And so, less than a year since the scandalous poaching of a national treasure, Channel 4’s remix of The Great British Bake Off has finally been spooned on to our plates. And the result is – whisper it – possibly even better than the original.
After all the fears of the show being transformed beyond recognition into an edgy, rude, commercialised disgrace, the opening course of the all-new Bake Off was reassuringly familiar. “Shizzle is nizzling,” said one. “How do you squeeze the moisture out of a courgette?” asked another. So far, things were about as edgy as a blancmange.
That’s the secret to Channel 4’s approach: keep everything the same, from the format to the tent and even the theme tune. The dozen contestants are as typically varied as ever, from the show’s oldest-ever baker Flo (71) and science-obsessed Yan to Russian migrant Julia (who bakes while Facetiming her nan) and amateur blacksmith Kate (yes, really).
Paul Hollywood, too, is as smarmy as ever, as he shakes the hands of impressive bakers (yes, Hollywood Handshakes are already out in force – build your brand, Paul) and flirts with the women. Prue Leith, meanwhile, excels in Mary Berry’s shoes: while her feedback initially seems to consist primarily of calling things “dry”, it’s such unsugared criticism that brings a surprising difference to the tent, as Paul becomes the nice judge and she becomes the nasty one.
It’s that kind of tweak that serves Channel 4 well, and it’s echoed by Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, who have smartly turned their awkward outsider status into a joke in itself: both are well aware they’re not Mel and Sue and pre-empt any complaints by turning up in hot air balloons, ferrying each other about in wheelbarrows and joking about how they don’t want to have to do the Mel and Sue tasks. Toksvig, of course, is the adorable, witty host we’ve all come to love through The News Quiz or QI, while Fielding, in the words of Twitter, looks like a goth who’s turned up at his gran’s birthday party and is trying to be polite. Bless him, he’s so eager to do Bake Off right that he goes from double entendre, right past single entendre, and straight to talking about taking his trousers off. (Wonky balls even get a mention in Episode 3.)
Perhaps bet of all is the choice of baking challenges, with Channel 4 not wasting any time in bringing out the big guns. While mini rolls were a dainty technical task, the opening episode’s finale was a round of illusion cakes, designed to look like something else. From Flo’s watermelon to Sophie’s champagne cake, it was a showstopper that more earned its name. That was followed by that other classic national pastime: board games, with a showstopper to make a biscuit game that was both edible and playable. Bread week, meanwhile, didn’t fail to live up to its familiar, lion-sized reputation (not only were there dragons and owls, but also handbags and a suggestively-shaped snail).
The contestants are as charming as ever, whether you’re rooting for humble Steven, the enthusiastic Kate, whose board game was inspired by Jumanji (instant star baker in our books), or Yan, who not only did the impossible and crafted fake ramen from cake, but also threw in a Peter Beardsley reference, for good measure. Seeing them all help each other in the final seconds before the time is up is just the right antidote to laughing at Prue’s takedown of some floppy fortune cookies – if Mary was your loveable nan, Prue is your salty, sassy aunt, who doesn’t care who she offends and is all the better for it. (“It’s sex,” says Chris, as she eyes up his chocolate and whisky sauce. “That’s not what I was thinking,” she shoots back. “But then I was looking at you.”)
It’s that added burst of personality and slightly altered dynamic that gives Channel 4’s Bake Off an unexpected, welcome edge. It’s less like the BBC’s attempt at rebooting Top Gear and more like the commercial broadcaster’s own revival of The Crystal Maze. And with Bake Off now in its eighth year, you know what? Perhaps it is time for a change of ingredients, after all – Mel and Sue can never be replaced, but between Noel’s funny voices and Prue’s scathing feedback (and the pun to end all puns, “Prue Paul Drag Race”), there’s certainly no risk of Bake Off becoming stale this season. As for all those ad breaks, they’re the perfect chance to stick the kettle on (as long as your kettle is loud enough to drown out the Dr. Oetker idents). How do you make Bake Off better? Add a cup of tea.
The Great British Bake Off is available to watch online on All 4, with Episode 1 available until 30th November.