So the recipe still works, then. Those who feared (fans) or hoped (BBC management) that The Great British Bake Off would deflate faster than a dodgy soufflé on its transfer from the creative oven of BBC1 to Channel 4 were wrong. Plainly, this format is strong enough to take some quite radical substitution of ingredients and still rise to the occasion. Prue Leith, for example, is a proper cook, after all, and mixed well in the Mary Berry role, doing so without making any crass attempt to impersonate the grande dame of British bakery or otherwise usurp the Mother Theresa of the flan. Leith was just herself, her demeanour hovering somewhere between disdain and bemusement. Quote of the night: “Nobody’s going to eat a marigold.”
Sandi Toksvig didn’t do much, in truth, so whatever she got paid for this gig, it was too much (whether or not it was equal to the chaps’ fees). That’s because someone – Sandi? – forgot to put the usual tablespoons of innuendo in the mix. Now, I’ve heard Toksvig get away with some real filth on Radio 4, so I know she can do it. Maybe that was supposed to be co-presenter Noel Fielding’s job?
Poor Noel… his constant nervous asides about getting dropped from the new show were a bit pathetic. He could have found a niche for himself with the kind of out-there smut that the British love just as much as getting their lips round a nice cream horn, or indeed a soggy bottom. His best line was prompted by Stacey’s black evening cluster bag cake, where he muttered something about “looking forward to a moist clutch” – but, like good baking, delivering award-winning smut is trickier than it looks, requiring creativity and attention to detail.
Without some juicy smut this GBBO is left tasting “surprisingly dry”, as Leith would put it. Noel is a real sweetie, but he just mopes around the tent like a lurcher waiting to be euthanised by a vet. Sadly, he’s no Julian Clary, who they should have booked. I’m sure we’d all love to see Julian give someone a cream pie.
Noel Fielding (left), Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith give contestant Tom a grilling (PA)
Obviously Paul Hollywood is still there, but you can’t have everything. The raspberry jam in the doughnut of GBBO, as always, is the public – the dozen contestants, one of whom will find their life transformed. From The Generation Game to The Apprentice, countless television shows have run on the power of their “ordinary” people, as indeed has Bake Off. Dipping my finger into the mixing bowl at this early stage I’m happy to declare that I think and hope Flo will win. She’s a homely Scouse granny – who you underestimate at your peril. Her masterpiece was a melon cake, which tasted and looked, inside and out, exactly like a real melon. It was the best, in a formidable array, in the showstopper challenge to “bake a cake that doesn’t look like a cake” (though some of us have been doing that, rather less intentionally, for years). The other smart cookies were Steven, Liam and Tom (a handsome confection himself). I was not surprised to see that Steven’s BLT sandwich cake made him the star baker.
Charming, mildly eccentric Julia, who I fear is just a bit too vulnerable for full tabloid attention, comes from Siberia, and reminded me of what Churchill remarked about her motherland – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, which oddly enough was more or less what her astonishing Russian doll cake amounted to. Yan was just too excitable to be a baker, I felt (I may live to eat those words), and I took an instant dislike to Chris, a software engineer who, obscenely, deploys spreadsheets to get his baking right – and was lost without them. Peter too, an evangelical Christian from Southend (which does sound like a contradiction in terms, I know), wasn’t quite there on his technique. Sorry to see him go.
The technical challenge was to make mini chocolate rolls with a peppermint cream filling, and was also inspiration on the part of Leith; deceptively commonplace they are extremely fiddly to do right, especially without turning the filling into toothpaste. Of course nipping down the corner shop for a packet of the ones Cadbury does perfectly well wasn’t an option. Well, I do look for the instructions on an egg.
GBBO, then, has changed enough, albeit from force of circumstance when most of the old crew refused to go to Channel 4, actually to refresh itself. In an age of sometimes frightening and unsettling change, the show is like a thick, comforting, slice of Essex boy James’s rhubarb, orange and ginger cake. As we emit a little burp of post-GBBO contentment, for that we should be duly grateful. Next week: the team make a cake showing how Britain can retain access to the single market after Brexit. That’s what I call a technical challenge.
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