Has The Great British Bake Off hit soggy bottom?

A ghost is haunting our television, and its name is Paul Hollywood. The piercing blue eyes that penetrate each naive baker’s soul are a steadfast reminder that The Great British Bake Off, in its new iteration of Channel Four, is much the same. For all the anger and angst that marked one of Britain’s most beloved shows’ buy-out by a private broadcasting house, trepidation has been met with, at most, underwhelming comfort. A shade duller, Bake Off remains the same feast of tension, tittering and twisted British delight.

The show’s most visible change is to its core presenters and judges, but what at first appears an exciting shake-up soon reduces to mundanity. Once the dark prince of BBC Three comedy, Noel Fielding’s surprising inclusion as new the host has failed to produce a lasting tonal shift. His atmospheric charm is lost in the calm of the Bake Off tent, his wit flaring in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Sandi Toksvig, another strong comedic choice is similarly disappointing on set and the duo’s chemistry, although growing, has yet to take full force. Paul Hollywood is much the same, but this is not reassuring – the leering patriarchal authority he wields through his select (or not necessarily so select) handshakes is unsettling.

The highlight of the newcomers is Prue Leith; despite having big Mary Berry-shaped shoes to fill, she brings a welcome sophistication and a vivid fashion sense.

In format, the show is identical to before. The viewer gets the same platter of friendly rivalry, grand showstoppers and suspiciously sunny stretches of British summertime. Enjoyment is served in the usual way – culinary treats mixed with the sadistic pleasure of watching Stacey’s oven fall to pieces. Each series relies on the quality of its contestants, and this years are a suitably average mix. Only Liam and Flo have emerged as fan favorites – there are no stars on the level of Nadiya. Ad breaks are initially jarring, but weaved in effectively to build suspense. Overall the show continues to thrive on its offering of charm and tranquility.

Channel 4 Bake Off is, by and large, BBC Bake Off. But perhaps this broadcasting rupture marks a time to reflect on what makes Bake Off so beloved. The show exists in tension. It claims to embody the quaint British spirit – the passive twee-chic and the romantic rural setting are the cultural projection of our ‘quiet island nation’ – despite rampant social discord existing in reality. Bake Off advertises itself as a show for people’s “love for a good bake”, despite its £75 million sale. This was a move made for money, not to please the Mel and Sue lovers of the world.
Bake Off has survived its transformation unchanged, but for what purpose? If we have learnt one lesson it is that even this ‘national treasure’ is yet another commodity in the thralls of the market. What next, Blue Planet?

Image: Katherine Cassidy

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