The Great British Bake Off is a most unexpected success story
You wouldn’t imagine a television baking contest getting noticed especially after a decade of a relentless slew of cookery related programmes. I remember watching the first episode in 2010 and imagining the show would vanish after the one series. And yet I watched the next week too. And the one after that. Two and a quarter years on, TGBBO is BBC2’s top show with 7.2 million viewers (yes you read that right) watching the final. Next year it is rumoured to be moving across to a prime time slot on BBC1. Why you’re asking? What is so special about some people baking?
"Keep smiling, Mary, I've got a large loaf under the table"
The answer is simplicity. Simplicity of concept and simplicity of execution. Freed from the white noise of a live audience and the routine of viewers phoning in (the series is recorded months ahead of transmission), TGBBO recalls a time when people watched television rather than participated in it. The show has fewer judges than any other TV contest yet the decisions are in their hands alone because they are experts; they know what they are on about and the viewer cannot influence their decision because they like someone’s hair or dislike a judge’s critique.
The contestants are competitive but in an amicable, very English manner and there is a minimum of inserts where they express the hope that they will win; an aspect of such shows that has always puzzled me anyway because surely they would all like to win? Instead of all that, what happens is that the contestant s bake stuff and the two judges- professional baker Paul Hollywood (40s, silver haired, Liverpudlian) and cookery writer Mary Berry (70s, posh, elegant) –assess and taste the quality of the baking. No actual marks are awarded; instead they reach a consensus behind closed doors and reveal who will leave each week.
Yet that’s only part of it. The presenters – Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins are delightfully frivolous with double entendres and bad puns are flying all over the place. There’s a historical bit which tells you the origins of some pie or pastry. The whole thing takes place in a tent pitched up in the grounds of a country estate or somewhere equally incongruous. The editing moves seamlessly through the process managing to successfully squeeze two and a half hours or so of each of three rounds of baking into about 10 minutes each. There’s a technical challenge which Paul and Mary judge without knowing who baked what. Most of all there are gorgeous cakes and pastries and things you’ve never heard of to look at. In fact the only downside is that we can’t taste any of it.
Somehow it is riveting. You really do want to see it each week even if your knowledge of baking is rudimentary. Perhaps it’s because we all like food and this is the best looking food you can have. Or because the programme is relaxing to watch, without the tensions generated by other competitive shows. Maybe its success also represents something of a hankering for the past- it is said that during difficult times people tend to be more nostalgic. If you look at some of the other TV successes at the moment you can sense this feeling whether in the restraint and manners of Downton Abbey, the familiar faces and talkiness of New Tricks or the sequins of Strictly Come Dancing Meanwhile Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent reality show flopped and The X Factor is visibly losing its status. It may not be a sea change yet but it does suggest viewers are may finally be starting to tire of the youth orientated shows that seem to have held sway for a while now.
Winner John Whaite- even his laptop looks like a cake
2012’s contest – which finished screening last week- was won by Wigan student John Whaite who managed to get a first in his law degree at the same time and in one episode nearly sliced his finger off in possibly the most dramatic moment the series has ever seen. He was seen as the underdog of the final three but came across as the most likeable when compared to fellow student James’s experimental nonchalance and the older Brendan’s self assurance. Though the other two had been more consistent, John’s final offering impressed the judges and it is always more interesting to see an unexpected win not to mention a cake that looks amazing.
Whether the series can thrive in the more pressured BBC1 environment remains to be seen. Hopefully the producers will not take this promotion as a reason to `spice up` the show and make it something it is not or more like other shows. It should be left exactly as it is; a civilised revelation.