…I have never been so conflicted!
For god knows how many years now, I’ve been vaguely aware of this quiet, polite phenomenon happening just out of my range of perception and interest.
This TV show for which there would always be swathes of recaps, reactions, and roundups. Conversations in offices and headlines in newspapers. A semi-permanent buzz. And, shit, I’m not made of stone! All that attention and dialogue would occasionally get me to think: ‘I should get involved in this. Find out what all the hubbub is about.’
And then I’d consider the name of the show again and be instantly turned off anew. The Great British Bake-Off. There could scarcely be a series of words more precision-engineered to not pique my interest. You could call it The Secret Life Of Boris Johnson’s Surprisingly Posh Hair Stylist and I’d give more of a fuck. Or What Happens When American Football Happens. I was about to think of another hyper-uninteresting show premise but then realised it already exists and it’s called The Crown.
Seriously. That combination of words. ‘The Great British Bake-Off.’
Firstly, I really don’t care for the fashionable fetishisation of ‘Great Britain’. The peddling of whatever fantasy-land British tropes are in vogue these days alongside those that refuse to die—the Queen having tea with Benedict Cumberbatch while Stephen Fry farts a corgi nearby—holds no appeal to me.
Secondly, baking. Baking is a craft that I have respect for, and that I often enjoy the end result of—like, holy shit, you made this delicious structure? But it’s so sweet-tasting and looks like a bumblebee!—but it’s not really something that I can say I am invested in enough to enjoy watching the actual process of. It’s similar with normal cooking, except there I do think that sometimes the act of creation can sometimes be quite compelling. There’s fire and colour and knives. Baking? Always seemed to me involve a lot of sitting and staring at an oven, waiting for something inside to rise. That was the only drama, the sturm und drang of it all. Watching something rise. And then adding icing to make it pretty.
So a TV show called ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ really wasn’t designed to push my particular buttons.
Sometimes I’d glimpse a clip from the show. I’d think, ‘Huh, okay, well maybe if I see it in motion I’d be tempted to dive in,’ but then I’d just inevitably be confused and frightened away by whatever the hell this is:
Or some godawful innuendo lancing out from the screen and burning my eyes.
So despite the occasional temptation I was pretty much resigned to never really crossing paths with that sun-ripened lizard and his friend the meticulously coiffed White Walker. And that was fine. Let them present their show about watching British things rising in ovens. Let others watch the watching. I don’t need to be involved with everything.
But then I moved flat and suddenly I had a proper, old-school television. With all the channels and everything. And one day, while channel surfing with my girlfriend as we lay on the couch, half-faded into a food coma after a particularly hearty dinner, late evening raindrops pattering on the skylight, The Great British Bake-Off happened.
I’m not entirely sure how it happened, as I don’t remember either of us switching channels to the one that the show was on, but I think The Great British Bake-Off has its ways.
The episode was only about a third of the way in and the TV remote was out of arm’s reach. Too full of food and half asleep, I resigned myself and I drank in what I saw. We were in large tent in a field somewhere. Somewhere ostensibly in England, the loud, ubiquitous Union Jack bunting would have us believe. But the field seemed way too pleasantly and warmly green underneath a crystal clear sky. Or it might’ve not been, now that I think about it. Whatever it was, it was not nearly miserable enough. So if this was a field in England, it was a field of lies.
There were three of them there, bustling away underneath the white tent in the field of lies. They rushed to and fro, aprons on, between fridges and ovens, all in competition to presumably be the best at baking and in order to win… Something. I didn’t know. I was new to all this. Dropped in, in medias res, I would have to piece the puzzle together as we went along.
It didn’t take long to find out that this was the final. The final of The Great British Bake-Off, 2017! Not only was I going in fresh to the show without any context, I wasn’t even going to get a season’s worth of lead-up. This would be like coming in at the point when Sam is yelling at Frodo to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Or right just as John McClane is laughing with his hands held up above his head, Hans Gruber pointing a gun at and guffawing along with him.
