feature image via The Daily Express
In the immortal words of Ronan Keating, “Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it.” So it is with life, as it is with The Great British Bake Off. When it was announced that the show would be moving channel last year, the UK had a complete meltdown. Apparently the last thing the country had left to live for after Brexit, our collective hysteria at the thought of losing Bake Off made front-page headlines and propelled the show to its highest ratings ever. We’d only just calmed down when the new cast was revealed and everyone lost their shit a second time. Now the new Great British Bake Off is here, a year earlier than most of us were expecting – but is it business as usual, or is it time to start panic buying flour and eggs again?
Channel 4 have spent the last few months insisting nothing would be changing in the same slightly panicked tone my parents did when they separated. Like my parents, they’ve tried to buy their way back into our affections; while I ended up with GameCube, Channel 4 splashed out what looked like an entire series’ budget on a teaser trailer full of unnerving singing cakes. They’ve even gifted the show an awkward hour and fifteen minute long time slot, so the new, slightly startling ad breaks can be stuffed in without cutting any content.
Everything certainly looks the same, from the sweeping shots of the country estate the show has called home since 2014 to the loving sketches of each bake. The contestants themselves are the same cheerfully diverse collection of bakers from around the country (bonus points for one mentioning her wife within the first five minutes). Week one is Cake Week, just as it’s always been, and the signature, technical and showstopper challenges are all present and correct. It’s all so familiar that it’s actually startling when the adverts or new hosts’ voiceover kick in and remind you things have changed.
It should be a relief to see everything just how it was, given the general panic that Channel 4 would mess with the show’s winning formula. But by the end of the last series, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was starting to get a little stale. The contestants weren’t quite so memorable, the bakes just a little less inventive, the challenges starting to get a bit convoluted – though given that even at the show’s peak we were seeing dairy-free 3D vegetable novelty cakes, the last one is probably unavoidable. I almost wish that Bake Off‘s producers had taken the opportunity to mix things up a little; seven series in, the show is at risk of starting to feel like one of those bands that hasn’t had a hit since the seventies but keeps on touring into complete irrelevance with, like, one of its original members.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room – the loss of Mel, Sue and Mary. I’m not going to mince words: it’s a significant loss. Everyone knew they were always the heart of the show; the head of ITV even joked last year that, without them signed on, Channel 4 had paid £75m for “baking powder and a tent”. Their absence hangs heavy over this first episode, particularly since the show’s reluctance to change anything else results in the new cast trying to fit perfectly into the roles they departed, catchphrases and all.
How do the new lot shape up, though? Prue Leith hasn’t quite worked out where she fits as the new judge; too stern to emulate Mary Berry as the good cop, not mean enough to usurp Paul Hollywood as the bad cop. Hollywood himself seems adrift without the rapport he’d built with Berry over the years. Everyone’s least favourite part of the old show, even his status as the only familiar face is unlikely to win him many new fans. Sandi Toksvig, meanwhile, ably maintains the show’s lesbian quota, and does well enough with the other, less important, parts of the role. Fun fact: did you know that before settling on Toksvig, Channel 4
allegedly offered the role of Sue Perkins’ replacement to Sue Perkins’ actual girlfriend? Toksvig’s experience filling the shoes of a beloved host – having taken over from Stephen Fry on QI last year – serves her well, even if she looks a bit lost at times.
However, everything comes unstuck when it comes to co-host Noel Fielding. Last time I wrote about Bake Off, the comment section was almost entirely filled with people talking about how much they love him, so I apologise to all the Fielding fans out there, but I have no idea why he’s here. Fielding has always been at his best when he’s given the freedom to pull focus and create a surreal world around himself by sheer force of personality, whether that’s at the scale of his pairing with Russell Brand on The Big Fat Quiz of the Year or The Mighty Boosh‘s entire universe. Putting him in a role that mostly requires him to wander around a tent and make pleasantries about squeezing courgettes makes no sense whatsoever. Outside of an opening sketch in a hot air balloon, he’s deprived of his surreal persona, and ends up just a slightly dull 40-something white guy trying to do an impression of Mel and Sue.
Toksvig and Fielding have more or less no chemistry, but I’m hoping things might improve as the weeks go on. After all, even the best presenters can have teething issues on a new show – watching series one of Bake Off now, you’re left wondering why Mel and Sue appear to have taken half a tramadol before filming every episode. I’m not about to call Bake Off‘s death just yet, but there is something I’m worried about. While the new cast may be obvious, there’s been a more subtle change at the heart of Bake Off, one that could be just as fundamental a shift for the show. We were warned about it prior to the show’s return: Noel Fielding wouldn’t be eating the bakes because “no-one likes a tubby gut”. Prue Leith, meanwhile, would be dismissing sub-quality bakes with the new catchphrase “It’s not worth the calories”.
It’s certainly a change from Mary Berry’s cheerful “scrummy”, and it’s not a good one. The Great British Bake Off of old stood as a bastion throughout the ‘wellness’ obsession of the past few years, a place where all that mattered about food was the joy it could bring you. In the words of series four finalist, Ruby Tandoh, “Remember above all that you will be nourished not only by the food you eat, but by the pleasure you take in it.” The bloom may now be coming off the clean eating rose, but our TV schedules and bookshelves are still filled with ‘personalities’ warning us of the dangers of carbs and gluten and sugar. Food is mapped out on a moral compass that must be followed. A lapse in judgement is understandable, but it must be rare and it must be apologised for. Cakes are ‘sinful’, a ‘guilty pleasure’ to be restricted and portioned out only on special occasions. Not so, however, on Bake Off. The calorific content of a bake was always irrelevant – all that mattered was how happy it made you. Mel and Sue’s joy as they pinched forkfuls of the contestants’ bakes was a depressingly rare sight. Where else do you get to see people – women, especially – enjoying ‘unhealthy’ food without any hint of guilt or shame? Now, instead, we get Sandi Toksvig commenting that she “can actually feel [her] hips widening” as she tries a spoonful of melted chocolate.
Reports of Bake Off‘s death might have been greatly exaggerated, but things aren’t looking good. While Leith is a poor replacement for a bona fide national treasure, Fielding and Toksvig may well grow into their partnership; I’m going to give them till Dessert Week before writing them off entirely, at least. Bake Off has more fundamental issues to grapple with, though. Keeping everything they possibly could exactly the same was probably a mistake – it means the changes they have made stick out like a sore thumb, and all of them serve to diminish the show. Worse than that, though, is the series’ new attitude towards the food it should be celebrating. There’s a hint of sourness at Bake Off‘s heart that wasn’t there before; let’s hope it’s not enough to ruin this bake entirely. I’m not sure we’d all cope.