sun 19/11/2017

The Great British Bake Off, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Great British Bake Off, BBC Two

The Great British Bake Off, BBC Two

The genteel art of baking in a cut-throat competition

Paul Hollywood, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc and Mary Berry in 'The Great British Bake Off'

Baking and competition are two of my favourite things, thus when BBC Two unveiled The Great British Bake Off last year, it seemed my gluttonous, pugnacious prayers had been fulfilled. Amateurs had every possible skill challenged by the good-cop-bad-cop combination of master bakers Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, leavened (or leadened) by ever-quirky presenters Mel and Sue. (I will avoid all recipe-related puns henceforth, I promise.)

But if you were expecting a cross between The X-Factor and Masterchef - or indeed Masterchef and Masterchef - as failing contestants are weekly expelled from their marquee (which has apparently limitless eggs, flour and even esoteric equipment, such as a cone for croquembouches last night) and cruel putdowns from the judges, you had found the wrong programme. Sensitivity, concern, help, humour, creativity, encouragement - these are the heart-warming (and thus stomach-rumbling) tones of The Great British Bake Off.

We have had pie week, pastry week, biscuit week, each with its own complexities

The challenges are far more difficult than learning another song by Adele or a meshugganeh dance routine. Last night the five remaining contestants had to make a chocolate roulade with incomplete instructions, avoiding a fatal cracking of the cake and trying for the perfect twist; a cheesecake (didn't matter who won because my mother makes the best); and the aforementioned croquembouche, a tower of profiteroles. Holly concealed a perfect gingerbread village under hers, while Jo's collapsed under the weight of the cream in her profiteroles.

They had to make, you understand, dozens of delicate miniature choux buns, fill them with the crème patissière they had made and then keep them in their conical shape by joining them with freshly made caramel, a difficult and dangerous task. Poor Yasmin needed first aid after burning her fingers on the 180C liquid. We have had pie week, pastry week, biscuit week, each with its own complexities. No one has been consistently good across such a variety of tasks.

The tasks themselves are delicious and inspirational (I have attempted several subsequent to the programme), but there are many more powerful factors which make this compelling and even healthy watching. There is competition, but also comradeship. There is craft, which we all praise so highly but rarely bother to practise. There is diversity: last year's winner was a man, this year's will be a woman, and there have been talented people of all ages and races. Admittedly, straight men are probably in the minority, but that makes a nice change.

There are also history lessons. In between tasks, Mel and Sue are dispatched around the country to see how Melton Mowbray pork pies are made (it takes four days to create, yet only four minutes to eat), how Britons coped during World War Two (mashed potato chocolate truffles, anyone?), how flammable flour is (surprisingly). They interviewed the only person still alive who made a birthday cake for Churchill; it was heavy on the booze, of course. These vignettes take in our entire island and our whole history through a medium that everyone can understand.

In The Great British Bake Off, all that is healthy in society is praised. Except, obviously, for dietary restraint, which goes out of the window - or should that be into the oven?

The tasks themselves are delicious and inspirational, but many factors make this compelling and even healthy watching

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