Oh, just bake off

I am not remotely embarrassed to tell anyone who wants to know that I am a long standing fan of The Great British Bake Off. I was there, bright-eyed and expectant-looking, for episode one, series one – not, I hasten to add, because I’m a fan of cookery shows (I watch no others), or of amateur competition shows (I watch no others). No, I settled down to watch GBBO from the very beginning for the simple reason that it’s presented by Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (or Mel ‘n’ Sue, to give them their double-act name), who I have been a decided fan of ever since the distant days of Light Lunch. (I was turned on to it by a friend who was unemployed; being with job at the time I had to tape it and watch it at night – I was having a Late Lunch long before they formally changed the timeslot.)

Sue Perkins, of course, had gone on to have a successful solo career, appearing in the Supersizer franchise and much else besides, but GBBO marked the primetime return of her comedy partner, who had earlier taken a career break to have children. To say I was excited by this turn of events would be to put it mildly. I had such fond memories of Mel ‘n’ Sue’s blend of sarcasm, silliness and dreadful punning I was even prepared to watch them in a cookery-themed competition show, which I fully expected to despise.

In fact, I didn’t despise it at all. There were some rough edges to be smoothed off in that first series – putting the competitors through a peripatetic progress around the country didn’t really add anything, although it does explain why the programme is set in a tent rather than a studio, even though the tent no longer moves – but it was immediately obvious that it was a lovely show. That term is not one I use in an unconsidered way; it’s a thoroughly lovely show, in a world that is decidedly lacking in loveliness, and very precious because of it.

It’s lovely partly because of the associations it triggers – I have very clear kid memories of “helping” (i.e., hindering) both my mum and my gran when they were baking. The show is almost as effective at evoking those memories as the smell of a freshly uncorked jar of allspice would be, and they’re nice memories to have evoked. But it’s more than that.

GBBO is a competition show, but it’s not one where they needlessly ratchet up the tension for the participants – at no point does anyone call the competitors together to remind them “baking doesn’t get tougher than this”. It’s a public participation show, but not one in which some members of the public are there just to be humiliated – not all the bakers are of equal quality, but none are intentionally set up to fail. It’s a show with regular judges – but the judges never play to the gallery, and the focus is always on the contestants and their baking. It’s a show where the judges have to tell people they’ve failed – but the judgements are never cruel or gratuitously unpleasant, and failing contestants are told that they baked a bad cake (and what they can do to fix the problem), not that they have no worth as human beings. It’s a show where the audience are encouraged to take an interest in the participants as people – but participants don’t have to have a tear-jerking backstory to sob out for the cameras if they want to win, and it never becomes a personality contest. It’s a show where participants are eliminated from the competition – but this is not done maliciously, and the interviews with departing contestants invite them to concentrate on the positive, not pore over the negative.

GBBO‘s closest approach to a catchphrase is “On your marks. Get set. Bake!”, always delivered with an encouraging smile – a nice demonstration of the difference between this programme and some others. It’s a show where the participants are encouraged – and shown – to like and support one another, rather than encouraged – and shown – to wish ill-luck on their competitors. It’s a show where the participants are shown to be having fun, as well as suffering under the tension; when a departing contestant says “It’s been a great experience,” you understand how it might have been. It’s a show where, if someone suffers a disaster like dropping their finished item on the floor, everyone – presenters, fellow contestants, even, sometimes, the judges – rush to help them, rather than standing back to observe, and exult in, their misery.

Yes, GBBO is almost absurdly middle class, to the point that it practically defines the word ‘bourgeois’. Yes, it treats food as entertainment at a time when increasing numbers of people can’t afford to feed themselves without resorting to charity (although, for the record, I find it much less problematic in that regard than Jamie Oliver’s ‘poverty tourism’ – at least GBBO doesn’t try and pretend that it’s thrifty). But it is fundamentally a nice show – one that manages most of the time to be nice without just being sappy – and I’ve come to realise that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of niceness now and again.

