On your marks, get set … GET HAPPY! The Great British Bake Off – the show that brought the nation together at the exact same time everything else fell in the bin like a sabotaged baked alaska – is 10 years old. To celebrate, we get … another scrumptious series of The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4). No surprises hidden like currants in a fruit cake. No crimes or misdemeanours (not yet anyway). No boat-rocking channel switches. Just some decent folk getting in a tizzy over the height of their genoise in a Berkshire tent.
Let’s face it, reviewing Bake Off is now about as necessary as scoring your nan’s scones. Of course they’re going to be just right, you ungrateful wretch. Nevertheless, like those scones, Bake Off commands attention, praise, respect. And we show this recognition not by making ‘mmmm’ noises and saying ‘your best yet, nan’ but via the cooking up of vast amounts of column inches, manufactured scandals, and thinkpieces on what it really means when Paul Hollywood describes Michelle’s Fairy House showstopper as “faultless” yet doesn’t give her the handshake. Is it unconscious bias? Because it’s the first episode and he doesn’t want to peak too soon? Or has the handshake been overused to the point of redundancy and will now only be rolled out in the event of another bread lion?
We will never know, but I’m racing ahead when what we’re after is a low-and-slow bake. So to the opening tableau; a riff on The Wizard of Oz. Noel Fielding, droll, kind, cheeky-faced, is Dorothy. Sandy Toksvig is the scarecrow with no brain (Noel: “That’s the QI gig gone!”). Prue Leith – she of the showstopper necklaces and compassionate judging – is the lion. And Hollywood is the tin man. No heart. “Is it weird that I fancy you now?” Toksvig asks Fielding as they wander across the lawn and we wait for the theme, the aural equivalent of stepping into a warm bath, to kick in. “So do I,” mutters Hollywood. Hil. Ar. I. Ous.
It’s cake week, and the signature challenge is a fruit cake, which is all about batter consistency. Too thin and the fruit drops to the bottom, too thick and … whatevs. What we’re really interested in is the texture of the contestants. Will we be blessed with a Nadiya or Rahul? Who’s going to be the anal Brendan-y one? (Henry, without a doubt: just look at his royal iced house). The posh one who induces automatic fond eye-rolls whenever they mention using pullet eggs from their own chickens? (A toss-up between vet Rosie and geography teacher Alice). The clumsy one? (Michael: he keeps cutting himself but still makes a treasure chest cake with about three fingers.) As all Bake Off fans know, the ideal contestant will be the perfect cake mix of wit, compassion, baking flair, self-deprecation, team spirit, and comedy stress responses. It’s too early to say, but I’m keeping an eye on Steph and Michelle.
Much has been made of how young the group is this year, and it’s true that seven out of 13 are in their 20s. Jamie, 20, is easily the silliest. One of those inexplicable people who looks like he’s having the best time even while failing to add eggs to his caramel schnauzer. “It’s like mixing concrete,” he grins. Special mention, also, to Helena, who “lives like every day is Halloween” and makes the droopiest bat wings ever crafted out of sugar. “From one goth to another I know you’ll be fine,” Fielding reassures her. God love him, and all goths who bake. Her genoise is so rubbery, she says, that if it fell on the floor it would bounce right back. Tragically, this doesn’t happen.
But her showstopper leads to the episode’s best moment. Based on the fairy garden Helena imagined as a child, she explains that she now has an actual fairy garden at home. Hollywood looks a bit smirky. Turns out he thought she said furry garden. Oooooh, naughty! “Oh Paul,” says Helena, slightly hysterical. “I know what you’re thinking.” Cue a query about how big her furry garden is, at which point I started to miss Mary Berry, because her confused-amused face would have been priceless.
No matter. Bake Off remains a constant in this otherwise sugar-free life. A place where catastrophe is a dropped cake that can always be squashed back together. Welcome home, nan.