What is the secret to The Great British Bake Off’s success?
Ivan Radford | On 10, Aug 2014
The Great British Bake Off is now on Netflix UK and like a good old Victoria sponge, you know exactly what you’re going to get, even if you haven’t seen it. The Beeb’s baking show just keeps on getting bigger, despite never changing its recipe, even when jumping to Channel 4 in 2017 – or perhaps because of it.
The format is always the same: 12 amateur bakers, whittled down every week through three tasks, one Signature Challenge – a recipe they make for family and friends – one Technical – attempting a recipe supplied by the judges, which is assessed blind – and a final Showstopper – a task designed to impress the hell out of everyone.
The hosts are essentially the same: two familiar faces who make terrible puns and stir things up with silly asides in between bouts of whisking. (For the BBC, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. For Channel 4, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig.)
The judges are also similar: queen of baking Mary Berry, who gazes shrewdly over all like a cuddly Emperor Palpatine, later replaced by Prue Leith, who has more sass but the same kindly quality. And there’s Paul Hollywood, the Darth Vader of the show, who slices through people’s dreams with a lightsaber of bluntness. Even his blue contact lenses are a running joke.
Yet the audience has continued to grow over the years. Once BBC Two’s most-viewed programme (the 2013 finale notched up 9.1 million viewers), the series has shifted to BBC One, with a record opening figure of 7.9 million people tuning in – not to mention those on BBC iPlayer, or soon to be bingeing on Netflix.
What is the show’s secret? Like its subject matter, the appeal lies in the mysterious combination of ingredients.
Baking itself is a strange process: complicated in its alchemy, which turns raw materials into something completely different, its boldest creations arguably border on magic. But it remains something resolutely simple: all you have to do to perform such feats is follow a basic list of instructions.
That fact is at the heart of GBBO: anyone can do it. Other talent shows – a word used in the loosest sense – are aspirational, encouraging people to dream of being famous singers or TV acts. To become celebrities, part of the media-loved elite. The Great British Bake Off, on the other hand, is inspirational, encouraging people to stay indoors and do something they can do already.
Equally universal is the deliciousness of the end result. Bakers can borrow ideas or laugh bitterly at others’ failures. Non-bakers can drool over cream and chocolate. In short: who doesn’t like cake?
You can see just how much of a following the programme has by the volume of tweets that accompany each episode (some inevitably mean, some kind, most drooling).
A study by Mintel says that 85 per cent of the public were baking in 2013 – a slice that has now dropped to 77 per cent this year. Mintel argues its because people are wary of being unhealthy or have more money to pursue activities outside. But likewise, they have more money to spend on baking supplies: sales of Amazon’s non-stick pan used to make Mary Berry’s cherry cake recipe (the Technical Challenge of Season 5 Episode 1) soared 1,003% during the show’s broadcast, while sales of bakeware jumped 43 per cent compared to the same period of time one week before.
It’s testament to the amiable, welcoming tone of the series, which makes a point of everyone having the potential to bake, regardless of ability, background or income. In fact, the selection of contestants is starting to feel repetitive, with a deliberately diverse mix of people. Alongside staples such as the curly-haired hippy and the enthusiastic, nervous one, the line-up at the time of writing included Norman, the chirpy veteran with an anecdote for every occasion who prefers to mix by hand, Dianne (69), the oldest ever person to appear on the show with an endearing down-to-earth attitude, and Martha (17), the youngest ever baker, whose natural talent tinged with a youthful uncertainty is immediately adorable.
From the off, they manage to both impress and annoy – and are rewarded with just desserts from the Jedi masters of the kitchen. “It doesn’t wow me,” says Mary, cutting glasses-wearing Jordan down to size with a rare withering look. “You haven’t achieved an even bake,” deadpans Paul, one step up away from using Force Lightning to set Ian’s beard on fire – a reaction that, somehow, you feel is justified, following his bizarre theory that scoring a Swiss roll before rolling it helps to avoid cracks. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)
Others earn praise, from Richard, a builder, whose pistachio Swiss roll with pink icing decorations is delightful – “You’re in the wrong job, mate,” declares Hollywood – to Enwezor, whose Battenberg is mouth-watering and Martha, whose sponge is repeatedly singled out. Most of all, though, the plaudits go to the mature fingers of Nancy, who brings her own guillotine to the show’s signature tent to ensure her set of mini cakes are all cut to a uniform size. Straight away, you start to think they’ve got the eventual winner pegged – and the first loser lined up. “You stand up for what you think is right,” offers Paul, when Claire (the eager, nervous, vox-popping one from before) dares to answer back. “You’re wrong.”
While the interactions are as entertaining as ever – “I think that’s why you’re sitting there, you two,” Berry digs at Mel and Sue, as their jokes become more and more painful – and Mary’s array of floral jackets are a source of continual happiness, the routine nature of the series actually seems to enhance its enjoyment rather than give it a soggy bottom. For those returning to the kitchen, the pastel sets and knowing presentation are comfortingly familiar, while the increasing viewing figures shows that there are still many more to discover GBBO’s charms. Deciding to move it from BBC Two to BBC One, not to mention Channel 4’s controversial poaching of the programme for a hefty sum of money, only confirms the Beeb’s opinion of the show: that, like a well-leavened loaf, it still has the potential to rise.
What makes The Great British Bake Off so much fun to watch? Part-game show, part-cookery lesson, part-schadenfreude and part-food porn, the appeal lies in that mysterious combination of ingredients; the scrumptious alchemy of universality. After all, why change a winning recipe?
The Great British Bake Off: Season 1 to 7 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.