Back in the day, I broadly agreed with Vyvyan from The Young Ones when he objected to TV that was ‘all so bloody nice’, but that was in a very different TV context. Nowadays the danger isn’t that we’ll be smothered under a blanket of cloying niceness, but that we’ll be overwhelmed by a tide of unrelenting nastiness. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drama (where unpleasantly detailed depictions of violence have become a near-ubiquitous hallmark of supposed true-to-life authenticity, even though violence occurs with exceptional rarity in actual life), or in the casual cruelty of many sitcoms, or the deliberate sadism of constructed reality: nastiness has become the default mode in British TV.

It’s for these reasons that I am very glad of GBBO, and the little oasis of pleasantness it represents. And it’s for similar reasons that I was dismayed and dejected to realise that some other people are engaged in a desperate attempt to make it as nasty as much else that appears on TV. I gained this unwelcome insight by looking at the live blogs of the series hosted at The Guardian website, and especially from the comments sections below them where supposed ‘fans’ of the show join in. This is, of course, my own fault – anyone who ventures below the line anywhere on the net deserves everything they get – but I was still taken aback by just how unpleasant it all was.

For example, one of the better candidates on the show this series is called Ruby. She’s a young woman, she’s good looking, and as a result of these two factors the ‘fans’ of the show have taken against her in a big way. They’ve decided that – because she’s young and attractive – there’s only one possible explanation for her doing well, which is that she’s sleeping with one of the judges. To be fair, some of the people dabbling in this sewer of unpleasantness haven’t taken it quite this far. Some think merely that the judge wants to sleep with her, and that she’s exploiting his interest rather than indulging it, but others imagine in detail (and with ‘hilarious’ baking-based double entendres) the sexual activities they presume are taking place.

Whichever version is being pedalled, this is vile stuff and – it almost goes without saying, since it’s a woman being discussed on the internet – poisonously misogynistic. (And this is one of those occasions when that term is perfectly apt, both as the general term for anti-female prejudice and in the narrow sense of hating women: these commenters make no attempt to hide the fact they hate that – unlike last series, when it was an all-male final – there are only women still left in the competition.) It disturbs and disappoints me that women are so prominent amongst those who are joining in with this. I’m not so naïve as to expect universal sisterhood between women (nor so unjust as to hold women to a standard that I wouldn’t hold men to – universal brotherhood is similarly elusive), but, really, would it be expecting too much that at least some of the women involved in the discussion might be trying to steer the conspiracy theory in a less overtly sexual direction?

Because that’s the other thing: there are more than a few trappings of conspiracy theory about this. For one thing, the idea that Ruby is exchanging sex for preferential treatment hits a major stumbling block in that each week one of the rounds in the competition is judged blind – which is to say the judges rank the baked goods from worst to best without knowing who baked what. You might think this would be game over, in a rational world, for the idea that Ruby’s successes were undeserved. But no, there’s not even a pause to consider the possibility that reality invalidates the theory before wild speculation is being pressed into service to imagine how the theory could still be right: of course! she secretly texts him without anyone seeing to let him know which is hers! (There’s another stumbling block, in that Ruby is routinely praised by the other judge, who’s an older woman. So far no-one has got so far as accusing her of a sexual motive, but possibly that’s still to come.)

All this is preposterous, of course, in that it violates Occam’s razor: the simplest, and therefore most plausible, explanation is that Ruby has been judged favourably by both judges, and frequently without them knowing who they were rewarding, because she has been baking well. It’s preposterous, as well, in that – even as it manufacturers spurious ‘evidence’ to bolster its claims – it ignores evidence that undermines it: that the male judge frequently praises other contestants every bit as highly as Ruby (including male contestants, when they were still involved), and sometimes criticises her baking.

Both of these (manufacturing spurious evidence, ignoring counter-evidence) are standard in any conspiracy theory, of course, but this particular one has an added element of stupidity that really hurts my head. Namely that the theorists are certain that they know who are the better and worse bakers – and that if the judges reach a different conclusion they must do so for underhand reasons – even though they have not tasted any of the food, and the judges have.

