I’ve been watching back…
1. Readers of this blog’s coverage of Britain’s premiere baking competition and innuendo repository will know that my knowledge of the early years of the show has until now been strictly limited to drooling over pictures of Series 2 Non-Threatening Boys Magazine Cover-Boy and 6th placer Rob Billington. Clearly, if I am to continue to cover a show that’s become so iconic now that it’s willing to drag out its trifling “for Comic Relief” special episodes out over a whole month of primetime, I needed to get educated. And so it was I embarked on a long journey back into the past, and the days when Mel’s haircut made her look like a Slovenian Eurovision entry circa 2001, to discover more about how the show began.
2. Speaking of Mel & Sue, they are truly superfluous to the show during its first run. An anonymous male voiceover (I know, right) takes up most of the narrative weight, the mid-bake discussions with contestants are mostly done by Paul and Mary and take a good portion of the series to get going, and worst of all there’s no innuendo at all other than that inherent in the very existence of the words “soggy bottom”. Mel and Sue’s in-tent duties are mostly limited to some truly icky talking heads in the first few episodes where they explain to us that baking for someone is really the truest way of sharing your feelings with them and an act of pure love. This really of course is the sort of sentiment that should be shared by the ccontestants themselves, if anyone, rather than two women who to be honest come across like the extent of their technical baking experience is working out how to get the Mr Kiplings out the packaging without the base crumbling. Thank goodness they worked out what to do with them in the interim.
3. What Mel & Sue are for, so far as Series 1 is concerned, is to anchor the History Bits. Now, I’m a fan and staunch defender of the History Bits, but even I have to baulk at there being three in one episode, in some cases lasting for up to 8 or 9 minutes, usually revolving around actual mouldering 200 year old cake being very slowly unwrapped from a tin Mel found in her nan’s attic. There are some highlights (Sue having a picnic in a giant stone circle with a particularly…academic looking food historian, and Mel and Sir Rannulph Fiennes both struggling manfully with a complete lack of natural chemistry both linger in the memory) but all in all I’m very glad that the History Bit was quickly whittled down from making up about 30% of any epsidoe to around 10%, and from “earnest discussion of how the Industrial Revolution changed biscuits forever” to “hilarious anecdotes about giant Spotted Dicks”.
4. One of the most common criticisms of The Bake Off these days is that it’s become too highly-strung and melodramatic, and that in the old days things were a lot more laid-back and charming. Having now watched Series 1, I can only presume that those remenisces are referring back to some sort of Series 0 kept in a lockbox 50ft under Television Centre, as the show I watched was book-ended by two grown men (first boot Mark and winner Edd) dissolving into incoherent racking sobs over cakes and had many more weeping sessions in-between. There are also no fewer than three contestants there using the competition to decide whether to jack in their day job and commit to being a professional baker full time, with nobody exemplifying this more than fuzzy, squeaky voiced, almost monobrowed posho Jonathan (my totty for the series, I am not ashamed) who over the course of his three episode stay is full of existential angst over whether to stick to being a research analyst (NO) or throw caution to the wind and become Mr Pudding (possibly some sort of dessert based superhero, this was never really made clear), like generations of his family before him (YES). It’s no spoiler to say that he ultimately chooses the latter option, and as far as I know to this day, Jonathan still drives around the streets of Milton Keynes every night fighting crime and delivering his cream horns to the underpriveleged.
5. One thing that is a lot more laid back about the first series is the difficulty level. Even I, as a very irregular baker, can’t help but look at the line-up of challenges presented and think “I could do that”. The first Technical Challenge is “make a Victoria Sponge”. With a recipe to hand. All of the Showstopper Challenges bar the first one, including the one in the final, are basically just making canapes. The time constraints are so loose that something being thrown in the bin isn’t a moment of dramatic, irreversible, nigh-on-erotic climax – it’s something that happens several times an episode, including, again, in the final. The effects of this low bar are three-fold : firstly three bakers stand out as the best from episode 1, form the final three, and none of them ever look to be in any real danger of elimination, secondly, when said three bakers make the final the things they’re being asked to do are so easy that the distinction between them in the final judging seems hilariously and almost unfairly arbitrary (third-placer Miranda is ultimately eliminated partly because her presentation is “too girly”), and thirdly, my favourite contestant of the series, Ruth, spends most of her airtime sat watching everyone else bake as she finishes more or less every challenge after 5 minutes (MY QUEEN <3).
