For 3 months every year on a Wednesday night, the passionate chaos of my Twitter feed comes to a halt and unites around a common cause. For one hour, the full spectrum of my online friends put aside their various differences and take communal joy in that most simple of pleasures – cake.
It’s hard to entirely convey the stratospheric levels of popularity and cultural impact The Great British Bake Off has reached over the past 5 years. The light entertainment show, where a group of contestants compete in a series of cooking challenges to be crowned the star baker, has risen from a throwaway mid-week schedule filler to must see TV and sparked a national interest in baking unseen since the heydays of Delia Smith. It’s currently one of the most viewed TV shows in the country, and one of the most successful franchises to come from the BBC since Strictly Come Dancing. The only thing that even came close to its ratings success was Top Gear, and Bake Off did that without punching any producers.
Everyone thinks they can bake, whether they admit it or not. We’ve all watched Ina Garten or Nigella Lawson whip up a feast with apparent ease and quietly thought ‘I could do that’. What Bake Off excels at is capturing that appeal while demonstrating the sheer art of finely crafted baking. You can be impressed by what you see and still tempted into believing you could pull it off yourself. Of course I could fashion a peacock out of chocolate! For a show with such low stakes – the winner receives a decorative cake stand and no cash reward or cookbook contract – the drama is often nerve-wracking. Never has tempering chocolate been such a nail biter.
There are no drawn out scenes of forced reality TV tension (so much so that when a contestant from the previous season threw their baked Alaska in the bin after a mishap, it literally made front page news) and judge Paul Hollywood’s pseudo-Simon Cowell Mr Nasty routine falls flat. There’s no need for a producer mandated villain and no contestant gets the ‘baddie edit’ – everyone enters the competition with the same odds and support to match.
The term ‘Britishness’ has some less than positive connotations in current discourse. Between right-wing rhetoric regarding refugees and the Scottish independence referendum, the very word has become an unpleasant dog-whistle used to divide rather than unite. There’s a growing pressure for many to conform to a specific and very narrow set of terms in order to fit an arbitrary definition of Britishness, something I’ve experienced myself as a Scot, although to a far lesser extent than any person of colour. Very few things in pop culture unite Brits from various intersections of life because that national identity viewed through a profit-focused lens is mostly sanitised and watered down to pithy phrases or a Union Jack here and there.
The Great British Bake Off does fall into a few of those traps – the rural green setting evokes images of a green and pleasant land – yet its willingness to embrace a warm, inoffensive and ultimately nice image of Britishness is what makes it but exceptionally appealing and secretly radical. It’s the retro afternoon tea crossed with the nudge-wink innuendo humour of the Carry On series: funny, relaxing and undeniably earnest, complete with a cast of likeable amateur bakers across the spectrum of race, gender and sexuality.
The final airs next week so it may be a touch late for new viewers to jump on board but past episodes are easy enough to locate, so if you enjoy equal parts macaron making with soggy bottom puns, give it a go. The Great British Bake Off may not be what you first think of when ‘Britishness’ comes to mind, but it’s an oddly inspiring piece of work.