‘A good bake’
As regular viewers of The Great British Bake Off will know, ‘a good bake’ is the highest praise indeed. It is a perfect pastry base: short, smooth and golden; it is a crisp, evenly-coloured biscuit; it is a cake of even crumb and airy texture. A good bake is the pinnacle of technique. It is more than structure, more than consistency. It is the ideal combination of formal qualities appropriate to the specific item: a billowy meringue, a delicate chiffon cake, a solid hand-raised pork pie. ‘A good bake’ indicates expert handling – the shaping of your material in a way that is both technically skilled and also sensitive to the ingredients and the particular nature of the final product.
The quality of the bake is to some extent distinguishable from the item’s flavour – and can be assessed separately. A tatin of pears, chilli and peanut butter might indeed be adjudged a perfect bake, but that doesn’t make its taste any more appealing. Conversely, a simple Madeira loaf, cooked to perfection, can outshine its fussier rivals if the bake is just right.
It struck me, as I watched the Bake Off final and masterclasses, that the idea of the good bake is the perfect metaphor for the series itself.
The Great British Bake Off is, on the surface, simply a variation on that well-worn format: the television cookery competition. Its extraordinary success appears to depend upon the way in which it handles its material. It has thus drawn in viewers who would never ordinarily watch ‘reality television’ or cookery competitions. Indeed, much of its appeal lies in the careful use it makes of these two genres – or more specifically, in its refusal to indulge in some of the most hackneyed and salacious (perhaps one could say ‘distasteful’) elements of them.
‘Not too much reality’: the gradual revelation of character
Bake Off avoids the overblown, the histrionic, the mawkish. Although the competition is open only to amateur bakers and thus its participants are ‘ordinary people’, Bake Off eschews the typical reality-programme fascination with their personal and emotional lives. It offers only a limited insight into each contestant’s background – his or her job, family or relationship situation, and a very brief précis of each person’s ambitions and interests. Very little dramatic leverage is found within these ‘back stories’: the focus is firmly upon what they do within the Bake Off tent, during the competition, rather than on their personal lives, past or present.
This is far from a disavowal of each contestant’s individuality, however. We get to know each of them by means more similar to those we exercise in everyday life: by making our own observations of details of their behaviour.
We watch the bakers at work in the kitchen, intently focused on their task, rather than on presenting themselves to us. Attempting to create 25 perfect fondant fancies in two and a half hours is tricky enough to keep each person’s attention fixed upon their work, rather than worrying self-consciously about how they are coming across on camera. In this context, smaller expressions and revelations of character that might in another programme go unremarked take on significance and are a source of pleasure for the interested viewer. Take the moment in episode three when the contestants must create the ‘lattice top’ for their treacle tarts (click on sentence for extract).
In this skilfully composed sequence, Manisha, standing in front of her pre-prepared lattice, outlines her strategy: ‘Slide it on top. Bob’s your uncle’. The next moment shows the impressively organised charity CEO Victoria executing this professionally, only to segue into Manisha’s failed attempt, as her lattice slides smoothly from the baking paper, over the edge of the tart tin, and into a tangled heap on the work top. Sarah-Jane’s especially decorative twirled lattice, next, reveals her more playful, confident approach. Finicky Cathryn fiddles with the ends of her pastry strips, skinny fingers tweaking the lattice into shape, and then we see again Manisha, now with a lattice in place, picking and poking at the pastry, teasing it into place. From this delicate fussing and finessing, we cut to James, who stands, lattice on paper in one hand, as he weighs his options. His gaze moves rapidly back and forth, from lattice to tart, as his free hand picks distractedly at crumbs on the worktop. Suddenly, decisively, he boldly flips the paper over and drops the lattice perfectly onto his tart. His dramatic movement contrasts with the previous, cautious approaches, and typifies James’s more audacious and experimental attitude. His smile as the risk pays off echoes ours as we relish his maverick style, and delight in these moments of difference between contestants. Who would have thought that the placing of a lattice top on a treacle tart could prove such a satisfying revelation of character?
Cookery and competition
As a cookery programme, Bake Off is closer to the Nigel Slater school, rather than Jamie’s or Gordon’s. The pace is measured: the material tends to be presented in sections, and the baking is punctuated with slow shots of the surrounding area (sheep grazing, leaves rustling in the trees) and with extended sequences on particular aspects of the history of baking. There is occasional footage of the contestants’ lives outside the Bake Off. Rupert Penry Jones’s voiceover smoothes and soothes, his considered and articulate delivery bestowing an air of calm authority.
The editing is unhurried. There is confidence that the viewer does not need fast-paced imagery to remain interested in the making of a pork pie or a swiss roll, and can recognise the speed and skill with which a cook handles his or her materials without an increase in pace to heighten the tension. There is only one moment in which the pace appears to be artificially accelerated: when Paul Hollywood demonstrates (in episode 11, the first Bake Off Masterclass) how to make the incredibly tricky eight-plait loaf (click on sentence for extract).
