Great British Bake Off 2018, episode 1 review: There is something a bit half-baked about trying to reproduce the glories of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Kilimanjaro and Las Vegas in biscuit form
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4)
OK folks, cardamom cookies on the table here. Time for some uncandied candour. I really couldn’t give a flying French fancy about The Great British Bake Off.
So why review it? Well, because it has, unaccountably, acquired the news value of Brexit, a royal wedding and the World Cup all rolled together with oat flakes and smothered in chocolate. So I have to. I was also wondering, a bit, if this latest series – the ninth in all, and Channel 4’s second – might sweeten me up. Ten more weeks to go, at any rate.
The 12 contestants seemed a nice enough bunch, as they always are. There’s a French one too this year, Manon, which the gammon paranoids of cyberspace will no doubt regard as some sort of politically correct anti-Brexit protest by the media establishment, but she seems to be there because she’s very good at baking stuff, even winning the prestigious star-baker prize. No doubt she, and the BAME bakers, will be subjected to the usual digi-punishment for daring to go anywhere near a mixing bowl. Makes you proud to be Global British, eh?
Apart from that, it’s a gentle enterprise. Apart from Baked Alaskagate and the great Festive Loaf scandal of 2016, GBBO, as we must call it, has never featured the kind of dirty tricks employed in, say, politics or cricket or cycling. There’s no doping of the cakes, no collusion with the Russians to spread fake news about Victoria sponge fillings, no “cake throwing”.
Then again, some of the contestants hardly needed any external sabotage for their efforts. Terry, for example, a retired air steward from the West Midlands with a Hercule Poirot moustache seemed especially ill-starred. His attempt at a “local” biscuit for the first challenge was a chocolate shortbread which was supposed to feature an image of a lamb gambolling around the Lake Distract, but, as Noel Fielding helpfully pointed out, it resembled something that might have emerged from the drug-infused studios of Andy Warhol, circa 1967. The tragedies of Tony climaxed when he burst his icing bag (not a euphemism).
Ruby, too, suffered from uneven luck. In the showstopper challenge round, to create a “Biscuit Selfie Portrait” she rendered, in biscuits, a picture of her in the London Marathon. But, like her run at the marathon, she failed to complete her gingery masterpiece, and her biscuits were, according to Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, hardly biscuits at all. They’d earlier displayed the same disdain for her Masala Chai Devon Flats, comparing them to “dried sponge”. Curiously she also baked 25 rather that her required number of 24 identical biscuits because, as she cheerfully conceded, her maths isn’t that great. Nobody made the obvious quip about a baker’s dozen, or baker’s two-dozen here, which was a terrible missed opportunity for the combined wits of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding.
Most disconsolate was Imelda, who had two bad bakes in one day, her fortunes seemingly irretrievably compromised when she ended up covered in chocolate herself - and heading home, as she was voted out of the competition.
Even a GBBO-sceptic like me, though, would concede that Manon, Briony and Antony displayed extraordinary culinary talents, with Kim-Joy, a mental health specialist, adding an extra ingredient of love for the entire world around her.
Noel, by the way, is looking much more perky these days. Last run it was rumoured he was going to get the sack, and he was moping around like a lurcher at the vets waiting to be put down. Now, though, he merrily likens himself to a cockapoo, those designer mutts that are half poodle and half cocker spaniel – clever and bouncy. He’s got himself up like an Elvis Presley tribute act, with the strangest shirt ever seen on British television. It’s half brick wall and half pink custard, just edging Prue’s confident multicoloured plastic necklace for the star prize.
Our Ruby did, however, actually win the technical challenge round. For this first one, Paul decided to ask the dozen contestants to create a wagon wheel, but of course a posh version of the popular underclass snack. Ruby was one of the few to get anywhere near to the spirit of the Wagon Wheel tradition, now 70 years old.
The Wagon Wheel round got me thinking about the actual point of this technical challenge. As an exercise in baking skill and ingenuity yes, I grant you there was a reason for it. But, taking a wider view, even a philosophical one, if I may – is not the point of the Burton’s Wagon Wheel, in either “Original” or “Jammie” variants, that it isn’t some sort of handmade delicacy? It is in fact supposed to be a bit artificial, rather than artisan. The chocolate, as I remember it, was graphene thin; the biscuit bit is actually not designed to have a proper crunchy texture; the jam is supposed to be paste-like, and the marshmallow an especially synthetic consistency. Had the contestants actually managed to capture the cheap taste and feel of a real Wagon Wheel I’d have been more impressed.
As ever, then, a sense of futility pervaded the proceedings like the scent of cinnamon that must have filled the air in the GBBO tent. If you think about it, and I do, there is something a bit half-baked about trying to reproduce – in biscuit form – the glories of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Kilimanjaro, Mount Fuji and Las Vegas. To be a great baker, and win the GBBO you have to leave your sense of perspective at home.
By the way, I suppose I ought to mention that I didn’t miss Mel and Sue, which the BBC might not be pleased to hear, and the new (ish) presenting team are blending together harmoniously. There’s less innuendo than there was, so we were grateful for such apparently accidental smut as Sandi confessing that “I was 55 before I tried a Pot Noodle”.
Anyway, that’s all a bit sourdough isn’t it? As I say, all the bakers were charming people, especially the professional Yorkshirewoman Karen. Her Perkins biscuits were decorated with an intricate and patriotic white rose, which vied with Antony’s psychedelic Turmeric and Caraway Goosnargh cakes. All delicious no doubt, but all I was inspired to do after GBBO was to go out and buy a six pack of Burtons Wagon Wheels – for 89 pence down Asda. Make a biscuit for 16p: I’d love to see GBBO try that challenge.