Can cake baking really save prime time?

Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
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The Great British Bake Off is Back, but can a show based around chocolate eclairs and fruit sponges, really save prime time viewing on the BBC? Sarah Freeman reports.

There it was. Just after last night’s Commonwealth Games coverage drew to a close. There was no glitz, no special effects, just that unmistakable theme tune and the words many of us have waited months to hear. The Great British Bake Off is back and it’s moving to BBC1.

I can’t remember the last time I baked a cake, but it was probably circa 1990 when I still lived at home. My mum’s chocolate cake was legendary. It still is, but I can only vaguely remember the recipe. And yet, despite having no ambitions to ever ice a cupcake or pipe a macaroon, come the Great British Bake Off I’m glued to it, much like a burnt meringue to the bottom of a baking tray.

Partly it’s the anticipation of spectacular failure. A bit like watching Mastermind and hoping someone scores zero, there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing a showstopper collapse into a flop and have there ever been two more glorious words in television than “soggy bottom”?

But it’s more than that. It’s about Mel and Sue, who are back on the same form that made them cult viewing as a student with Light Lunch a couple of decades ago. And it’s about the triumphs – who can forget John’s Roman Colosseum made from gingerbread or Brendan’s impossibly delicate petit fours in the shape of cygnets? And then there are the unexpected twists.

Take last year. Just as you thought you knew the format off by heart, a little extra frisson in the kitchen came courtesy of Ruby, who judge Paul Hollywood seemed to take a particular shine to. Along with a unfortunate cutaway to a slightly explicit squirrel in the grounds of Harptree Court where the show was filmed, it seemed GBBO, for so long the TV equivalent of a buttered crumpet, had been sexed up.

Things soon returned to normal with Ruby losing out to Frances Quinn who had spent much of the series trying to make an allotment out of fondant icing.

When 9.1m viewers tuned in to see her crowned winner, GBBO came of age, boasting the kind of ratings normally reserved for a Saturday night final of Strictly. Currently, the show’s Facebook page has 325,775 likes and when the BBC opened applications for this series, the unlikely double act of Women’s Institute matriarch Mary Berry and the perma-tanned Hollywood had 16,000 potential candidates to choose from.

This year there will be a battle – albeit a good natured one – of the ages with 17-year-old Martha, combining baking with her AS-level exams, going up against 69-year-old Diana. Elsewhere there is Enwezor, a 39-year-old business consultant who once did a night shift with a professional baker – making more than 900 loaves of bread – just for the work experience, and Luis, a 42-year-old graphic designer who likes to play the ukulele, make model aeroplanes and keep bees.

Who knows what will happen this year, but having shifted channels, the Beeb is clearly hoping that GBBO can inject a bit of lift to prime-time telly and is throwing everything at it including a new spin-off show. Hosted by Joe Brand it’s GBBO’s answer to The Apprentice: You’re Fired and will feature a panel of celebrity fans and an interview with the eliminated baker.

“The quality and standard of the baking this year has been awesome,” said Hollywood at the launch of series four this week.

“They still had their faults, but that is what we are there for. Overall the bakers were incredible and I have loved doing the show. Some did challenge me which I liked.

“The atmosphere has been very different too. They really bonded well. They are competitive, but they are supportive. It’s cuddlier.”

Bring on the spun sugar, I can’t wait.

• The Great British Bake Off begins on BBC1 on August 6.