Back in 2009-ish, someone pitched an idea for the most hideously boring show ever. They sat down in front of a commissioner and proposed: “I can get you ten million viewers. We get some people who are amateurs at baking, put them in a tent and watch them make cakes.”
The Great British Bake Off is now in its sixth series, hauling in an ever-increasing number of viewers, scooping up awards and has sold to 196 territories. But how did a show that is so underwhelming on paper become quite so popular?
One of the main aspects that sets GBBO apart from the traditional cookery shows is the competition. We all know that the perfectly mowed lawns, PG-certificate banter and contestants actually helping one another are all attempts to distract from the underlying rivalry – usually directed at the contestant who has won star baker two weeks running. This ensures that no matter how many shots of flowers they try to calm us down with, there’s always an element of tension, which manifests in surprising levels of controversy. Will we ever forget ‘#bingate’, when this modest baking show turned a whole nation against a little old lady? Or the time Deborah “accidentally” – accidentally my arse, Deborah – stole Howard’s special custard? (Poor Howard, the most ill-fated contestant ever). You never see Jamie’s Thirty Minute Meals causing a Twitter stir on the same scale.
Additionally, the ‘amateur’ element means that you can’t help but feel you could achieve these bakes yourself. When I watch a show with professional chefs, I find myself staring at their food as if it were someone I have a massive crush on – with a lot of desire but fully aware I will never possess it. Yet, when someone like Richard the Builder makes a batch of vol-au-vents, you find yourself thinking: ‘I could manage that…’ But you can’t, so don’t try. These guys use macaroons as decoration – have you even freaking tried to make a macaroon?
Then there are the dynamics of the Paul Hollywood/Mary Berry and Sue Perkins/Mel Giedroyc pairings. Paul and Mary have perfected their good-cop/bad-cop routine – as opposed to Gordon Ramsay’s strictly batshit crazy cop persona. Nothing strikes fear into anyone like Paul Hollywood’s blue-eyed, ‘Is it sexy or is it pervy or is it psychotic?’ stare, before he hits the contestant with some loaded comment like: “You just haven’t got the flavours there.” You can almost hear his follow-up thoughts: ‘And you will never get the flavours right, you useless amateur piece of shit. Get out of my tent.’ As a consequence, in swoops Mary, everyone’s ideal grandmother, who finds something nice to say about even the worst fails – “I just think the bit of ribbon you’ve used, on this undercooked pile of cake that could kill me, is a lovely colour.”
Sue and Mel, meanwhile, help to provide the voice of the public – they also have no idea what anything means or what anyone is doing. Then they march around causing chaos when it’s needed, like the time Sue squashed Howard’s muffins with her elbow – again, poor Howard.
But, of course, what really sets GBBO apart from other competitive cooking shows is the element of escapism. The colours are so delectable, even Mary Berry’s face looks edible. Meanwhile, the idyllic setting, incognito shots of the tent from a bed of flowers – which camera guy spends the episode army-crawling through the long grass? – and, of course, the cakes, all fill us with an ‘I wish I was there’ feeling. Have you ever watched Masterchef and mused on how relaxing it would be in that dark, cold warehouse, sweating through your clothes with stress while John Torode and Greg Wallace loom critically over your shoulder? Or, during Hell’s Kitchen, decided that Gordon Ramsay looks like a pretty chill guy to be around? No, but I bet you started googling ‘work for BBC’ when you heard that the cakes get shared out between the crew at the end of the day.
So let’s sit back and enjoy this final with the most monotonal man ever, Ian, sorry-ladies-he’s-gay Tamal and perpetually-confused Nadiya. Because we don’t just love The Great British Bake Off – we want to live in it too.