I’m here to save The Great British Bake Off. You’re either with me or against me. The solutions I am about to offer may seem radical, even violent. I do not apologize. I will never apologize. It’s too important. The Bake Off, which for obscure reasons of international copyright tradecraft is known as The Great British Baking Show in the United States, is in severe decline. Everyone* (*in my group texts) knows this. Everyone* (*I read one blog post, a while ago) is talking about it. Something must be done. The long-running series, revered for its low-key celebrations of Britishness, fine dessert, and human kindness, is now in its 11th season; the stakes could not be more apocalyptic. Comfort TV seems unimportant right up until you find yourself in the middle of a global pandemic two weeks before a presidential election while a good part of the world either is now, or has recently been, on fire.
So. Herewith, I present my manifesto for restoring this disintegrating bastion, this fading refuge of the better nature of humanity, this swiftly souring promise of an hour free from cruelty and care, to its former pinnacle of niceness. I should add here that I’ve been reading about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror lately—you know, to escape into something less upsetting than the news—and this may have influenced my thinking about GBBO and baking competitions in general. So be it. We have a world to gain, my friends, and we’re retaking Biscuit Week by any means necessary. It’s time to go to war for our ideals.
FIRST EDICT: Lead Paul Hollywood to a guillotine in the Place de la Révolution and see what happens.
Does he even know that much about baking? At this point, Paul, the sole remaining member of the original Bake Off cast, mostly seems to be an expert in standing with his shiny black button-up shirt untucked and his hands not quite in his jeans pockets while glowering confusingly at a point in the middle distance. If he were a baked good, he would be an Éclair à la Aging Masculine Vanity, and he would send himself back for being a little bit raw in the middle.
In the show’s early, good seasons, Paul’s slightly conceited air made him an effective counterbalance to Mary Berry’s aura of overwhelming graciousness. As a duo, they weren’t so much Good Cop/Bad Cop as Good Cop/Got Told He Was Adorable Once Too Often When He Was Very Small Cop, but it worked. After Mary departed the series, however—she left in 2016, along with the original presenters, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, during the show’s acrimonious move from the BBC to Channel 4—Paul became the senior judge and the show’s biggest, or at least most preening, celebrity. A man whose entire TV persona absolutely cried out to be checked was suddenly left unchecked, and though the producers’ attempt to make the Hollywood Handshake a cultural phenomenon was mercifully dialed back after one season, Paul’s vibe of coddled self-importance has been left to unbalance the Bake Off in countless subtle ways. Note, for instance, how often the contestants are now coached to say things like “sweet hopping Cordelia, I can’t believe Paul Hollywood is going to judge my oat fritter.” Note how often you just feel him STANDING THERE thinking he’s too big a star for the tent.
This ends now. No one is bigger than the tent. If we are going to save our cozy TV utopia, heads must roll. Farewell, Paul; enjoy your retirement of posting photographs of motorcycles on Instagram and making people wonder what you’re compensating. No room for kings in our dessert republic. Next.
SECOND EDICT: Baked goods shall look like baked goods, not like bowling trophies, violins, your childhood vacation to Jamaica, or Freddie Mercury.
Marie Antoinette: That should have been the wake-up call. The urgency of change should have been clear the moment Rowan—the Mozart-loving, antique-waistcoat-collecting music teacher who was this season’s biggest GBBO personality before being sent home after Bread Week (he crashed and burned on every challenge, in fairness)—decided to sculpt the head of the former French queen out of kirsch-soaked chocolate sponge filled with mascarpone flavored with coffee. For years now, GBBO has indulged an obsession with food that looks like something else—like furniture, architecture, other types of food, dragons, penguins, various types of boats, fish, silverware, the national spirit of Wales—and this has now become completely unhinged.
The showstopper challenge, the third and most important of each episode’s three baking sessions, is now almost exclusively devoted to the idea that baking is like a children’s crafting class, with pastry instead of Play-Doh. Contestants mold little red cars out of gingerbread to put on little icing roads to evoke their memories of the trips they took to see their brothers in Denmark during their gap years; it’s inhuman. What I want to see as a Bake Off lover is cool cakes that look delicious to eat. I do not want to eat the Hawaiian Islands. We can all do so much better than this.
We have freed ourselves from Marie Antoinette once before, comrades. It’s time to do it again.
THIRD EDICT: Guillotine several other people (possibly guillotine everybody?).
