The Great British Bake Off review: Channel 4 haven’t cooked up a soggy-bottomed disaster after all

The biggest shock in GBBO isn't Noel Fielding. It's that Bake Off hasn’t been totally ruined, writes Frances Taylor

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After nearly a year in the oven, Channel 4 are about to serve up their Great British Bake Off bun.

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It’s missing some familiar ingredients, but it’s now being brought up to the judging table of the Great British public for scrutiny. Viewers’ knives are out and they’re preparing to be even even more critical than Paul Hollywood facing a doughy loaf.

From the moment the ink had dried on the contract between Channel 4 and Love Productions, there was only one question being asked by fans about the new Great British Bake Off. It wasn’t whether Channel 4 were going to completely and utterly ruin this beloved national institution, it was exactly how Channel 4 were going to completely and utterly ruin this beloved national institution.

And the answer? They haven’t, really. What Channel 4 has done is stick a sponge Ladyfinger up to the critics. It turns out there’s more than a crumb of truth in all those headlines about the show looking, feeling and staying the same. Much like a technical challenge, Channel 4 have done the best they can with the ingredients they were given, and the result isn’t the complete soggy-bottomed disaster it could’ve been.

There were plenty of jibes aimed at Channel 4 when they bought Bake Off for £75 million. As the on-screen talent collapsed from underneath them like an under-baked soufflé, quips about the broadcaster forking out multi-millions just for a tent full of ovens and Paul Hollywood were, understandably, rife.

Of course the moment that Mary, Mel and Sue requested their P45s, we knew that Bake Off would never be what it was. It couldn’t be. But C4 have done some damage limitation.

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This definitely isn’t the first impression you get from GBBO 2.0 though. Alarm bells start ringing when the show rather bravely (stupidly?) starts as it doesn’t mean to go on.

Here are Sandi and Noel. They’re having silly capers in a CGI hot air balloon. It’s losing altitude, Noel is dressed as a steampunk and Paul, Prue Leith and the bakers are standing outside the tent looking at the sky wondering where their new presenters have floated off to.

‘Bloody hell,’ you think, ‘This is what Channel 4 have done. They’ve done it already – plunged into kooky, Mighty Boosh territory. This is not Bake Off.’

But then the balloon crash-lands in long grass, and after some slightly stilted chat between Noel and Sandi they make their way to the marquee. They make a bit of a crap joke about not liking camping (let’s face it, this is nothing new. If you take off the rose-tinted glasses, a lot of Mel and Sue’s jokes were pretty naff, too) and then we find ourselves standing on firmer ground.

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It looks the same (the work benches, the food mixers, the food illustrations are present and correct), it sounds the same (the music hasn’t changed) and it actually feels very familiar.

You have 12 bakers of a fantastic standard. Some of their showstoppers would be worthy of the final, let alone week one. They also tick off plenty of the standard Bake Off tropes we’ve come to know and love. There’s a double bin-gate disaster, collapsing bakes, misread instructions, omitted ingredients. It’s all there.

We all know what we’re getting with Paul (he hasn’t changed), but Prue has more of a scary headmistress vibe than Mary Berry’s kindly granny. She’s a bit prickly but her criticism is fair, she’s incredibly knowledgeable and after ten years judging food on The Great British Menu she’s clearly very at home armed with a fork and a truncated critique. She could well become great value as the weeks roll on.

Sandi, too, fits nicely into the show. She’s very much in the Mel and Sue mould – both whip-smart and smutty. Arguably she could have capably taken the baton and presented GBBO solo. But Channel 4 being Channel 4, they just had to put their own stamp on it.

Although C4 have been restrained in not making the adverts feel intrusive (they don’t go to a break on the brink of a disaster, instead making clean cuts which fall as soon as the time is up on each challenge), what they have done is slightly – ever so slightly – changed the tone.

Channel 4 previously said that the ‘soggy bottom’ jokes would be a thing of the past, and that the old-school innuendo would be ditched to give Bake Off a more “modern” feel.

It doesn’t feel modern, but it does feel as though Bake Off has gone from soft to hardcore punography.

Noel talks about taking his trousers off, there’s suggestive chat about dipping fingers into things, there’s a line about a weekend in Amsterdam that cuts to a courgette being aggressively grated and one baker makes something out of chocolate that looks far more like an item you’d find in a dodgy back street shop in Soho, much to Noel’s amusement.

Ah, Noel. For a bloke who reckons he might be more comfortable playing a merman with a vagina than he is in the GBBO tent (his words), Noel Fielding is actually not that bad on Bake Off.

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Where are you going? No, come back! Honestly, he isn’t…

The former Mighty Boosh actor puts in a largely solid turn as a presenter of one of the most placid reality shows on television, and strangely the biggest surprise is just how normal he is.

The Noel we’re used to is irreverent and kooky. His humour is pretty niche, he has a natty line in capes and commands the stage, all eyeliner and gold boots.

So to hear him earnestly narrate the line: “Married dad of two James is a finance manager from Brentwood in Essex… His signature fruity cake has a whopping 600g of rhubarb in the sponge,” with no punchline, gag or ulterior motive other than to tell us about lovely James and his lovely rhubarb cake, seems more bizarre than anything we ever saw on The Mighty Boosh.

At one point, Noel stands over one baker’s shoulder as they use a melon baller on a pear and exclaims with excessive (and non-ironic) enthusiasm “Oh wow!” as he watches the bits of fruit being fashioned into spheres. You have to completely suspend your disbelief that Noel Fielding gives a monkey’s about watching a man making fruit balls.

Early on, though, Noel is responsible for what is probably the most anarchic moment in the whole of GBBO history (Iain and his Baked Alaska aside). During the judging of a fruit cake, Prue comments that she doesn’t like cakes being decorated with inedible bits like marigolds. So what does Noel do? He proclaims they’re the best bit and eats it, not missing a beat. One can only imagine what Mary would have made of such behaviour.

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At the end of the day, the person most surprised about Noel Fielding ending up as a host of GBBO is Noel Fielding. “I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of getting on Bake Off,” he admitted in an interview with press.

During the show he also asks one baker how they’re getting on and they bat back the same query about his new job. “I don’t think I’m going to be alright,” he says with a smile. Then, during the deliberations as Paul and Prue thrash out which baker should leave, Noel comes back with an “I’ll go… I’ll take a hit for the team,” before promptly saying goodbye to everyone and leaving the tent. It’s hard not to warm to such self-deprecation. It’s genuinely endearing.

Sometimes the whiff of Mel and Sue still lingers in the tent. Noel insists on saying the word ‘bake’ in a silly voice (that was always annoying when Sue did it – leave it in the past where it belongs!), he and Sandi share a pun about being bowled over, involving a bowl (it’s as funny as it sounds) and the scripted bits between the pair can feel a tad stilted.

But partnerships, like revamped TV programmes, always need time to get going and warm up. As a duo, Noel and Sandi shouldn’t work together… and yet they sort of do. Basically, a bit like GBBO finding a home on C4.

We’ll always mourn the BBC era of the baking behemoth, but this is what we’ve got now. It’s a bit rough around the edges, a little burnt on the outside. But it’s still our Bake Off.

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The Great British Bake Off begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday 29th August at 8pm