries its own baggage.  The BBC version always conjures up an image of warmth and of celebrating the pure craft of baking, but that’s not what I got from last year’s run. Those mini baking documentaries lightened the mood and relieved the tension of watching a baker build up a croquembouche whose tip is starting to topple. Bake Off has far too much tension now. I do not want tension in Bake Off. Tension is the enemy of this format. This is a show dedicated to light-heartedness, and yet all these little changes have ruined what was the jewel in the British TV crown, edging it closer and closer to the dreaded X Factor tipping point. This is where I believe the problems of the programme lie nowadays: in the unnecessary requirement to overhype drama within the tent. It was because of Bake Off that I really got into baking and was inspired to create my own dessert achievements (see Figure 1- an accomplishment  second only to getting 10 reactions to one of my Oxfesses). The Great British Bake Off was a bastion of British TV, where light-heartedness and the warmth of the oven charmed us all. My fear is that the oven is now producing overcooked competition.

a croquembouche (a tower of profiteroles) ready to topple sits on a kitchen stove.
Figure 1. A croquembouche whose top is starting to tip, ca. December 2017