The Great British Bake Off is a huge deal in the UK. Not only was the relatively simple baking competition ratings gold for the BBC, and a financial boon for its creators Love Productions, it helped to revive the careers of comedic duo Mel and Sue, made baking cool again, and became an unlikely symbol of optimistic patriotism. The show was so wildly popular that the announcement of its move to Channel 4, driven by Love Productions’ demand for more money, was literal front page news across the nation. All the hubbub it created spoke volumes about Britain’s attitude towards public broadcasting, modern entertainment and notions of loyalty in a corporate world. The BBC’s been through a tough time lately, but it still commands immense loyalty from viewers.
As news of the new season seeped into the ether, fans were unsure of how to react to the changes. There were fears of selling out, sapping the show of its unique magic and hosts chemistry. Paul Hollywood is the only leftover from the BBC days, which has led to some accusations of vanity and being, to quote one former contestant, a ‘peacocking manchild’.
Ratings were always guaranteed to be big for the premiere episode, if only because audiences were morbidly curious to see what had changed in the jump to a network cited as being the ‘edgy’ one of the main channels in Britain.
The first thing that hits you, before the show even begins, are the brand new sponsors. Not one, but two major sponsors precede the series, and it’s still an odd contrast for viewers to deal with, since the BBC is ad-free. The ad breaks themselves are also another oddity, simply because we’re not used to them. Many of the ads featured were tied to the show in theme - a baking spot with eBay, more cake fun with Stork, ice cream excitement with Carte d’Or, and so on. At least it removes product placement from the show itself, something many of us feared. The show itself is the same length as the BBC series, just with 15 minutes of ads in between.
With the 1st challenge - fruit cake - we see the hosts leap into action. Noel Fielding, best known for his surreal comedy in The Mighty Boosh and time as team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, was a surprise choice for the hosting gig (the long-time favourite with the bookies was Richard Ayoade). TV presenting isn’t his forte, at least not yet. He works best chatting with contestants, while his narration is more stilted, a bit like a nervous uncle reading a bedtime story for some belligerent nephews. He’s clearly having fun going on vaguely surreal tangents with the contestants, dropping the puns in favourite of single entendres and a bit of flower munching. It’s undoubtedly charming to watch his childlike glee at entering the tent for the first time and watching the process of baking up close, all while wearing a fabulous shirt covered in ravens.
Sandi is a dab hand at TV presenting, and this is clearly her element, mixing peppy encouragement with a hint of mischief. It’s easy to see how a bunch of TV executives imagined Toksvig and Fielding would be the perfect pair in theory, and so far they’ve been pretty amiable together. You can imagine the pair of them in the coolest gin joint in town, dressed to the nines and spinning the greatest yarns. The chemistry isn’t quite there, but nobody expected it to be on the first episodes. How do you even find that magic? Mel and Sue had decades of friendship and collaborations behind them before Bake Off. Sandi and Noel clearly like each other, but they’re still looking for that formula. Doing that under the shadow of Mel and Sue is no mean feat. It’ll be interesting to see how the adorable Danish broad will work with the goth detective.
It’s genuinely weird to even talk about this show as if it’s new or we don’t know what to expect. It’s literally the same show it’s always been, albeit with substitute hosts. Paul Hollywood has clamped down on the strutting peacock routine he leaned on heavily during the latter BBC seasons. There’s a sense that he understands how unpopular his decision to stick with the show was while his co-hosts maintained their allegiance to BBC (and were rewarded handsomely for it). He can’t play the pantomime baddy, nor can he try too hard to be liked, silently pleading for forgiveness from fickle audiences. This is the Paul of earlier seasons before he believed the hype. Prue Leith, a broadcaster and founder of the Leith’s School of Food and Wine, is slowly carving out a niche for herself that’s more than ‘not Mary Berry’ (we have no idea how boozy she likes her cakes yet).
Truthfully, I think many of us were not so secretly hoping the new show would be an unmitigated disaster, its irresistible essence diluted or bastardised into a corporate shell of its former self. In reality, what we have is just The Great British Bake Off, albeit with a few decorative shifts. Unless you just can’t stand Noel Fielding or you can’t get reception for Channel 4 on your TV, there’s basically nothing to gripe about here. If changes are made, we probably won’t see them until well into the season and beyond. Channel 4 made what they assumed would be the safest bet on TV, forgetting the loyalty many Brits feel to the Beeb, so now they must navigate tricky waters to make that massive investment worthwhile. For now, we have Bake Off back, and, if you’ll forgive me, it has risen to the occasion.