This Easter, Netflix UK unwrapped its most cracking treat to date: the first seven seasons of The Great British Bake Off, all available to binge at once. Now a national treasure, the show has gone from strength to strength in the last eight years. While it has jumped from BBC Two to BBC One and now to Channel 4 (and has an almost entirely different line-up of presenters), the series’ success lies in the timeless ingredient at its core: it’s inspirational, rather than aspirational, celebrating the fact that anyone can bake – a warm, fluffy antidote to the usual reality competitions on our TVs. But go back to the very first season on Netflix UK and you’ll be surprised at just how different the programme was in its early days.
The tent moved
The Bake Off tent is practically permanent fixture in our living rooms, but when it first began housing contestants week after week, it moved all over the place. Tying its location into each episode’s theme, it saw its bakers make cakes in the Cotswold, biscuits in Scotland, bread in Kent, puddings in Bakewell and pastries in Cornwall. It’s a neat idea to try and emphasise the Britishness of the show (it climaxes with a tea party-themed episode), but you can’t help but miss the green and pleasant lands of Welford Park, the country house in Berkshire where Bake Off currently pitches its home.
There was a strange voiceover
“10 baking enthusiasts are about to take part in a very special contest…” begins Season 1 of The Great British Bake Off, not in the mellifluous tones of Sue Perkins or Mel Giedroyc but in the warm baritone of actor Stephen Noonan. He narrates the whole programme, in a manner that recalls The Apprentice rather than the Bake Off we all know and love. Drumming up drama and upping the stakes, it’s an unsettlingly strange thing to have in your ear.
It was shorter – and less crowded
We’re used to having a dozen bakers fighting for the prize of Star Baker, but back in Season 1, they only had 10 contestants. As a result, the show was much shorter, spanning just 6 episodes instead of the now standard 10. How do you get rid off people fast enough to fit into that production schedule? Double evictions, with two bakers shoved out of the tent in the opening episodes.
There was no Star Baker
While there was an overall winner crowned at the end of the season, Bake Off’s debut run was so busy whittling its contenders down that it didn’t even bother with naming someone a Star Baker every week.
It was actually quite mean
If you thought Bingate was excruciating to watch, wait until you see Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry in action in Season 1 of Bake Off, as they lay into the contestant’s creations with a nit-picking scrutiny that even Mel and Sue’s gentle presence doesn’t always cancel out. “I think everybody’s had some form of disaster or another, which I was expecting, to be honest,” reflects Paul, to camera, in the middle of one round. Meanwhile, Jasminder is in the background panicking. “I’m bursting for the loo,” she admits. We never find out if the poor woman made it.
The technical challenges were different
“Unfortunately, they haven’t got the experience to take it to the next level. It’s very sad, but that’s the Bake Off,” muses Paul near the end of Season 1, after jettisoning another contestant out into the ever-changing scenery. With that tougher tone yet to soften, it’s a good job that the technical challenges were a lot easier than they are now. Instead of Dampfnudeln, contenders just had to do things like a Victoria Sandwich, a Cob loaf or a lemon soufflé. They were even scored differently, with Paul and Merry just having to name their top three and bottom three from each batch.
It was on BBC Two
Only 2 million people watched The Great British Bake Off back in 2016, when it first aired on BBC Two. That difference in scale is evident from the more low-key production style, and the straight-laced hosting by Mel and Sue, to Paul’s more casual choice of shirts and scruffier hair and Mary Berry wearing glasses. Fast forward to when it jumped to BBC One and the show was into double figures, and the show’s style quotient, silly sense of humour and growing array of in-jokes and puns were out in full force.
The Great British Bake Off: Season 1 to 7 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.