In my first blog after the summer hiatus I was going to write about some of the television I’d been enjoying over the first half of 2013 and in particular the glorious glut of zombies that seemed to be gracing my PVR for the past few months. But then a response from Chris Becker to a Facebook post where I pondered the folly of baking while watching The Great British Bake Off got me wondering about the appeal of the series, which made its return to our screens a few weeks ago. So zombies will have to wait for next time (nicely coinciding with Halloween) while I take this opportunity to contemplate the appeal of what has fast become a highlight of the television year in our household.
Last year Sarah Cardwell posted a wonderful blog that detailed the ways in which Bake Off avoids the worst excesses of reality television and cookery competitions. Its understated aesthetic and affectionate and respectful treatment of the participants and viewers combine to create a series that finds drama in small details and allows the characters to be revealed through their cooking, rather than through detailed, emotion-filled back-story. These elements are surely a huge part of the series’ appeal and success. But I’ve also been wondering about some of the contextual elements that come with the show, particularly those surrounding the presenters and the way in which the series positions baking as part of a distinctly British tradition.
For me, much of the draw of Bake Off lies with the presenters, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. Bake Off represents a re-uniting of this double act, short-listed for the Best Newcomers Award at the Edinburgh Festival 1993, who had not worked together since their unsuccessful comedy panel game for ITV, Casting Couch, was cancelled. I have a particular fondness for Mel and Sue, whose break-through television show Light Lunch kept me sane in the more tortuous months of working on my MA dissertation. Light Lunch was a lunchtime comedy panel game show broadcast by Channel 4 between March 1997 and February 1998. In front of a live studio audience, Mel and Sue would cook lunch with a guest chef that was subsequently shared with celebrity guests, who tucked in while being interviewed. The show included a live studio band and interviews with the audience who were invited to bring their own lunch, often consisting of weird and spectacular concoctions cooked specially for the show; my favourite being a three-course meal made entirely of sweets (candy for our American friends). Meanwhile, the audience at home was invited to call in (or fax – it was the 1990s…) with their questions for the guests.
Re-watching episodes of Light Lunch for this blog you can see Mel and Sue honing their presenting skills. There are frequent fluffs in the presenting as they lose their place or miss their cues, but they work perfectly with the style of Mel and Sue’s double act, which depends significantly on improvisation. In the intro to one show Mel diverged from the script to comment on her involuntary wink in what then becomes a running gag for the rest of that section.
Meanwhile, Mel and Sue’s treatment of the audience and the guests is affectionate; the interviews flow like a natural mealtime conversation rather than structured set of questions. Sue’s interviews with the audience also reveal a gift for improvisation, such as a running gag in one episode (where Mel and Sue are decked in mini-skirts in honour of their celebrity guest Twiggy) concerning Sue’s attempts to move amongst the seated audience without revealing ‘something untoward in my nether regions’.
As these examples suggest, the off-script moments are often tinged with self-deprecation and much of the comedy is at their own expense. Indeed, a central aspect of Mel and Sue’s double-act that remains in the Bake Off today is the use of puns designed to be as corny and cringe-worthy as possible. Light Lunch is rife with such puns, from the daily changing name of the band (The Lightening Swedes, The Sex Pastilles, Tripe Said Fred) to the backs of the cards introducing the recipes (‘She’s a shoe-chef’). As with Bake Off there is a lightness of touch in their presenting style, which, as with all of the best presenters, has an effortless quality that belies the skill involved. They are particularly skilled at bringing out the personalities of those that they interview, and the unobtrusive revelation of character observed by Sarah Cardwell is greatly facilitated by the ways in which Mel and Sue interact with the participants in Bake Off.
Looking back at Light Lunch and thinking about Mel and Sue reminded me that part of the appeal of Bake Off lies in its comedy. Many of the highlights of the fourth series so far for me are also the funniest ones: Sue making Paul Hollywood blush by misinterpreting a comment as the revelation of his impending marriage to Mary (‘we all saw it on the cards’) and accidently squishing Howard’s muffins while interviewing him about his griddling technique.
Comedy is also generated though the editing. Last week’s ‘pies’ episode included a beautifully edited sequence of the bakers struggling to get their custard tarts out in one piece, gradually building in tension as increasingly wrecked tarts were unceremoniously scrapped and bashed out of their cases. It brought the house down in our living room.
The trailer for the fourth season of the series seems to directly acknowledge this comedic appeal.
In its combination of comedy, celebrity and cookery, Light Lunch was part of an attempt by Channel 4 to explore alternative audiences for daytime television and can be seen in the light of its strategy in the 1990s to experiment with formats that combined its public service remit with an appeal to valuable niche demographics (I’ve written more about this strategy here). The series took traditional elements of daytime television – cookery, celebrity interviews, audience participation, female presenters – and gave them a youth appeal. I knew that the show was speaking directly to me as I watched one lunchtime in my pajamas eating my breakfast to be confronted by the Light Lunch fridge magnets (which adorned the kitchen set and always included a different short statement of relevance to the episode in hand) proclaiming ‘Light Lunch, breakfast television for students’. In reuniting Mel and Sue in a format similarly shaped around the joys of food and cookery, Bake Off has a specific retro appeal for me and, I suspect, a proportion of my generation.
