Saturday 16 December 2017

TV Guide... A mix that rises

Season six of The Great British Bake Off begins on Wednesday and expectation is running high

Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

Emily Hourican

The first series of The Great British Bake Off averaged 3.5 million viewers. Last season, the fifth, that was up to 13.5 million, more than watched the World Cup final on the same channel. As the celebrity chef programmes - all melodramatic cursing and endless staring of ruin in the face - began to dwindle in popularity, perhaps because the action was always on one note, and the relentless dramatic curve of victory-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat seemed manufactured, The Great British Bake Off has been slowly, irresistibly gaining ground.

Begun as a national competition to find Britain's best amateur baker, and pitched for four years before the producers found any interest, Bake Off was never expected to make this kind of weight. This was a show that ran contrary to the perceived wisdom of the time - that larger-than-life was the only thing that could carry TV in the age of online competition. Instead, Bake Off delivered contestants who seem far more like the average next-door neighbour, and quite unlike the usual run of freakish types attracted by reality TV. What drama there is comes courtesy of a soggy sponge or a burnt biscuit - last year of course, one of these dramas spilled out and became a national controversy, when Iain Watters binned his baked Alaska after fellow contestant Diana Beard removed it from 'her' freezer. He stormed out of the tent, and the incident was reported on Newsnight.

There is a gentleness to the show - yes, there are tears every once in a while, but they are real tears, the tears of someone who feels they have not done themselves justice through the medium of flour, sugar, butter and eggs, rather than the crocodile tears of the fame-hungry 'sharing' their life's darkest moments in the hope of some attention. And instead of the usual overt sexual posturing, Bake Off delivers a very old-fashioned, seaside-postcard kind of innuendo, including sniggers over 'hot baps,' 'soggy bottoms,' and the correct wrist action for efficient whisking.

Some of the contestants have gone on the become celebrities of sorts, like Ruby Tandoh, a 2013 contestant, who now writes for The Guardian and published a baking book, Crumb. Most, however, do not, and don't wish to. Really, they are in it for the cakes; the recognition that comes from creating the perfect Victoria sponge or frosted walnut cake.

Producers insist the contestants are chosen solely on their baking ability, not their appearance or the camera-friendliness of their personalities, and indeed this seems to be the truth. The few with real charisma stand out easily. Luckily, the presenters have enough to go round. Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc keep up a cheerful, chirpy round of encouragement and sympathy - this year, they have described their mission as being to "hug the living s*** out of them" - while judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (pictured) add the Olympian touch. In fact, I'd say if polled, most people, not just most British people, would want to turn the entire running of society over to Mary Berry, with her impeccable standards and unflappable ability to recognise the important things in life. The dynamic between her and Hollywood - indulgent, amused, adoring - is a big part of the show's success.

This year, the 12 contestants include a fire fighter, a bodybuilder, a former member of the Coldstream Guards, and a man who is the Dalai Lama's personal photographer in the UK. They will be beginning with Madeira cake and building up to reinventing the black forest gateau. There will be tears, maybe tantrums, but overall, the soothing, hopeful quality of the show will shine through; a corner of an English field that is forever teatime.

The Great British Bake Off, Wednesday, BBC1 8pm

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