As Paul forms the plait, he instinctively picks up pace, building to an extraordinary speed (especially in contrast to the contestants’ previous, clumsy attempts at this tricky manoeuvre). There is a slight fast-forward as he reaches the last stages of the plait, but this is introduced seamlessly, and the plaiting continues to gather pace until the last strand is laid, at which point a rapid cut to Mary’s open-mouthed awe punctuates the scene and echoes our own reactions. Here, the introduction of accelerated filming – an extremely rare technique within the series, which generally prefers a more understated aesthetic – is judiciously employed to accentuate the admirable skill of a professional baker at work. It asserts the centrality of actual baking to the series, downplaying both the competitive and ‘reality’ elements.
The programme is also, of course, a competition, and Paul and Mary, as its official judges, embody its professional approach. The relationship between Paul and Mary has developed across the three series. These two are judges of a quite different kind from those found on many other ‘competition/reality’ shows. Paul could have played bad cop to Mary’s good cop, and in the earlier series they appear to be exploring this dynamic from time to time, but here in series three, they seem to have made the wise decision to accord with the programme’s overall tone and remain, along with presenters Sue and Mel, disinterested yet approachable and enthusiastic. Their judging is appropriate to each situation: precise critique that is reproving when necessary, solicitous when called for. The tone is captured in Mary’s gentle admonition to Paul, halfway through this series, that after the necessary criticisms have been made, he try to finish his feedback by saying ‘something nice’ to one disconsolate participant.
The unfinished sentence: letting things go
We reach the final round of the competition, episode 10, and the contestants retire whilst Paul and Mary consider their verdict. And here the programme creates and handles so beautifully an intimate moment with Brendan, one of the three finalists: the case of the unfinished sentence (click on sentence for extract).
This simply structured segment opens with a transition shot moving over some trees, conveying us from the heat of the kitchen to the more reflective interviews with each of the three finalists: John, then James, then Brendan. We are shown their finished cakes and they each speak briefly about their final thoughts before first place is awarded. Brendan begins to explain how much it would mean to him to win the competition: “I think to achieve the title would be an extraordinary endorsement of what I’ve achieved in sp…” He breaks off, clearly moved. Gathering his thoughts and his composure, he continues, more positively: “Yes, of what I’ve achieved with my baking over the, over the decades really, i-in… you know, in sp…” Overwhelmed again, he looks down, and a single note is introduced: not a melody, not a piece of music that would shape more concretely the emotion of the scene, but a single, high note that creates only an air of suspension, and that continues as Brendan remains looking downwards, swallowing, licking his lips, visibly attempting to gather himself once more, and form his lips into the shape required to complete his sentence. He does not succeed. After what feels like a long wait, the camera cuts away from Brendan, and the segment is bookended with a cutaway shot moving across union jack bunting.
This is a moment that is utterly televisual: here, in the most quotidian of genres (one alien to cinema), we have a real person, about whom we know only a little, unable to finish a sentence – and it is utterly captivating. The programme’s handling of Brendan, of this private moment with him, epitomises its finely-judged attitude towards the material and towards us as viewers.
We never learn what Brendan’s baking success is ‘in spite of’, though of course we can make our own assumptions based on the fragments of background information we have been offered. But nothing is made explicit here. The programme makers accept Brendan’s decision not to disclose his thoughts, after all – not to share them with us. They accept his unfinished sentence and what it represents: a potentially interesting but untold story. With the addition of music, and the sustained close up, the programme does find the drama in this moment, and enthrals the viewer, but without exploiting Brendan for it
The finalists’ ‘group hug’ that follows implies that they may know Brendan’s story, and that they share more between each other than that to which we have been permitted access. This refusal to let us share, this denial of insight and knowledge for the viewer, runs counter to the trend of contemporary reality television, in favour of greater restraint.
An exceptional bake
Brendan’s unfinished sentence exemplifies the way the series has worked throughout: never overstating, never explaining away, never presenting too much tiresome ‘back story’. We’ve learned a little of Brendan’s background, we’ve inferred a lot about it and the things he’s had to deal with, without any details being set out in front of us. It makes his unfinished sentence all the more poignant and captivating. It is sensitively done, yet utterly gripping.
Yet this moment exists within such an unassuming setting. This is no swanky hit US production or high-profile, gritty British drama. It’s contentedly middle-brow, simply structured, modest light entertainment, starring ‘real people’, not actors. Nonetheless it is created with care, with affection for its material (the people, and the baking) and with respect for its viewers. It seems to develop through all its components Mary Berry’s rather old-fashioned, characteristically English temperament. In the context of contemporary television, it reminds us of the beauty of understatement, and the pleasures to be found when we are left to direct our own attention.
The programme’s only defect was the needless intrusion of the formulaic ‘catch up’ programme, updating us on what last year’s contestants have done since: the equivalent of an over-exuberant deployment of pink food colouring in an otherwise flawless meringue. But it is a minor imperfection. The content of the programme is not extraordinary; it is the opposite. It is more a Victoria sponge than a radical combination of unusual ingredients. But it has the quality that matters even more: it is an exceptional bake.
Sarah Cardwell is Honorary Fellow in the School of Arts, University of Kent, where she was previously Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies. She is the author of Adaptation Revisited (2002) and Andrew Davies (2005), and has published widely on literature-screen adaptation, television aesthetics and British cinema. She is currently working on separate projects focusing on television aesthetics, period dramas, and temporality across the narrative arts.