Somewhere in an unusually cold marquee on a pristine lawn, series four of The Great British Bake Off started filming yesterday. Months to wait to see that, but the producers have already branched out. The Great British Sewing Bee (Tuesdays BBC2; iPlayer) had different ingredients but kept the same format, with three tasks per week, a historical interlude to allow viewers a toilet break, and an elimination of one of the country’s best amateur tailors at the end. What it most importantly kept was the knack of being relentlessly nice without being twee. Hard but fair.
As with the Bake Off, the words “Great British” in the title had more significance than just geography. Something small but great, and probably far from unique but certainly British, was on display. In GBBO people baked cakes and most of us have done that at least once, but not with anything like that sort of skill or creativity. The contestants baked a lot of cakes at home, primarily to share them with people they loved.
In GBSB people made clothes, and most of us have never done that so their skill and creativity was almost miraculous. The contestants made a lot of clothes at home, primarily for themselves. Sewing was mostly a lone pursuit, a way of drawing inner confidence from a job well done.
We were told that GBSB reflected sewing coming back into fashion, but the participants were full of the sort of fierce self-sufficiency that wouldn’t give a bugger if it were still seen as laughably eccentric. If there was anyone cooler, or hotter, on TV this week than Tilly, her bedroom clothes rail stuffed with spankingly cute dresses she’d designed and executed herself, I didn’t see them.
The Bake Off’s secret strength, of course, is its unerringly well chosen cast. Every year the perfect mix shakes itself down into a natural order from last to first, turning your initial prejudices upside down but also introducing you to ten people you like immediately. The Sewing Bee had this nailed down, with obvious no-hoper Mark, who was only used to making costumes for steampunk conventions but suddenly came good in the last round; chummy yam-yam mummy Sandra; and twinklingly camp Stuart. (Would three-and-a-half-hours be long enough for his first task? “Oh I think I’ll have had enough by then, yes.”)
The early favourite was Ann, 82 years old and still with the pinpoint focus of a kestrel, who had been sewing for seven decades. Watching her swiftly knock up a perfectly fitting crepe wool shift dress, I started feeling sad about the day she takes all that knowledge with her.
Judging were no-nonsense Women’s Institute sewing teacher May Martin and the show’s instant star, Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant. Seven feet tall and immaculately whistled, quiffed and bearded – Rupert Everett with better diction and a softening northern burr – Grant was serene but perhaps a bit naughty. “Sandra’s made what we call in the tailoring industry ‘a bit of pork’…”
Claudia Winkleman, who in the best possible way has made a career out of presenting shows on subjects she doesn’t know too much about, fronted it with her normal unfussy charm and curiosity, speaking up for us laypeople when tailoring jargon crept in. Great British Sewing Bee was another fluffy comfort blanket to crawl under, but by heck it was well stitched.
Two million wide-eyed viewers tuned in for Dogging Tales (Thursday C4; 4oD), many of them lured by an avalanche of “Channel 4! NOW!” tweets. When they got there, Leo Maguire’s film was as weird as they’d hoped, but much bleaker. It was dark in those woods.
Maguire met several couples who dogged locally, plus a lone HGV driver who roamed the country, dogging wherever the opportunity arose. All of them wore animal masks for anonymity – it wasn’t clear whether this was standard dogger garb, or a device Maguire had conceived to add to the film’s general air of creeping, psychosexual horror. Shifty music and crackling, faulty-neon captions introduced our visits to woodland in the dead of night. Maguire’s Blair Witch night vision only captured flashes of explicit sex but, once we learnt that everyone in the programme was badly emotionally damaged, that was more than enough.
Les doused himself in Lynx (“You can’t beat it. That and Joop. Brilliant”) before driving himself and his girlfriend to their regular hot spot. “I DJ’d for 35 years, so I love entertaining people,” he said of their pastime of having sex while other people watched from the undergrowth. “I just feel that little bit more important.” His girlfriend had different motivations. She’d had bad relationships in the past and now said the make-up she put on before going out covered the “cracks” in her emotional wellbeing. The shot of her sitting naked on a tree stump in the dark, being ogled by strangers while Les took flash photos, was nightmarish.
So it went on: Susie, slim but buxom with long dark hair and thigh-high boots, liked to have as many men in the back of her husband’s car as possible in a night, while he watched. The men couldn’t believe their luck, but Susie had struggled with anorexia and was now scared of growing old and no longer being attractive. The last we saw of her, Maguire filmed her sitting facing away from the camera, still with the boots on, in a small circle of pink light, the rest of the frame in pitch blackness.
Terry was a short, slight man having relationship troubles with his partner Sarah. They’d decided to try dogging, partly to spice things up by involving other people. Maguire allowed himself a moment of comedy by cutting from Sarah and Terry on their sofa to a “two weeks later” caption, then straight back to the pair of them in the same places, but now joined by Anne, who like Sarah was twice Terry’s size. Terry was squashed between them, half a raw chipolata in a giant bap.
The film hit rock bottom soon after, in a moment like early-80s Mike Leigh gone porno. By torchlight in a copse, jovial Anne yanked down Terry’s tracksuit bottoms and got to work, excusing him for his unresponsiveness on account of the chilly weather, while casually admitting that it was a “shame” there wasn’t another man present to make up a four. When a stranger arrived, Anne was delighted: she and Sarah took each other’s tops off and were starting to enjoy themselves when a small voice piped up from five yards away.
“I’m not comfortable with this… I’m too cold.” As the trending topic said: #prayforterry.