Dear Great British Bake Off,
I have been seeing you for a while now – six years, to be exact. Wow, doesn’t time fly? It has been a beautiful relationship, full of vol aux vents and dampfnudels and chocolate-coated churros. The love we have shared has only grown over time. You introduced me to the talented Nadiya Hussain, and inspiring Val Stones, and resourceful Richard Burr. For that I thank you.
But now you are off. Sure, you will be back on our screens soon enough – but I am afraid things will never be the same again.
How will you look when you make your comeback? Will you still be friendly and fun? Will you still crack baking puns and make me smile? Or will Channel 4 transform you into a new creature entirely, packed full of sponsored Smeg ovens and tedious ad breaks and second-rate baking “experts”?
Before you go, I wanted to remind you of all the reasons I fell in love with you in the first place.
This is a love letter – but also in its way a break-up letter, because many of the reasons why I, and the great British public, fell for you in the first place will soon no longer apply. (Oh how I wish you weren’t moving at all – it seems like such a betrayal!)
I loved how you grew from an unassuming baking show into the most-watched show on television, despite a soggy start with unpromising ratings and reviews. The Guardian said it wouldn’t work because of the “essentially un-televisual process of cake-making” (hah!), but critics were soon eating their words. You had all the right ingredients and you had the perfect recipe, and soon – by word-of-mouth – we all cottoned on and tuned in by the millions.
Beyond adding voice-overs from presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins and deciding to pitch the tent in one location instead of sending it to Sandwich for sandwich week and Scone Palace for biscuit week (series one was seriously dedicated to puns), you kept the recipe the same, knowing you were on to a good thing.
At the heart of the show: baking queen Mary Berry, 81. She ruled the tent with her encyclopaedic knowledge of baking, her floral blazers and her love of anything containing alcohol. You couldn’t slip any mistakes past Mary and her tastebuds. She treated the contestants fairly but firmly, with a wicked sense of humour underneath it all. She is surely irreplaceable.
At her side: Paul Hollywood. Yes, I know you’re keeping him – but the problem is, he needs Mary. They balanced each other. He was bad cop to Mary’s good cop, the bread expert where Mary knew her cakes, the one who took himself seriously while Mary teased. When Paul tried to make it in the US with The American Baking Competition, it was a total flop without the octogenarian baking matriarch as his partner. Paul needs Mary like bread needs yeast.
The next key ingredient: the amateur bakers themselves. Oh! They’re such a lovely bunch. They run over and help each other when things go wrong, they look genuinely horrified every time someone has to leave the tent, they develop beautiful post-Bake Off friendships. When Iain Watters got married recently, the whole gang turned up with a bunch of cake.
They’re all just so nice to each other that it gives you a warm feeling in your belly. Sure, everyone wants to win – but there is a genuine spirit of camaraderie that is so rare to find on TV.
By contrast, America has a show called Cutthroat Kitchen where contestants can purchase opportunities to sabotage each other. Horrific. Bake Off has only had one real argument – the notorious #Bingate, when Diana removed Iain’s Baked Alaska from the freezer and it melted – and that was so unusual and ridiculous it has gone down in television history.
It helps that the contestants are motivated by nothing more than genuine enthusiasm. As they present their bakes at the gingham altar, the baking hopefuls only want to prove themselves as bakers and gain the respect of Mary and Paul, whose opinions they seriously value. You can tell by the tortured look on the bakers’ faces as the judges raise forkfuls of cake to their lips and give them a meditative chew. The suspense!
There’s no prize money, but it feels like everything is at stake as the bakers compete for the honour of being crowned champion. It is talent, not fame, that is the focus. I hope this never changes.
Presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, now heading off to deploy their puns in pastures new, have been instrumental in keeping things fluffy and friendly. With their terrible wordplay and jokes and innuendos, they lighten the mood when the contestants are getting way too stressed about collapsing gingerbread structures and burnt pies. “It’s only a cake,” Sue told the unfortunate Dorret after a baking disaster.
One anecdote sums up Mel and Sue perfectly. The 2011 finalist Mary-Ann Boremans recounted how the duo took their duty of care to the bakers so seriously that they would try to make footage of upset bakers completely unusable. “They will swoop in and swear like troopers so the footage can’t be used,” she revealed. Without Mel and Sue, viewers will suffer – but so will the contestants. It will be hard to preserve the spirit of the Bake Off without them.
Some things may not change, of course. I loved how you kept making the show in a tent in the middle of summer even though everything melts and it’s wildly impractical, because that’s how the Bake Off works – so that’s that. Having paid £75 million for a tent, at least Channel 4 is likely to keep this tradition going.
I’m hoping you will also keep the VERY DRAMATIC string music that kicks in at the end of a challenge when the contestants run around pulling things out of ovens and blobbing icing everywhere and saying “Oh well it’ll have to do” before presenting something absolutely perfect.
With all your benign niceness and dedication to Doing Things Properly, you have been the antidote to all the ugly stuff going on in the world. I loved the way you made people believe in themselves. “I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again,” Nadiya Hussain sobbed after winning the show in 2015. “I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’. I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.”
You have been the conversation around the water cooler and the start of many a great baking career. I hope you will survive your transition.
But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, our love will never be quite the same again. And that’s heartbreaking.