Glastonbury. The Olympic Games. The Hajj annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The world economy. All knocked on the head by coronavirus. But not even a deadly pandemic is a match for the invincible Great British Bake Off, which returns defiantly for its 11th series. Cast and crew have bravely bubbled their way through the social distancing restrictions, the latest dozen contestants, banged up together under virtual house arrest for seven weeks. They had to. Bake Off is, after all, an essential, vital contributor to national morale, like Vera Lynn during the war.
As the nights draw in, the pubs and restaurants close early and a chill descends on our crisis-hit land, we all need to watch people preparing sponges. As Prue Leith puts it with her usual fresh-from-the-oven homely warmth: “Same old Bake Off. Familiar. Comforting. Lovely.” Maybe we should all turn out on Thursday nights to “clap for the bakers”.
There are few changes. Matt Lucas is an excellent choice to replace Sandi Toksvig, adding a pinch of wit and surrealism to the usual mix of weak puns and painful innuendo. As a self-identifying “homosexual” – I suspect reclaiming that antique term – he confesses to an “eating age” of nine and a passion for Batchelors Super Noodles, or, as he prefers to call them, Confirmed Batchelors Super Noodles.
Poor old Noel Fielding, still loping around the GBBO tent like a stray lurcher, seems strangely diminished by the arrival of the diminutive Lucas, who out-bants him with a bit too much ease. Noel is left so bewildered that he later on declares that he wanted to have sex with Hermine’s voluptuous chocolate and fondant cake tribute to Lupita Nyong’o, a radical response to the Eat Out to Help Out campaign.
The Lupita cake, as evidenced by its arousing impact on Noel, is at least realistic, but other efforts to craft “showstopper” cake models of the contestants’ “celebrity heroes” are comically bad, just as we all expect from amateur bakers – David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust actually looking like Johnny Vegas as Johnny Vegas; Sir David Attenborough resembling Boris Johnson; and dear Freddie Mercury loses his nose and turns into Frank Sidebottom.
All very familiar stuff, as Prue says, and there is also a traditional Bake Off “controversial moment”, when Sura accidentally knocks over Dave’s pineapple upside-down cakes, which I suppose turns them into pineapple right-way-up cakes. The conspiracy theorists will be all over that, like marzipan on a Battenberg.
I’m too surprised that Loriea is the first baker to the leave the show, because I don’t think even the finest cook in the world could get away with putting Scotch Bonnet peppers, plus an extra helping of ginger, into a bun and not expect some push back. The star baker is the much milder Peter, who I reckon will end up vying with Sura for ultimate victory. He’d better make sure he doesn’t turn round one day and discover, say, some magnificent millefeuille model of Notre Dame splatted on the floor because Sura carelessly brushed past it.
The GBBO, then: a constant point of reference in our upside-down cake of a world, and beloved by millions, I know, but I still find watching people make cakes quite boring. Am I still allowed to say that if there’s a pandemic on?