The fifth series of the Great British Bake Off is being aired and it looks to be as popular as ever. But why do we love it so much? Here are my musings:
1. The characters and their dramas
We are well-used to the celebrity conferred by tv shows now, and we’re poised to throw in our lot with one contestant or another, to berate one’s flavour choices and commiserate with another’s tears over a fallen cake. We love the anxious vigils in front of the oven doors, the dropped cakes and the missing ingredients. Some of this isn’t very savoury (or very sweet for that matter 😉 ) – see the ding-dongs over the critical comments about one of the (female) finalist’s manner and appearance on the show last year – and in similar vein the twitter storm on classicist Mary Beard’s appearance in her tv show (brilliantly dismissed, put down and defused by both women). And of course, in a more positive note, we mustn’t forget the crucial presence of the two presenters, Mel and Sue, and the two judges, Mary and Paul, who inject a considerable amount of personality and humour to the whole proceedings.
2. The on the spot challenges
The contestants on the Bake Off are not complete strangers to a cake tin; they’ve all gone through an increasingly competitive application process (though who knows how much demographic profiling and personality matters over baking ability here?). But I think a key reason that this show is so much more popular than the many other lower-key baking contests on tv is that it’s not all about people presenting beautifully turned out bakes that they’ve practised at home. Every week there is one challenge which involves a previously unseen-recipe, and – cruel twist of brilliance – minimal instructions. This is where we really see the nervous glances at other contestants’ benches; the quiet conferrals behind the mixers; and the hints and raised eyebrows from the judges. It’s where the personalities really shine and where our allegiances are formed. Of course the prime-time viewing slot helps too, but the move to the higher profile BBC1 (from BBC2) this year was the result of high ratings.
3. The sense of nostalgia
I think that this is a really critical factor behind the popularity of this show, and I think it has a very distinctively British flavour. Just look at the village-fete-style marquee where the filming is done, the rural setting (enhanced by quick shots of usually dripping wet sheep and ducks in the surrounding fields – ah, say the audience – who can trust the British weather?), the cutesy, kitschy and of-the-moment utensils and pastel-coloured KitchenAid mixers. Add in the very fact of baking from scratch, which is held up as one of the key signs that we hearken to a past age where people had the time and knowledge to bake – and you have a very potent mix. I’d even venture a step further and suggest that this is linked in people’s minds to the privations and pulling together of the 1940s and early 1950s – a period recent and important enough to be part of our sense of shared communal history, and one which seems to be at the forefront of the popularity of ‘Vintage’ fashion and decor. The Bake Off has managed to capture this sense of nostalgia and community, with the updated values of modern technology, shiny consumer goods, male contestants (traditionally men have specialised in bread-baking and patisserie rather than cakes), and a multi-cultural set of recipes and flavours (often introduced by the contestants).
4. It’s inspiring
We could all bake if we wanted to (and many of the show’s audience already do). You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get started, and there is a wealth of recipes on the internet. Lots of people have been inspired to try one of the challenges from the show, or get started with one of the simpler bakes and recipe tips. But I don’t think that entirely explains its popularity: the Great British Sewing Bee, which has now gone through two series, was also enormously popular; yet dressmaking is a more expensive hobby to start up than baking, and requires a lot more know-how. The Bake Off is undoubtedly more mainstream than the Sewing Bee, but they both clearly strike the same chord when it comes to domestic hobbies and the desire to connect – either personally, or vicariously through the contestants – with older and more traditional pastimes.
So there we go: I think that it’s a combination of personalities, engaging stories, and the fashion for home crafts which has made this show so very popular. We are an audience ripe for these things at this moment in time. It’s worth noting though, that although I think that the British Bake Off plays to some distinctively British traits, it’s also hugely popular elsewhere. There are spin-off franchises in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Poland, Ireland, Norway and France; America’s CBS has its own The American Baking Competition; and New Zealand the startlingly un-PC-sounding Hottest Home Baker (I can only assume that in fact ‘hottest’ refers to ‘hot off the press’ rather than the contestants’ looks). I’ve never seen any of these other shows: I’d love to know whether they’ve been formatted to cater to other tastes, or whether our taste for this baking contest is universal.