Or, as might be the case, a ginger man, tall but slight of frame and uncertain of eye, dashing about with oven mitts on, anxiously chewing on his lip at the sight of a split loaf of bread. Because that is exactly what I am seeing in that moment. Straight away, against my better judgement, but with mostly an ironic air, I desire to know more, and the show immediately provides.
Apparently ‘Steven’ is the red, yellow-topped man’s name. And while I would usually expect to be emotionally distant from such a scenario, maybe even at mocking distance, I have to say: There is something here that is strangely, ineffably gripping. Affecting, even. I’ve only just met this dude and already I feel for him and his bread. He has sweat beading on his brow. Thoughts run through my head. I like bread. I certainly eat a fuckload of it. I’ve never made any though. Thinking about it, that shit’s gotta be pretty hard to make. And this dude is doing it on camera! Under timed conditions! In an ad-hoc kitchen in a field tent! You know what? Fair fucks to you, Steven. No wonder you’re chewing your lip and flooding your forehead, mate. I can only assume they’re pumping that tense, narrative-driving music out into the tent for you all to work with too. Earlier we were told that the sun-ripened lizard’s name is ‘Paul Hollywood.’ I don’t buy it. That’s not a real name. But I bet he does strip to the waist as the tension mounts and time runs low. I bet bet he tears that condom-tight shirt right off his trunk and he ventures forth out from underneath the shelter of the tent, seeking the nearest peak to climb and to beat the galley drums there, loud like thunder, faster and faster as Sandy Toksvig intones, ‘Bakers, you have 5 minutes left…’ and Steven hears no more as the blood rushes in and the adrenaline goes into overdrive.
I confess: At this point I am really trying to stay detached. But I can’t. I just can’t. I’m in a food coma, nearly horizontal, but still, in just a few minutes some footage of a nervous man making bread has me by the balls. I try and make mocking comments. The camera cuts to the judges and one of them—an older lady, not the White Walker, she must be a new one, says, ‘Oh it’s going to be so hard choosing between these three. I do wish they could all win!’ What?! That’s not how a judge is supposed to speak! What is this low-stakes shit?!
But my heart’s not in it.
My heart’s with Steven and all of those other fuckers underneath that tent.
My impressions are hazy, clouded by bloating and unexpected emotion. Toksvig hovers, never seeming to bob up and down in the normal ambulatory manner. The cheeky wraith, Noel Fielding, assists. I’ve always liked Fielding. The Mighty Boosh was a gem, and even on the interminable slog that is the British panel show circuit I remember him as an occasional
bright dark light before I finally stopped watching those things altogether. Here, I’m not so sure about him. They’re an interesting duo overall though, these two together. Toksvig and Fielding. Going by their names they sound like they should be travelling the West of 19th century America, selling snake-oil to dimwits and the terminally ill. Thinking about it, they kinda look like they should be doing it too.
‘We know a cure for all ailments, Mr. Marston.’
But no, they’re hearing presiding over a baking competition.
Because Steven does seem to have strong competition. The fundamental job of any narrative is to present a few characters and then to have them clash to some degree. Make them distinct enough to be interesting, provide a backstory, give them motivation, and send them on a collision course with tension and drama. Well I have to admit that this Great Bloody British Bake-Off final was hitting all the marks. There was the nerve-wracked lanky one; the stiff-backed Terminator; and the smiley affable one. They brought their families and camped them out on the fields where they mingled, flashing smiles but staring passive-aggressive daggers at each other in the traditional British way. Others were there too, fallen warriors from past seasons, come to be adjacent to glory for a change.
And as for tension and drama? Fuhgeddaboudit. Things happened with cakes that I didn’t know could happen with cakes. Support structures collapsed, layers bled together, icing was made to look like marble for god’s sake!
Fuck. I mean, I knew nature was gripping. I didn’t know cakes were too. Is the rest of the show like this?