Tenth anniversary marred by quixotic judgments and unfeasible challenges. TV review by Jillian Chuah Masters
And that’s a wrap: last night concluded 10 years of The Great British Bake Off. This show is the nation’s TV equivalent of comfort food. In the past, it has stuck to a well-worn recipe — the result was fun to fight over but easy to love.
This series (on Channel 4) has been more divisive than most. The opening episodes delivered the usual comforts: dramatic spills, over-egged puns, and (most importantly?) some breathtaking baking. Arguably, this year’s contestants were less representative than usual, with more than half of the bakers still in their twenties. But they won us over quickly. Crowd favourites included goth queen Helena (with her spookily good Halloween bakes), loveable Michael (whose dimples conquered Twitter) and witty Henry (the church organist who promised to strip onscreen at least twice).
Despite a strong start, the cracks appeared early. Some technical challenges were unfeasible. Some judgments were weirdly brutal. Phil, the likeable truck driver, was axed sooner than he deserved. Then Helena was gone. Then Michael and Henry were gone, and the show took on that distinct feeling of a party where it’s getting late and your best mates have already left. It didn’t help that the hosts — Noel Fielding (quite tall) and Sandi Toksvig (quite small) — spent their screen-time squeezing the life out of one joyless joke. These minds gave us The Mighty Boosh and school us regularly on QI. Surely, on a baking show, they can still give us something to sink our teeth into.
Last night’s episode, the finale, was bittersweet. This is not because of an undeserving winner – David is a dashing underdog and seriously deft with an oven. But the episode’s defining quality was its melancholy. Aside from David and Alice’s impressive Showstoppers, the final trio did not produce bakes of their usual quality. And Steph, famed four-time winner of the Star Baker award, produced her worst bakes yet.
Some of the episode’s flatness was avoidable. The technical was a soufflé — surprising in a series that tried to pass off “dairy” and “festivals” as believable baking themes. But the choice still lacked classical magic. The judges wanted the soufflés turned out and stacked with lavash, finished in a window of time that (even if technically possible) did not make for good cooking on TV. Nonetheless, most of the episode’s melancholy was innate, as we saw the self-confidence of a true star baker shatter on national TV. Steph over-baked her chocolate cake. Her technical was more soup than soufflé. Then when it mattered most, her final product failed on every count. These scenes did not make for suspense or dramatic tension. They just made us sad. “Never mind, Steph,” were Paul Hollywood’s final words of consolation.
I know, I know: this is just telly. These gripes are hardly meaningful and in reality shows, as in life, we sometimes save the worst until last. But this bittersweet episode was a fitting end to an uneven 2019 series.
Like many others, I am holding this show to a high standard when, to be fair, it was only ever a reality show about baking. There is no doubt that Bake Off will remain a cultural institution: this is big-hearted television that celebrates friends, family, drinking tea and eating cake. But after a decade, it’s us, the viewers, that want it to be so much more. We’ll await next autumn with high hopes and whisks at the ready. Let’s hope that — in our era of constant bad news days — Bake Off will renew its reputation as both a beacon of positivity and a breath of fresh air.