6. If the final three are obvious from the off, it’s not for their increased air-time, as the lack of a Star Baker award means that the edit is heavily skewed in the early going towards people who screw up. (For what it’s worth I awarded my own STAR BAKER each episode to stave off the jonesing, like Lisa Simpson in The PTA Disbands begging her own mother to grade her homework because her teachers are all on strike, and gave Edd, Miranda, and Ruth two a-piece over the six episode run). And given that David screws up regularly in every single episode, he feels very much like the focus of the early-running. Which is a shame because David is kind of charmless – all masculine competitive edges and “I make my own clay ovens” and vaulting ambition. Other early boots include Lea (there to be out-of-her-depth and constantly boggle about how much better everyone else is than her), Annetha (the first of many to go from being a star in episode 1 to eliminated in episode 2 and originator of the “there is no such thing as too much booze for Mary Berry” meme with her sopping rum balls), and my own personal favourite Louise – a policewoman who bleeds “just move along ladies and gents, nothing to see here” in every infelction of her voice, and producer of the first truly memorable Bake-Up utter-screw-ups, a tray of biscuits that slowly ooze into one another to produce one giant squidgy mega-biscuit. As cautionary examples they all have their place, but at times you can’t help but think the programme could focus more on people…not screwing up.
7. Queen amongst the contestants who were obviously unable to compete with the Edd-Miranda-Ruth juggernaut but who lingered anyway was Jasminder. If you want it summed up in one sentence what made it obvious that Jasminder was never a contender to win, I can do little better than to say that for the Bread Week Showstopper Round she made a loaf with Gummi Bears baked into it, and it was the least bad of the three batches she produced that week. Still Jasminder was a constantly chirpy presence, even if her cheerful delusion that the “best of the best are now left” in the semi finals was bizarre (unless the editors cruelly chopped “…and me” off the end). Hopping around needing the loo, hanging off Edd like a fruit fly, and chatting away cheerfully about her son, Jasminder at times felt a bit like a rogue make-up lady who’d wandered into the competition, but ultimately she is a proud entry in this show’s annals of random fourth placers.
8. Other minor things that get changed quickly between this series and all the others : the complete ranking of the technical challenges isn’t always revealed, Paul Hollywood mostly dressed like he’s just come off-shift at Homebase, the third placer gets eliminated halfway through the final, each week takes place in a different part of the country, supposedly inextricably linked with the theme of the week (Savoury Pastries week in Cornwall, Pudding Week in Bakewell, Biscuit Week in Scotland), apart from Bread Week, which just happens in Kent, because that’s where they can find the most telegenic windmill, there is no Technical Round in the final.
9. The editing of the final three is pretty uneven. By which I mean I think if you totalled up their screentime over the course of the series, I feel like Ruth would have got 65%, Miranda 25% and Edd 10%. There are whole episode where Edd basically gives a talking head to remind us that he exists, then disappears. And it’s not as though this changes – even when we’re down to the final 2 it feels like the whole thing is being narrated from the perspective of Ruth. The straight-talking, goggle-eyed, ambitious, unafraid to admit that she wants to win and also that she thinks she can perspective of Ruth. Then Edd wins, as probably the most underedited winner I’ve ever seen in the history of reality television and we’re supposed to be pleased because he’s soft-spoken and a former fatty and I guess most of all, NotRuth? I’m not sure I can endorse that, especially with Paul Hollywood stomping around desribing things as “too girly”. No offence meant to Edd, who is a talented baker and would be a decent winner if he’d EVER APPEARED ON SCREEN EVER, but Ruth captured my heart and he only very ocasionally even caught my eye.
10. Mary Berry? Is still fabulous. Some things never change.