Look, I like everyone on the show (at least, everyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with Small Follyhood). Prue Leith wears wacky glasses. Noel Fielding comes across as the strangely heartwarming result of a thought experiment that asked “What if A.A. Milne wrote The Vampire Lestat?” Matt Lucas, who replaced Sandi Toksvig in the tent this year, is friendly and funny. They seem like lovely people. Individually, they’re all great.
The problem is that liking them individually is only half the game. Robespierre “liked” Danton, and look where that ended up* (*guillotine). The judging and hosting cast of a reality-competition show has to be perfectly balanced. It’s like—well, it’s like baking; the ingredients all have to complement each other, or else elements that are delicious on their own (sugar, very tall whimsy-goth comedians) become stodgy or cloying. And right now, the balance on GBBO is just a bit off.
Back in the old days, Mel and Sue gave the show a spiky irreverence that was as smart as it was silly. They were clearly sharper than Paul, which helped to counter his puffy-alpha energy on one side while Mary’s supreme pleasantness countered it on the other. These days, though, Prue is unquestionably the less powerful judge, which leaves Paul unchallenged on the baking-authority front. And while Noel and Matt look very different, the energy they bring to the show is almost identical, and there’s too much of it; GBBO is drowning in a sort of airy, middle-aged male fancy-play, as if someone were rebooting Step Brothers around an hourlong tea-party set piece. Without the focused intelligence of Sandi to bring things back to earth, the wide-eyed bouncy-castle improv that would be delightful in short bursts gets a little annoying; worse, it leaves Paul free to see himself as the adult in the room, something he could never get away with around Mel and Sue.
Get rid of some of them. Get rid of all of them. Bring back the old cast. Just fix the balance. This Bastille cannot be allowed to stand. Freedom must be won stone by stone.
FOURTH EDICT: Technical challenges shall be about technique, not about guessing what a lingonberry Kœvlerfaårverdröm looks like.
The technical challenge, which makes up the second segment of every Bake Off episode, is supposed to assess the bakers’ (wait for it) technique by requiring them to make something from a recipe with no advance prep time. Instead, it is increasingly about making the bakers feel foolish by asking them to make recipes no one has ever heard of outside the small Scandinavian principality of Kœvlerfaårvland, which I just made up. With a little cheese and honey, the classic Kœvlerfaårverdröm roll is a traditional part of every Kœvler breakfast; it does not exist, but it still has a higher chance of appearing in a GBBO technical challenge than, I don’t know, croissants.
Putting a recipe for a mystery item in front of a baker with directions like “3. Make the dough” does not test technique; it tests guessing, which is probably why the winner of the technical feels semi-random most weeks (which in turn is probably why the result of the technical, the only ranked challenge on the show, often feels weirdly unimportant to the final outcome). It’s as if the judges of a music competition decided to regularly ditch scales and arpeggios in favor of tasks like “now literally dance about architecture.” Enough of this madness. The people demand bread!
FIFTH EDICT: You will accept that cookies can be moist, you bastards.
Despite everything I’ve written here, I still love the dear old Bake Off. I will probably watch every new episode the day it comes out until at last it merges with The Crown and forms a middlebrow British Voltron that conquers the Earth. There is one thing I absolutely cannot tolerate, however, and that is GBBO’s insistence that cookies (sorry, “biscuits”) have to be crisp in order to be good. It is an actual trauma, every Biscuit Week, to watch Paul Hollywood striding up and down the aisles, testing each cookie’s quality by snapping it in half. A loud crack like a branch breaking in the woods means a good biscuit; any sign of softness, gooeyness, or chewiness renders a biscuit unacceptable. Evidently when a ray of heavenly light shone down and the first British person saw the first cookie, the British person said, “Spiffing—but let’s make it a hard, dry pellet, really give our teeth a good workout, what?”
No. We owe it to ourselves to fight back against this bad cookie orthodoxy. Now, I do not dispute that a crunchy biscuit can be very good. But the moist cookie—the warm, gooey cookie; the cookie with strands of melted chocolate still joined together as you pull it joyfully apart—is one of humanity’s highest achievements. We cannot let one small island and its blue-eyed baking tyrant set the agenda with their half-baked (or in this case, unacceptably whole-baked) ideas. It is not too late to rescue The Great British Bake Off, but it will require the courage to stand up for our beliefs. From now on we will have to be merciless in the defense of our crumpets and sweater vests. We will have to act with boldness if we are to save this refuge for all humanity. Let them eat cake!