So, is that it? The end of sweetness, and the end of taste? Physically speaking, those things will no doubt carry on, when The Great British Bake Off moves to Channel 4 next year. We’ll still take vicarious pleasure in the mouthwatering sweetness of someone’s ‘crème pat’. The taste of lavender will still ‘come through’ in a contestant’s 12 identical puff pastry miniatures. But I’m referring to the abstracts: the sweetness, and the taste. I fear that those might have gone for ever.
With Britain tearing itself apart this summer and autumn, one half being sarcastic and nasty about the other half all the time, the weekly hour-long patch of sweetness and taste that is the BBC’s Great British Bake Off has become something to treasure, and indeed to live for. It’s not only the perpetually intriguing chemistry of the baking, it’s also, crucially, the life-enhancing chemistry between the four hosts that holds our attention and makes us crave and love the programme. Not just a few of us, either: 11 million of us each week; and not just National Trust old dears in flowery armchairs, but highflyers and cynics of all ages, all of whom are disarmed, relaxed and somehow made nicer by the programme’s innocence and charm.
Telling us that the GBBO might be just as good with new hosts is like telling a child that the Christmas holidays will be just as nice when Mummy and Daddy get divorced. We know it’s not true. And, like those children, we ask ourselves, ‘Why do grown-ups always have to mess things up?’ The programme was trundling along perfectly well until adult greed gripped the souls of the people at Love Productions, who refused to accept the BBC’s offer of £15 million and went for Channel 4’s offer of £25 million. It’s depressing that the delicate edifice of the GBBO should crumble due to money. So utterly out of character! One of the Bake Off’s blissful aspects was that it seemed to have nothing to do with money. No prizes: just flour, butter, caster sugar, a trophy and lashings of honour.
That age of innocence is now over. Never again will we hear Sue Perkins make a joke so unfunny that it’s funny. (Eg, in ‘Tudor week’, ‘As Anne of Cleves said: you’re two-thirds of the way through.’) Never again will we hear Mel Giedroyc pronouncing a French cake name in an exceedingly French accent, or see the look of compassion and alarm on her face on watching a contestant’s pastry case crack apart on exit from the tin. Never again will we savour the affectionate, teasing relationship between Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, who are as different from each other, but as strangely compatible as the Queen and Harold Wilson. A country longing for old certainties to cling to has now lost those ones.
Only the BBC could have got such an unpromising programme off the ground. The corniness of assembling ‘a baker’s dozen’ of homely contestants in a bunting-hung marquee in the grounds of a country house complete with bleating lambs; the Reithian quaintness of including a short educational ‘historical interlude’ in the middle of each episode; the very idea that watching other people bake could be remotely interesting in the first place: you can see why it began as minority BBC2 entertainment aimed at the elderly. The first newspaper reviews of series one in 2010 were mocking and scathing.
But word of mouth, that infinitely more powerful arbiter than any television critic, worked its gradual magic. One by one, reluctant family members were dragged to the television to discover the addictiveness and the sheer small-scale drama of it all. The tiny downward twitch of a contestant’s eyebrow on being told that his or her creation is ‘spot on in terms of flavour, but…’ speaks volumes about human striving and disappointment. None of us would want our creation to be the butt of Paul Hollywood’s devastating ‘but’.
He is the brutal judge, and the programme needs his ruthless frankness. He’s off to Channel 4. But Mary, Mel and Sue (who declined to go with him) provided the necessary gentle, lightening touch. You only need to hear about what Bake Off is like in some of the 196 territories that have imported it to dread what Channel 4 might do. In France each episode goes on for two dismal, humourless hours. In Australia a judge once stalked the tent to the theme tune from Jaws, making coarse remarks like ‘I am too old to waste calories on a lacklustre bake.’ Mary would never have said a thing like that. Sweetness and taste: please don’t leave us for ever.