Last night's viewing - The Great British Sewing Bee, BBC2


Will Dean@willydean
Wednesday 03 April 2013 09:42

The Great British Bake-Off has been credited with boosting numbers in the WI to such an extent that the phenomenon has a name – The Mary Berry Effect. The latest entry into a genre I'll be henceforth referring to as "WI-fi" follows very similar lines. A pattern, if you will. The Great British Sewing Bee comes from Bake-Off makers Love Productions and follows a near-identical format to Bake-Off. However, instead of Mezza Bezza, we get the WI's May Martin. Already Martin has told the Telegraph what she thought of the comparison: "I've always been asked, 'Are you the Mary Berry of sewing?' and I say, 'No, I'm the May Martin of sewing.'" Good luck with that.

In the Paul Hollywood (cake) mould is handsome Savile Rower Patrick Grant, who says things like, "I think this is visually very arresting", while the eight competitors stare at his immaculate beard and wonder if they could stitch a hemline into it.

Finally, Claudia Winkleman replaces Mel'n'Sue as the person who turns to camera every now and again to explain to the lay sewer what sorcery the likes of Sandra from Wolverhampton are getting up to with their needles. (Incidentally, it's difficult not to thoroughly enjoy the sewer/sewer homograph.)

So, we're following a similar formula/pattern/recipe here. We've got all the key narrative elements of Bake-Off apart from a squirrel with anatomically disproportionate testes. But, like Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor, there's a reason. It works. And the eight contestants chosen here are all so darn likable that even someone who hasn't so much as sniffed a needle and thread since Year 8 D&T is quickly drawn into proceedings.

My early favourites are Mark, a 41-year-old HGV mechanic, and the sewing veteran Ann. Mark looks like a Judas Priest roadie. His previous sewing experience extends almost exclusively to creating costumes for the steampunk gatherings he and his family like to attend when he's not fixing lorries. Faced with sewing a zip into the opening skirt challenge, he's somewhat befuddled, having only used zips once or twice before: "This is all modern this is for me," he sighs. Mark looks bound for the dumper but manages to pull a stunning panelled dress out of the bag for a made-to-measure dress challenge.

Ann, meanwhile, is basically cheating. She's 81 and has been sewing since she was six. She even taught domestic science briefly. During the bespoke dress challenge, as the others struggle to finish off their dresses before the final whistle, Ann can be heard quite loudly explaining to the camera that she's "finished and is just checking for any final faults". This, perhaps, is what one can expect from an octogenarian who was introduced to viewers via a shot of her hanging upside down as part of a yoga routine. Do not mess with Ann.

Obviously, part of the hook here is that, since the dawn of Austerity Britain™, folks up and down the land have been taking to repairing and making their own clothes to save cash. "A quiet revolution is happening," claims Winkleman, reflecting on a boom in sewing machine sales in the past five years.

There's certainly something pleasingly pastoral about seeing a mixed(ish) group of people able to refit existing items, create new ones from scratch for themselves or their families and turn bits of cloth into a thing. Just looking at the patterns gives me a headache, but if the Sewing Bee can convert as many people into part-time sewers (he he) as the Bake-Off has, or claims to have done, for home bakers then – heck – it's public-service television every bit as important as a BBC4 physics documentary.

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