Is this the escapist entertainment we all need right now?
For those longing for an escape from this year’s endless doom and gloom, the announcement of the new series of wholesome cookery programme The Great British Bake Off would have been welcome news. We should have been able to tune into Channel 4 on Tuesday 22 September at 8pm for an hour of baking mishaps and “soggy bottom” innuendos, but due to an emergency coronavirus statement from both the Prime Minister and First Minister scheduled for the same time, viewers were instead reminded of the all-too-real problems they may have been trying to escape.
To add to this, new host Matt Lucas opened with a controversial comedy sketch poking fun at the failures of the government in the handling of the coronavirus crisis, mimicking the daily press briefings. This stunt led to over 200 complaints to Ofcom and raised the very current issue of the place of politics in the entertainment industry, especially in such a wholesome series with a large audience from all across the political spectrum. Known for his sketch comedy show Little Britain, perhaps this was an appropriate introduction for the new co-host, but was bringing in political satire about the current pandemic a risk worth taking for some extra publicity, or was it simply in bad taste and too soon?
Further obstructing the search for total escapism, the presenters addressed the practical considerations the producers of the programme had to take in order to film during the era of social distancing. It was revealed that the entire production crew, alongside the presenters and the contestants, had created a Bake Off bubble, isolating together in a hotel to ensure that vital components of the show, such as the congratulatory “Hollywood handshake” from host Paul Hollywood and supportive hugs between contestants, could still happen. With many of us realising that restrictions could be with us for some time now, this setup could be the work-around production companies need to create television content safely, without having to opt for more complicated but creative strategies such as those used by the Eastenders crew (plastic screens, same-household body doubles for kissing scenes, etc).
The first episode of Bake Off had all the usual hallmarks of the well-loved programme, with added drama provided during the technical challenge when contestant Sura accidentally sent Dave’s whole tray of pineapple upside-down cakes spinning through the air while swatting a fly. This full-scale catastrophe (or sabotage, depending on your levels of cynicism) brought back memories for avid viewers of #BinGate from the 2014 series, when Diana “accidentally” removed fellow contestant Iain’s ice cream from the freezer, spoiling his Baked Alaska cake, which led to him throwing it in the bin before judging commenced.
A new challenge for this year provided a well-deserved laugh to the audience as the contestants were tasked with creating busts of their celebrity inspirations. Even their normally excellent graphics design team struggled to imagine some of these celebrities in cake form, with Tom DeLonge and Louis Theroux among others being interpreted hilariously before the bakers even picked up their aprons. The final results whipped up a social media frenzy as the nation laughed alongside the judges at some of the efforts, with Freddie Mercury in cake form faring particularly badly. In the end, it was Loriea’s haunting depiction of Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley which made up the judges’ minds, as she was the first to be sent home, with the unfortunate added consequence of having gone to the lengths of isolating with everyone only to be sent home in the first week.
Overall, Bake Off gave us a glimpse into the future of television production for at least the duration of the pandemic. It was not the total escapism perhaps some were seeking since there were reminders throughout the programme, particularly at the beginning, of the real-life problems we are all facing. However, the producers managed to overcome hurdles to such an extent that this series was not noticeably different from the others with everything, except the presence of new host Matt Lucas, feeling comfortingly familiar. Perhaps a good laugh at some disastrous celebrity cake creations was the perfect antidote to the tough blow that reality dealt us all during the government briefing preceding the programme.