Grace Dent on TV: Four years on, The Great British Bake Off remains a warm slice of escapism, rising to the occasion

This week Grace watched... The Great British Bake Off, BBC 1

The first time somebody described The Great British Bake Off to me – back in 2010, when it quietly appeared on BBC2 – I refused to believe that it was a real show. Some amateur bakers concoct a rum baba in a Home Counties marquee, while Mel and Sue look on jovially and an elderly lady comments on the baba’s moistness before the least-moist baba’s owner is tearfully dispatched. “It’s totally compelling,” I was told. But how? It sounded, literally, like 60 televised minutes of watching glaze set, or someone kneeling by an oven peering gingerly at a rising walnut loaf. And where is the jeopardy? I’ve made cakes many times. Even if they’re bad, they’re still good. It’s cream, fat and sugar for God’s sake. And if the contestants unveil good cakes, how will we really know as we can’t ruddy taste them?

Clearly, I was an idiot. In a cruel world where each news bulletin is a bleak catalogue of human suffering, there is a warm, snuggly space for the light peril of overly chewy meringues. Or the faux-stoic musings of a floppy-haired youth who has burned his pistachio cookies, allowing only one silent tear to drip onto a cotton tea towel. Now in its fifth series – and with an affably twee new spin-off show, An Extra Slice, fronted by Jo Brand – GBBO shows no signs for me of, ahem, going stale.

There was a moment in last week’s opening episode where contestant Nancy from Hull – a retired GP practice manager, five kids, eight grandkids – was so unflappable in the face of a Swiss-roll sponge while others flapped around her, that I thought, “God, I love this woman.” She reminded me of that Victoria Wood observation about the non-sentimentality of British women under extreme pressure: “In India, if a man dies the widow flings herself onto the funeral pyre... In this country, the woman just says, ‘72 baps, Connie, you slice, I’ll spread.’”

 

Two episodes in, and with this series set to run until October, it’s hard to choose a possible winner. However, I’m slightly fascinated by Iain the construction engineer from Belfast, who could very possibly be being played by surly Bafta-winner Sean Harris in a prop-department beard. Iain’s decision to use a knife and score his Swiss roll with deep lines to assist in its rolling seemed to deeply sadden Mary Berry. My advice would be that any time Mary Berry overlooks your baking while silently pulling a face as if she’s just discovered that the raisins in an Eccles cake were mouse poo, change tack immediately. Iain tarried on regardless, however, and the Swiss roll cracked. At times like this, the casual onlooker may feel one is better off buying a Birds Eye Arctic roll and eating it alone in a darkened room. No faff, no fuss, no scornful gaze and nitpicking from Paul Hollywood.

Audiences are bound to root, this series, for Bake Off’s youngest ever contestant – Martha, aged 17. Young Martha’s inclusion is possibly one of the reasons why all contestants have reportedly been told by the BBC to be cautious with their social-media interaction during the course of the show. It’s odd to think that the way in which a soft-mannered AS-level student makes lemon-and-thyme drizzle cake might inspire viewers to take to the internet to fling spiteful messages at her – but this is indeed how we live. Perhaps there is a direct correlation between the wild success of Bake Off, which allows humans a temporary respite from terrible news headlines that they cannot change, and the innate feelings of bitterness towards the world which viewers then direct at someone on the internet for the crime of displaying light-hearted conceit about a Victoria sponge. 

Still, for more well-adjusted viewers who simply enjoy the show and want a little more cream on their scone, An Extra Slice on BBC2 is a jolly way to waste half an hour. Think The Apprentice: You’re Hired but with the audience in gleeful raptures over clips where Mary Berry makes inadvertent double-entendres about nuts, or the Mr Sniffles egg separator – a porcelain face, where the albumen pours through the nostrils like snot.

The BBC asked me to take part in a pilot edition of it many moons ago, which sounded fun until I was told I was expected to bring along my own home-made cake to be sampled. The thought of Mary Berry staring sadly at my quadruple chocolate loaf – ripped from the pages of Nigella’s Feast and turned into a house brick by my clumsy hands – gave me a mild heart murmur. Something told me that the visiting panel of judges, Gregg Wallace, Paul Rankin etc, might gaze churlishly at my sachet of butterscotch Angel Delight set over a bed of Cadbury’s Animals in a chipped Pyrex dish (preparation time 3 and a half minutes, no chilling required). I chickened out, which is why I have so much respect for Martha, Nancy, Iain and the gang. Thanks for the macaroons, the millefeuille and the inevitable soggy bottoms.

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