The dark side of this year’s Great British Bake Off – a 2020 schadenfreude extravaganza

Bake Off 2020 has a dark side, says Lydia Spencer-Elliott.

Great British Bake Off 2020

By Lydia Spencer-Elliott

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It all started in week one of the Great British Bake Off when Sura the saboteur effortlessly backhanded Dave’s pineapple upside-down cake onto the floor.

Each baker had cheerily approached the gingham alter to offer up their careful concoction to Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood in a familiar ritual that was so far, so twee.

Then an unwelcome guest spun the challenge off its axis: “Go away, urgh!” complained Sura as she vigorously wafted an insect intruder away from her bake. But behind her, awaiting for access to the judges’ table with unsuspecting patience, was Dave.

The collision was sudden and deadly. Hand met sponge with force and in seconds, mounds of Dave’s pineapple and syrup flavoured dreams lay strewn across the tent floor.

There was a sharp collective intake of breath. A Marasca cherry rolled sadly out of sight. “No!” cried one of the Great British Bake Off contestants in unbridled horror. With a comedic sweep that rivalled The Office’s mockumentary transitions, the camera panned from the contestants’ aghast faces to the cake crime scene that lay at their feet.

To exacerbate the steely tension, one minor note from an omnipresent violin played persistently in the background. Dave stared at the floor in dismay, silence, and utter disbelief. While the cake had taken hours to prepare, gifs and memes were crafted at the speed of light. Twitter erupted with glee. It was a schadenfreude extravaganza.

The gaffe had everything required to become a moment of sheer comedic victory: the high stakes, the tragic downfall, the hysterical moment of surprise when slapstick choreography played out before us entirely by accident. And this scene set the tone for the rest of the series.

From that moment on, we were all just misfortune parasites feeding off the hilarious horror of each second-hand catastrophe. The cataclysmically awful celebrity busts created just minutes later were the final nail in the car crash spectator coffin.

Each offering was so side-splittingly awful you could peer at them only through tears of laughter— Laura’s Freddie Mercury looked like the Papa Dolmio had been decapitated then melted back together.

This somewhat merciless humour goes against the generally wholesome ethos of Bake Off. During a normal year, the audience is fiercely supportive. In 2014 there was a divisive incident, now referred to only as ‘Bingate’, that was so controversial fans online demanded the Prime Minister intervene.

But there is something missing from the 2020 Bake Off tent that has allowed for a marginally darker obsession with the competition to take hold. When Channel 4 announced that, despite the pandemic, the cake contest would return to screens this year, there was one horrifying subtraction: there would be no more Hollywood handshakes. “It isn’t fitting to the world around us to have Paul shaking hands with people,” said an insider, according to the Daily Mail.

This may not seem like a life-altering compromise. In fact, in the ninth series of the show many viewers complained Paul gave out too many palmy congrats. But the absence of the accolade has seemingly altered the audience’s mindset to take delight in disaster.

Forget the highest honour Paul could bestow, we have instead spent each episode nursing the evil hope that someone might burn their bread until its blackened or even drop their jelly. Consistently, the favourite contestant has been whoever was flailing and failing.

Lottie became an icon the moment her ears pricked up in the tent and she sullenly demanded: “Sorry, did someone just say they’re having fun?”. When her ice cream cake collapsed in ’80s week, we were sad to see her go but, still, hadn’t a grin crept up around the corners of our mouths as the presenters foreshadowed disaster and informed us the temperature of the tent was teetering over 35 degrees?

Creations collapsed and aprons saturated with sweat until contestants gave up and shoved their heads in the freezer. In true 2020 fashion, we’ve lived for every disaster and moment of drama. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Hermine, who the internet has decided is so pure she must be protected at all costs.

Although Bake Off might normally be characterised by camaraderie, there is something both great, British and, in the current climate, downright topical, about laughing in the face of a monumental calamity. 

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The Great British Bake Off airs every Tuesday at 8pm on Channel 4. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.