The New “Great British Bake Off”: Nothing’s Changed, Except Everything That Matters

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.

Heather is a UK-based web developer and freelance writer. She lives in London with her girlfriend and their two cats, Frida Katlo and Amelia Purrheart. She also spends way too much time on Twitter.

Heather has written 18 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. So sad that the food police seem to be out in force in this iteration. It seldom works when a loved program gets a rebirth with altered parents. Perhaps something different but enjoyable can come of it but perhaps it’s also time to say goodbye.

  2. Well, this sounds bad. I’ve always loved GBBO, cause of it’s feel good element. If they are going on the “be guilty for eating cakes” route im not watching the new series. Not that I’d be able to as they moved it to channel 4.

    We in the Netherlands get to keep our Dutch version unchanged for the next few years, I hope it stays that way after the contract is up. (Please, please let it stay the same)

  3. I enjoyed it as much as previous years and I didn’t miss Mary nearly as much as I was expecting. Regarding the presenters, to be honest, I always found Sue Perkins incredibly irritating, so I prefer the new duo. Sacrilege, I know. I think once Noel Fielding relaxes a bit, it’ll be better – given that he knows everyone’s expecting him to be too ridiculous and out there for it, he was clearly reining himself in a bit during the first episode.

    Though the calories comments weren’t welcome, it was two comments across the entirety of the show, as far as I can remember. The Noel Fielding quote, by the way, is a misquote of a joke he made. He was asked whether he ate a lot of the cakes on the show and he said (I’m paraphrasing) ‘No, I get less work when I gain weight, nobody likes a tubby goth’. It was intended to poke fun at the rumour that he hadn’t been eating anything from the show for fear of gaining weight, and it didn’t quite land and was subsequently misquoted.

    • Though I strongly disagree with your opinions about the lovely Sue, as strongly as a person can when talking about a terribly pleasant TV program about cakes, I agree that the calorie comments (I only noticed the one about the hips and I thought it was responded to with “isn’t that a good thing?” But I may well have misheard) were two comments across a (remarkably long 75 minute) show.
      Also, GBBO an extra slice is wall to wall jokes about eating cakes and being fat so it seems a bit odd to object when Sandi says it but not when Jo Brand does.
      In conclusion, I really enjoyed it, especially the “fish eggs” made by a lesbian baking/science genius.

  4. I get where you’re coming from but I honestly found the first episode to be a delight, if ever so slightly stilted at points. Bake Off to me has always been about comfort and it continues to provide that on channel 4, and I feel like I need it now more than ever. I also disagree with the point about the contestants, I found myself in love with Flo, Yan and Liam by the end of the first round.

  5. I’m already sick of singing cakes and golden syrup. Other than the ads I enjoyed the episode – I agree that Noel Fielding needs to get weirder though, otherwise why even hire him?

  6. I kind of… wanted it to change? There is definitely a time for change and tbh I think the bbc iteration could have gone another two or three years before it got stale, if they didn’t change anything. I thought with Love Productions raking it in now they might go a bit bigger and bolder, idk if it would have worked necessarily but they would have got points from me for trying! Also I hope (though I doubt it) that bakers get a budget now, as before they had to fork out for all their own ingredients. You can’t take that big a pay rise and then ask the people you make money from to buy their own chocolate.
    Still, winter is coming. I don’t see anything else decent out there between now and Call the Midwife. Might as wel see what happens.

    • There’s always the MasterChef trio of shows, with MasterChef Celebrity going on at the moment. There’s always such a good atmosphere in the kitchen, and especially when they’re placed into teams. ^_^ (Though, sadly, we won’t be seeing Monica Galetti again until MasterChef Professionals starts, sometime in October. Wonder if Autostraddle could manage to land an interview with her..)

      • I never got into Masterchef but maybe I should give it another try! It always seems like so much stress and also I can’t get past the presenters.
        (I’m not even sure why I’m grouping bake off and call the midwife together, I think they’re just both personally comforting and exciting shows to me)

  7. Part of me wants to dislike this from the getgo, only because everything about the original version (minus Paul Hollywood) was just so immensely pleasant and delightful.

    But, I love things that tend toward the surreal and absurd, so I really appreciate Noel Fielding and am curious to give it a chance with him in it. Does anyone know if there’s a way for me to easily watch this in the US now, or do I have to wait til it’s on Netflix etc?

    • I didn’t even mind Paul SO much during the original series because Mary, Mel, and Sue just WERE NOT HAVING IT with his shit. Now that they aren’t around to restrain him and he can feel like top banana all the time, I’m concerned his true jerk personality will become more apparent.

  8. Thanks for reminding me how caught up with brexit the announcement of this was. Id forgetten but it was all rolled together at the time. Also i super needed this review because i cant decide whether to watch or not. And thats not even considering how much easier i find it to watch stuff on iplayer than from channel 4.

    I think you are so right about giving them time to settle in. But also, i love Sue Perkins. I dont know if i want to learn to love a whole new crew. GBBO made a wednesday night for my family, even when i was hundreds of milea away. Sit down with cakea and friends and family and enjoy.

    I think ill give it a few more weeks before giving it a watch. If foodshaming becomes a think ill give it a miss. But i just cant get over watching bake off without sue and mel and mary. Although i got over terry wogan leaving eurovision, maybe i should give it a try.

  9. Watching GBBO on channel 4 was like one of those dreams where everything looks the same, but you know something’s not quite right – the dimensions are wrong or people smile a bit too long.

    It was so similar that I found myself relaxing, letting go of my very British guilt for watching anything not on the beeb. But then the adverts came!! Creepy singing cakes taunting me for my treachery.

    Never again. I shall repent with a (baker’s) dozen hail Mary Berry’s.

  10. Okay so i watched it. After a mare trying to find a way to watch it (iplayer was simpler for me).
    Anyway, i made banana bread, invited a friend over and we watched it with my family. Notes:

    1. No one is wearing floral summery blazers and really that was half the appeal.

    2. I love Flo.

    3. Most the contestants seem to be from the south, or maybe i just missed most the northerners etc? Like is there even a welsh contestant?

    4. Not sure if I’ll watch without my family. But when you need an excuse to make banana bread, it still suffices.

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