You’d think that even a person who generally finds conspiracy theories persuasive would find that added wrinkle gave them pause. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, after all, and you really do have to know what a cake tastes like before you can decide whether it’s good or bad. (Someone did raise this point in The Guardian comments; they were immediately shouted down with the accusation that only Ruby’s mother would have anything kind to say about her baking – by, as it happens, possibly the most bitter commenter on the whole thread, Pollyanna; never was a pseudonym more inapt.)

The root of the trouble is that The Guardian live blog mob are trying to make this a personality contest, like Big Brother. I’m sure they’d be horrified to see themselves compared to BB fans – doubtless as Guardian readers they see themselves as innately superior – but the analogy fits, nonetheless. They’ve taken against Ruby as a person (for reasons that seem to me wholly unfair), and so they’re desperate to see her lose, and incensed to see her doing well. That’s what lies behind the baroque complexity of the conspiracy theories, and the endless accusations of systematic unfairness in the judging – the desire to see someone they dislike punished, and to hell with what the food she makes actually tastes like. They don’t want to watch a baking competition, they want a personality contest.

Well, I don’t. TV is full of them – not just Big Brother, but the dancing and singing shows, too: all of them opportunities to judge people on the basis of who they are (or are made to seem to be on TV), not what they can do. One of the reasons GBBO is precious is that it’s not like that. It’s a baking competition, and the best baker – in the subjective opinion of the judges – wins.

Last year, one of the three finalists, Brendan, had the X Factor-style sob story that would have seen him crowned winner if GBBO was one of those shows that cared more about a satisfying ’emotional arc’ than anything else (he spoke about how he hoped he could use his baking to heal a decades-long rift in his family; it was more touching than it sounds). But Brendan didn’t win, because – when it came down to it, on the day of the final – one of the other contestants baked better stuff. The live blog mob no doubt would have hated that (in fact, I’ve just checked, and many of them did), but it’s one of the things that makes it possible for me to watch this programme with genuine pleasure: the fact that it’s not manipulated like other, similar shows.

Possibly you think I’m taking this too seriously; you’re right, I am. I realise there’s a good chance some of the people below the line on the live blog imagine it amusing to publicly accuse a young woman of sleeping her way to the top, with no thought for what being on the receiving end of that must be like; I’m certain that even those who mean their misogyny with serious intent don’t think GBBO is important. That’s an absolutely accurate assessment, of course, it is just a baking show. But it’s also a rare example of something kind and nice, and it pains me to see it being debased in this way.

I understand that some people enjoy the constructed reality of competition shows, where the ability to actually perform the task in hand is way down the list of requirements to do well. I understand that many, many people enjoy emotional cruelty, and take pleasure in seeing humiliating comeuppances meted out to popular hate figures. Well, let them have what they want – and they do, smeared across most of the rest of the schedules. Let them have live blogs and twitter conversations where they indulge in the grossest, most unpleasant speculations about the people they see on screen. But why do they have to force Great British Bake Off into that mould? And why would they want to?

GBBO is a show filled with nice people being kind to each other, and making lovely things. Why would anyone want to turn it into a festival of negativity? Why would they want to persuade themselves into seeing sexually-motivated conspiracy theories when they’re actually presented with sincere group hugs, charmingly whimsical jokes, and plates of choux buns? Isn’t the experience of living in this bitter world miserable enough already, without constantly trying to make it worse?

And, if they must do it, can’t they just bake off and do it somewhere else instead? Can’t those of us who like nice things, those of us who like to celebrate the successes of others rather than exult in their humiliating failures, have even one show we can call our own? Just one small corner of our shared culture that’s safe from those people who want to smear their grubby negativity all over everything – that’s all I ask.

(I do try to be fair, so I will note here that the most recent comments thread – especially in the closing stages, after the regulars had mostly departed – contains people sticking up for Ruby, and castigating the unpleasantness in the earlier sections of the thread. Some of them even get almost as many ‘recommends’ as the nasty ones. So my desire for niceness is not a one-man quest, or anything like it. But it’s still a shame that there are so many who feel the need to besmirch something so lovely with their unpleasant imaginings.)

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