Why Victorian Bakers doesn’t rise to the challenge of Bake Off

"It's bread. Just bread. What emerges from the magnificent bread oven is no-nonsense stuff; fortifying, dull, heavy, a bit like Victorian Bakers itself," says TV editor Alison Graham

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My heart sank like wet dough at the start of BBC2’s reality show Victorian Bakers when a 21st-century baker told us: “I want to find out exactly how tough it was.” This was just after we’d been told how “passionate” the quartet of volunteers were about baking, and how keen they were to re-create the loaves of Victorian days.

“Tough” and “passionate” have become part of the dreary vernacular of this kind of show, of pretty much any kind of show involving members of the public having a go at something that requires skill. Just think of how Gregg Wallace drones on about how “tough” MasterChef is, or when Marcus Wareing insists the competition means “everything to these people” when it should, surely, mean only “something” to these people.

But apart from Victorian Bakers’ banal assertions and its twee fetishising of what we assume must have been hard work, there’s the whole other aspect that’s now in danger of being worn to a frazzle, the dressing-up-and-trying-it-for-ourselves conceit.

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This can work really well, as in Channel 4’s Time Crashers last year, when a band of celebrities was catapulted into various eras to work as domestic servants. It was really good fun while being incredibly informative. Or BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner – with the lovely Robshaw family – which was cheerful and well made. The key is variety. 

But Victorian Bakers doesn’t leave itself anywhere to go. It’s just four people in dull costumes in a bake-house making dough to bake different kinds of loaves. And honestly, once you’ve seen four people’s sticky hands pulsing through a big vat of dough, you’ve seen it many, many times. When I got to the third or possibly fourth sloppy challenge, I could feel my brain turning into a cottage loaf. Really, Victorian Bakers works better as one of those brief teachy bits in The Great British Bake Off, rather than an entire series. 

And come on, it’s bread. Just bread. It pretty much all looks the same, so it’s not televisual. They aren’t making artworks like they do on Bake Off. What emerges from the magnificent bread oven is no-nonsense stuff; fortifying, dull, heavy; a bit like Victorian bakers itself.

“For me this is actually tasting history,” says one of the historical experts.

But it’s not though, is it? Again, it’s just bread, but the participants are encouraged to melodramatise, to over-empathise with their baking ancestors. “It’s like retreading history,” says one. But, yet again, no it isn’t. Stop being so sentimental. I think most of us probably had dirt-poor rustic ancestors. I did, but I find no romance in hovels, so how could I possibly even attempt to identify with my illiterate forebears? History isn’t about me, or you.

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Besides, it was long ago and far away. That’s what they did then. I can’t change any of it and my feelings about my long-dead clansmen and women can have no resonance for anyone. Particularly the long-dead clansmen and women themselves. Maybe they had a lovely time getting up at dawn to till the fields (or setting fire to their enemies’ castles – the Grahams were terrifically scrappy, but that’s another story).

Who am I to presume otherwise? Why on earth would I impose my 21st-century sensibilities on them? Then there’s the look of Victorian Bakers, too, which is a problem. It’s all very beige because, obviously, there wasn’t much colour in a drab bake house. Beige scenery, beige smocks, beige bread. If you’re on telly, you’ve got to vary the colour palette, otherwise our eyes grow weary and start to wander.

And, besides, I say again: it’s JUST BREAD. Get over it. 

Victorian Bakers is on Tuesdays at 8pm on BBC2

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