This year, Love Production moved its multi-million-pound formula from the BBC to Channel 4. The Great British Bake Off has rocketed to the top of Channel 4’s weekly ratings. With an audience of over 8 million per week, GBBO leaves Channel 4’s Gogglebox, Celebrity Island and Location Location Location in the dust.
Presenters Noel Fielding and Sandy Toksvig, along with new judge Prue Leith, bring their own distinct humour to the Tent. Prue in particular offers some biting criticism to the bakers, denouncing certain bakes as ‘a bit boring’ and even ‘not worth the calories’. Yet the Bake Off, as it is occasionally easy to forget, is a competition. Prue heightens that competitive edge, and sends the Bakers off striving to push themselves further the next day or week. Without that sense of challenge, the Bake Off would risk making their eliminations seem pretty arbitrary.
Showstoppers are more daring and elaborate than ever before…
And it certainly does seem that elimination is a struggle every week. Showstoppers are more daring and elaborate than ever before, right from first week, where each Baker made an artistic Illusion Cake. This task produced spectacular results, including Flo’s Watermelon Cake and Jan’s Ramen Cake (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYSiy2bAVJM). The Illusion Cake task was not only visually impressive, but also captured that sense of play that all the greatest cooking TV shows maintain. For example, Heston Blumenthal is hugely successful in drawing upon our ancient love of disguised food with his edible insects and crunchable crockery.
Product placement has not yet seeped into the Bake Off tent, although the temptation must be extreme. I can already imagine hearing via serene voiceover at the beginning of the Technical Challenge, “The judges have cunningly left the bakers with two brands of sugar. Will any of them know that the traditional way to glaze their mille-feuille is with Tate and Lyle Icing Sugar?”
But such branding would damage the Bake Off’s integrity, which in turn is maintained by the hermetic nature of the Tent. This is escapism at its finest, because you and the bakers focus on one subject of interest for an hour that is quite displaced from the outside world. What’s more, the Bake Off encapsulates the greatest aspects of studying a subject you love. Working in a team of no more than 14, the Bakers leave day-to-day life behind to indulge solely in perfecting a specific skill. They compete to meet deadlines, but are unified in camaraderie as much as in rivalry.
The show continues to maintain a beautiful balance between charming familiarity and challenge
The extent to which Bake Off goes to seal us in the Tent for that one glorious hour is remarkable. Families and backgrounds of the bakers are tantalisingly sketched in, and are only ever detailed in the final episode. It is the presenters alone who take us out of the Tent and gardens, and they only do so to highlight the points on which the bakers might trip up. As before, there is no branding, and no packaging. Who is filming? Why does only one person ever speak at a time? Who eats the leftovers? Plus how does everything stay so spotless? These questions are never to be answered during the show itself. The last we saw of waste in the Bake Off was back in the Series 5 ‘Bingate’ scandal, where Iain presented to the judges the pitiful remains of his Baked Alaska in the trash.
Although this series has had its moments of dramatic flair – the sugar spinning antics of episode four spring to mind – the show continues to maintain a beautiful balance between charming familiarity and challenge.