Us Brits love a national treasure, and over the last 11 years that’s exactly what the Great British Bake Off has become for its hundreds and thousands of disciples. Originally, the GBBO as it’s now fondly known to its fans, first aired on BBC2, presumably because the head honchos at the ‘Beeb’ had no inkling just how huge the show was going to be. So, after the first 4 series it was moved to the number one prime time viewing slot on BBC1.
The show was presented by a great mixture of personalities, and fast became perfect viewing for all the family. Paul Hollywood, with his twinkly blue eyes, was just the type of eye-candy middle-aged mums found irresistible. Mary Berry was the gran everyone wanted to hug, and Mel and Sue supplied constant comedy quips, usually dripping with inuendo, doubtlessly with the aim of alleviating the nerves of the addled contestants, and to prevent the show from being just the same as any other ordinary cooking program on the telly.
Before embarking on each signature, technical and showstopping challenge, the contestants had their intended creations sketched in intricate detail, by expert and quite possibly psychic artist Tom Hovey. It soon became clear that Tom was blessed with an amazing ability and foresight, to imagine how the bakers intended their bakes to appear once completed, as never in the history of the show has a finished bake ever actually resembled anything even close to one of his drawing masterpieces.
The first few series included familiar things that we all knew – sandwich cakes, biscuits, celebration cakes, bread, puddings, pies and pastries. But by the end of series 3 the bakes began to become a bit more adventurous. We’d all heard of a Battenburg and probably even eaten a few Mr Kipling’s, but we’d never actually tried to make one ourselves. Then came a Frasier cake (a three-layer spongy affair with custard and strawberries in the middle). Who’d even heard of that? Never mind eaten one, and undoubtedly, we’d never actually made one. This was followed a week later by Pithivier (basically a fancy pants pie with stuff in the middle), and Chiffon cake (a dull sponge cake with the rise resulting from fluffy beaten egg whites). Hmmm, was the GBBO beginning to run out of steam?
Until this point, many families around the country (including my own) united in their attempts to recreate some of the wonderful bakes they’d seen produced on the GBBO that week, with varying degrees of hit and miss success. Still nothing at this point seemed too ‘out-there’ to even contemplate, so we soldiered on. Our often-hopeless attempts became a constant source of yet more GBBO comedy fodder for the Extra Slice program also running weekly, and designed to accompany the main show, predominantly to capture all the outtakes and disasters which didn’t quite make the original cut.
Despite GBBO’s tent becoming meltingly hot each summer, it did nothing to dampen the ambition and ardour of the contestants, as week after week we saw them red faced and sweating into their salted caramel. Huge chocolate creations crumbled and slowly slid into a messy pile of goo, as the heat became too much to bear for the bakes which had taken them hours to create.
Then series 4 arrived. And with it came some creations which were clearly cakes from another planet that surely no one had ever heard of. There was a Couronne, Dacquoise, Religieuses, Opera cake, and Charlotte Royal. What? Series 5 brought the arrival of a Prinsesstarta, Dobos Torte, Kouign-Amann (which the New York Times described as the fattiest pastry ever), and Schichttorte (a German invention made from 20 layers of pancake). These obscure recipes completely bewildered and baffled us into asking the question – isn’t this supposed to be the Great BRITISH Bake off?
Series 6 and 7 proceeded to give us even more far-fetched delicacies that, by now, we wouldn’t even dream of attempting, such as Arlettes, Mochatines, Dampfnudel, Jumblies, Palmiers and Savarin. This had all become, dare I say it, a little yawn inducing. Was Paul Hollywood getting too big for his boots suggesting that mere mortals such as the amateur British bakers of the United Kingdom should attempt such perplexing recipes?
Then disaster struck and in 2017 the bidding war had obviously become too fierce for the Beeb to consider parting with its licence-fee payer’s hard-earned cash, and the GBBO as we knew it, was sold to C4. Along with that bombshell came the news that Mary Berry and Mel and Sue were jumping ship. How could this be? Our favourite program was never going be the same again. Or was it?
Along with many other devotees, I sceptically dipped my toe into series 8 after convincing myself that C4 couldn’t possibly do justice to our beloved GBBO, and that Prue Leith the judge replacing Mary Berry, could never induce the same warm fuzzy feeling inside we’d all felt after Mary rewarded a baker one of her sneaky cheeky winks. Sandy and Noel couldn’t ever replace Mel and Sue as the comforting comedy duo, always on hand to give a tearful and overwrought contestant a kindly hug for moral support. But no, it soon became apparent that Sandy and Noel were equally as funny and amiable as Mel and Sue ever were, and we grew to love them just as much.
Each week we were thrilled with the prospect of seeing what kooky new creation Noel would be wearing and what colour glasses and frequently mismatched outfit Prue would have on, topped as always, with her never moving an inch, gravity defying hairdo. It didn’t matter that Sandy appeared to be the size of a dwarf next to Noel in his kinky boots. Their quirky brand of humour eclipsed what had been before, with Mel and Sue now long forgotten.
So, we wondered, now that C4 had taken over the reins of our favourite ever baking program, would it still be the same show we all loved? To begin with it started well with fruity cake, sandwich biscuits, fortune cookies and teacakes. But then, just as we’d placed our slippers comfortably back under the table, the rot began to set in. Had Bake Off gone bonkers? Stroopwafels, Bedford Clangers and Entremets. Who could even pronounce these strange and unknown fancies, let alone choose to make them voluntarily? Obviously not the great British public, because I can honestly say I never heard a single person admit to attempting any of these off-putting and usually over complicated, outlandish recipes.
Still, this was the GBBO and we’re British, we don’t give up – as Churchill once famously said “never, never, never give in.” So, we persevered. We stayed loyal and we waited, with bated breath, for the next lucky contestant to be rewarded with a (by now as rare as rocking-horse poo) Paul Hollywood handshake.
It doesn’t even matter to us that from all the past winners of the GBBO, there has only ever been one real success story and that was Nadiya. She instantly appeared at ease in front of the camera, way back in series 6. She amazed us when she cooked in the sweltering tent while wearing her hijab. Her cheeky sense of humour shone through from day one, and her quirky and off-beat bakes have been rewarded with several cookery books and BBC series of her own, where she continues to shine and always leaves us thinking “Even I could make that!”
Then in September 2020 came the most recent GBBO crisis – pintsized Sandy was leaving. But fear not, Matt Lucas was ready and waiting to come to the rescue, snapping at Sandy’s tiny elf heels to jump seamlessly onto the GBBO bandwagon. And with the audience perched on the edge of their seats, finally in series 11 and after 5 episodes, he deigned to bestow upon us a long-forgotten gem, a Little Britain classic: “I want that one!”
With the prospect of the first ever Japanese week looming, are we the great British public now ready to see the end of the GBBO? I think not!