Yet while Light Lunch was self-consciously aimed at younger viewers, Bake Off is a classic example of the BBC successfully targeting a cross-generational audience. If the pairing of Mel and Sue appeals to thirty and forty-somethings, the pairing of judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood speaks more directly to an older generation. While, as with many a hobbyist baker, I was very familiar with Mary Berry from her indispensable cookbooks I was less familiar with her television career. Mary started presenting cooking segments on television on Judith Chalmers’ series Afternoon Plus in the early 1970s. She went on to present several series for Thames Television and the BBC, including At Home with Mary Berry and Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cakes in the 1990s.
Described by The Independent as ‘unashamedly wholesome’, Berry brings a different generational appeal to Bake Off, and, as with Mel and Sue, the series cleverly brought this cookery icon back to our screens. Despite the generational difference, however, the pairing of Berry with Mel and Sue never jars because both share a warmth and self-deprecation. Even Paul Hollywood, bad cop to Mary’s good cop, who clearly does not suffer fools gladly, has an open honesty in his approach to judging. And of course, his good looks (oft commented upon by Mel and Sue who have nicknamed him ‘The Silverback’) have built in appeal to ‘women-of-a-certain-age’ (despite revelations of his extra-marital affair).
The Great British Bake Off is also designed, as the title suggests, to appeal to a particular British sensibility. The series peppers its coverage of the cookery competition with vignettes that explore the history of British cooking and can be understood as part of a ‘good food’ revival in a nation about which French ex-president Jacques Chirac once commented ‘One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad’. In this sense Bake Off can be understood as part of a broader resurgence of interest in British food and cuisine, alongside series such as The Great British Food Revival, Hairy Bikers’ Best of British and The Great British Menu. These programmes celebrate the history of classic British recipes as well as the quality of British produce. Bake Off’s setting within rural British countryside (replete with squirrels with big nuts) and the retro styling of the Bake Off tent, adorned with Union Jack bunting, speaks to this attempt to revive traditions, both in the classic British recipes set for the technical challenges and in the emphasis on the skills of baking from scratch. Indeed, a range of Bake Off merchandise stocked by department store Marks and Spencer makes this connection explicit with retro packaging that transforms the skies of rural Britain behind the Bake Off tent into a Union Jack.
In this sense, Bake Off could be seen as part of a broader nostalgia for British tradition in the UK tied to the revival of domestic skills, from cookery to knitting and sewing. Indeed, the BBC’s less successful sewing competition series, The Great British Sewing Bee, seemed to aim to do to sewing what Bake Off has done for baking. (See Rachel Moseley’s excellent blog on the series here). As an avid knitter and a long-standing lover of baking I do think, however, that there is a cultural difference. Baking has been rarely off our screens. Since the earliest cookery shows in the 1950s, baking has never really gone out of style. By contrast, knitting and sewing fell off the cultural radar in the 1980s and 1990s. Like many girls (and fewer boys) of my generation, I learnt to sew and knit as a kid, taught in school and by grandparents and parents. I always liked making things, but these crafts became negatively associated with traditional female domesticity in my late teens. Indeed our sewing classes at secondary school were characterized by attempts to subvert what we felt was an implicit sexism by using the skills we learnt to take our A-line skirts in and up as tight and short as we could get away with.
The revival of my interest in knitting around eight years ago owed a lot to the repositioning of these pass-times as skilled crafts, rather than just domestic traditions. Knitting found its way into art galleries and cat-walks, and an active knitting community emerged that reclaimed previously devalued feminized craft skills. Indeed, my own love of knitting stems as much from the enjoyment of continuously extending and enhancing the techniques in my knitting repertoire as it does from the pleasure of making things from scratch. The focus on craft skills is, of course, central to Bake Off, and it is possible to learn much about the science of baking from observing the different techniques explored over the series. While not explicitly didactic (that is left to the companion series in which Berry and Hollywood teach viewers how to make the bakes from the technical challenges) Bake Off positions baking as craft that requires significant expertise and practice. And although the participants are all domestic bakers, learning and refining their skills by baking at home for friends and family, baking is not addressed here as an exclusively domestic pass-time. From the combination of self-proclaimed ‘home cook’ Mary Berry with professional baker Paul Hollywood as judges, to the exploration of the history of baking in both domestic and professional settings (often exploring the transitions between the two), to the books published by previous Bake Off winners Edd Kimber, Jo Wheatley and John Waite, Bake Off positions baking as equally domestic hobby and professional craft.
Bake Off manages a clever balancing act, then. It speaks to the revival of interest in British cooking and traditional craft skills, as both domestic and professional practice. It uses its presenters and judges to create cross-generational appeal, combining sincerity, wholesomeness and self-deprecating comedy with just a pinch of sex appeal. But I’ll always love it for bringing Mel and Sue back together, and with cakes to boot.
Catherine Johnson is a lecturer in the Department of Culture, Film, and Media at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television and Telefantasy and co-editor of Transnational Television History and ITV Cultures. Her current research examines the broader creative industry sector that produces promotional material for the screen industries.