The Great British Bake Off should have grown stale by now. Over 12 series, the programme has suffered a change of network (switching from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2016), lost one of its original judges (Mary Berry) and several presenters (Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, and most recently, Sandi Toksvig). From its beginning, Bake Off has been considered a balm for the soul. But what we seek solace from in 2021 is much different from what weighed on our mind in 2010, when it first aired.
So it would make sense for Bake Off to have become a bit tired. But reader, it hasn’t. We have now reached series 12, episode one, and the excitement of the beginning is still here.
Well, it is here, once we get past the rather cringey musical introduction, which sees Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas lip-sync to a baking-themed tune in wigs and costumes. Sorry, I’m allergic to most musical sketches. But soon after, the Bake Off magic begins. “The best home bakers from across the country applied in their thousands. Just 12 have made it,” narrates the voiceover. And just like that, I’ve got chills.
Perhaps it’s because previous Bake Off contestants and winners have actually made careers out of their time on the show (Nadiya Hussain being the prime example; Ruby Tandoh also comes to mind). Perhaps it’s because everyone cares so much, and so genuinely. There is famously no cash prize on Bake Off. In this first episode, as in previous years, bakers are in the tent because they love what they do, and often because they have set themselves a challenge. The stakes are high, because they’re personal.
And so we begin, per tradition, with a signature challenge. The contestants must craft mini rolls, bringing their own ideas – and flavour combinations – to the table. Each first episode of Bake Off runs into the challenge of introducing 12 contestants while also budgeting enough time for everyone’s bakes to be judged; this particular instalment finds a good balance and runs at a brisk pace. It helps that the logistical challenges of baking make for good storytelling. The Bake Off tent is an environment in which sentences like: “My oven door was open!” – whispered with just a dash of panic – carry weight.
Tonally, the show runs into trouble when it tries to stick to the script too much (see: the heavy-handed musical intro). The mood lifts when everyone is free to do their thing; Fielding, in particular, has a well-practiced knack for exchanging witty banter with the contestants. “I’ve never felt more like a chimney sweep in all my life,” he muses from the sidelines of an exchange between Leith and her lookalike contestant Maggie. “It’s like a Dickens novel.”
For the technical challenge, contestants are asked to whip up a malt loaf. George, an unlucky contestant whose mini rolls have been deemed by Leith to be “pudding, not cake”, redeems himself somewhat, landing in an honourable third position. Freya, the tent’s junior baker at 19 years old, is second, leaving Maggie to win the challenge. Reflecting on her victory in front of the camera, she wipes tears of joy from her eyes: again, Bake Off works, because it means so much to the people in it.
Then comes the showstopper challenge, during which the contestants are asked to craft gravity-defying illusion cakes. Jürgen, whose earlier black forest rolls were tasty, if not entirely aesthetically pleasing, nails it: the man knows how to build a solid cake while balancing tricky flavours like rose. “You could become the flavour king,” Hollywood tells him. In the Bake Off tent, Jürgen is one to watch for sure.
Anti-gravity cakes make for as much drama as you’d expect. There are falls and last-minute slips. Even in these objectively tense moments, the contestants remain graceful: it’s their cakes they take seriously, not themselves.
And there we have it: an interesting, pleasant, true to itself but not stale kick-off to Bake Off. If you’re looking for the show’s secret sauce, you might find it in this quote by contestant Amanda explaining why she wants to stay in the competition: “What a great bunch of people!” she says of her fellow contestants. “I’ve never been able to sit and talk to someone in detail about cake and not bore the pants off them.”
Bake Off still works, because there is still passion at the heart of it.