The last time I sewed anything was at school, when I tried to make a rag doll. But such were my lack of aptitude and application the poor thing looked like a car-crash victim. After years of lying abandoned in a dolly-morgue (my bedroom cupboard) this unloved and unlovely orphan was eventually rescued by my kind-hearted mother, who sewed her up and made her look rather sweet, instead of like a character in some hideously realised puppet version of CSI: Miami.
So maybe I’m not the target audience for The Great British Sewing Bee. And yet I love it, in fact – stand by for heresy – I think I might love it just a smidgeon more than I love The Great British Bake Off. There, I’ve said it.
The Bee, of course, shares all of the Bake Off ’s lovable traits. It’s a wellspring of modesty, pride and endeavour; its heart is big and everyone involved is just, well, kind. But there’s something so relaxed about The Bee, there’s a chilled atmosphere in that glorious haberdashery (and isn’t “haberdashery” a lovely word?) that there isn’t in the Tent of Dreams, though this is probably something to do with the lack of ovens.
Unlike most talent/reality shows, everyone in The Bee looks like they are having fun. Actual fun. You remember fun, don’t you, it’s when people smile and no one wears a carapace of cool, no one looks fashionably bored or unfashionably delighted. Having fun in talent/reality shows seems barely credible, considering the weeping and the “journeys”. Having a little sob is the default shot for any show involving members of the public having a go.
This doesn’t apply only to the usual suspects, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent etc. Do you remember The Great Interior Design Challenge last year, when amateurs were let loose to decorate rooms in houses? The tears! I can understand that people weep in the face of towering emotions – grief, of course, or if you’ve dug an artesian well with a spoon and brought life to an African village, or is you’ve gone up Mount Everest on a skateboard and raised millions for charity. But when your paintwork looks a bit rubbish? No, this was Britain at its wettest, at its most obtrusively emoting worst.
There’s the occasional tear in The Great British Sewing Bee, but mainly because the weekly loser just hates to leave the sewing circle. They have all become pals, which is just so heartening to see. Friendships blossom before our eyes; in Tuesday’s quarter-final you’ll see the contestants as a human hug chain as they wait, arms around each other’s shoulders, as Claudia Winkleman (another great reason for watching) reveals who has to leave. The departed one smiles and is completely genial and philosophical: “I’ve reached my limit and that’s fine,” as the others pay genuine tribute: “It just won’t be the same without [no spoiler!]… I didn’t want [no spoiler!] to go.”
Watching The Bee feels like a nice afternoon spent with a few pals. No one minds if things go wrong, it’s only sewing after all. Following a disastrous round this week, one contestant can’t help but laugh. “I talk too much, I mess around too much… but at the end of the day I’m having a fantastic time.” I think that’s just lovely and I think that’s called having a healthy perspective. It’s just a competition and it’s just a bit of fun.
The Great British Sewing Bee is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.