Pantomime has its villain in a furore over a television show that is becoming a metaphor for Brexit, writes Aidan Smith
The other day there was a tremendous moment in our kitchen, one I still can’t believe actually happened, such is the squabbly relationship between our two eldest children and the complete disinterest in the food-making process displayed by our son, especially if the results are not going to be burger-shaped. But, with the eldest daughter about to turn eight, the laddie piped up: “Can I make the birthday cake?”
Whenever these two bicker in future my wife and I, attempting to calm the situation, will be able to say to the laddie: “Remember that lovely cake you made for your sister?”
Doubtless he will respond with a groan and a sulk. Or he might answer: “Mum and Dad, that was Great British Bake Off, 2016 vintage, and a strange time in all our lives. If you recall, the country voted for Brexit and then got scared. Suddenly, our cherished institutions confused us. We didn’t know whether gripping them ever more tightly would mark us down as insular or even borderline racist, but what we certainly didn’t want was Bake Off disappearing from the BBC. That was going to be the equivalent of London Bridge being sold to America! So we all went a bit bonkers-baking-crazy-mad during that odd, unnerving, jittery summer – even me.”
The laddie might be right, because look at the treatment of Paul Hollywood as we get ready for tomorrow’s Bake Off final, the last on the Beeb. According to a report at the weekend he’s “Britain’s most unpopular baker” for being the only member of the presenting team to defect to Channel 4 after it bought the programme for £75 million.
His switch has led to “an outpouring of tweets accusing him of treachery, greed and egotism”. This has been the biggest bake-based kerfuffle since Alfred the Great, on the run from the Vikings and pretty famished, was given food by the wife of a swineherd in return for watching her cakes, only in a moment of self-absorption he allowed them to burn. The ticking-off went down in history, but it’s been nothing like the one dished out to Paul the Greedy who’s had the blowtorches Bake Off uses to brown the edges of meringues turned on his over-sculpted goatee, full-force.
Hollywood could justifiably argue: “Hang on, what have I done wrong? I’m staying loyal to Bake Off. It’s moving channels, which isn’t my fault. It’s not my fault the BBC don’t actually own Bake Off and Channel 4 has bid more for it. This is TV, this is business – stop blubbing into your napkins you bunch of saps!”
But it’s highly likely that when Candice Brown, Jane Beedle and Andrew Smyth compete for the crown there will be just as much intrigue over the inter-presenter reaction. Viewers’ antennae, backed up by amateur psychology techniques, will be firmly focused for the detection of sideways glaring and between-rounds tetchiness.
What will be the closing shot on the last-ever edition on the BBC? Will Mary Berry be glimpsed moving murderously towards Hollywood with a cake slice? Will Sue Perkins yank a tent peg from the ground with the intention of spearing the Bake Off bounder, only for the canvas walls to fold in on everyone, sparking an undignified, confused scrap amid much muffled shouting as a metaphor for Britain right now?
Though we can’t feel too sorry for Hollywood, who will earn £1.5m from his Channel 4 deal, he must feel like the bin in the corner of the Bake Off kitchen, fast disappearing under a bombardment of gunk. The Beeb, however much they wanted him to stay loyal, must now be glad he’s jumped channels. He’s stopped the Corporation taking the flak for losing Bake Off through stinginess, carelessness or being too preoccupied with “diversity”. During these past six weeks since the deal was announced Hollywood has been cast in the role of prime cake-burner. If he’d nipped behind the tent to the garden shed to fetch some weed-killer with which to spike the contestants’ icing, he couldn’t be a badder dude than he is right now.
All of which should make us pause from flinging wooden spoons at him and wonder: isn’t Bake Off just a cookery show? Aren’t we investing it with too much deeper meaning? I look at my children watching raptly, shouting “Nice texture!” and “Soggy bottom!” at each other and impersonating Candice’s wasp-chewing pout, and think how surprised they would be if I was to tell them it had just turned into a big, grown-up, serious programme, leavened with politics and other boring stuff.
Immediately in the post-Brexit vote aftermath, the bewildered nation sought out examples of Britishness which were the most comforting, only in Bake Off’s case for everyone to then be rocked by the exploding-oven shock of Channel 4’s swoop. The nation knew that big decisions, or big outcomes from decisions already taken, lay ahead. All it wanted was to lose itself for a while in some light sponge and some light, food-based double entendres.
There seemed to be some kind of cruel joke playing out as the repercussions were digested. Bake Off was going to the channel which had produced Embarrassing Bodies, How Clean is Your House? and Naked Dating - how could it possibly survive? And how could the BBC possibly survive without shows that were the quintessence - if not indeed the quince-tessence - of state-broadcaster fare?
This daft, out-of-season pantomime needed a villain and Hollywood with his gruffness and his man-spreading has obliged. I’m far from being a fan but am not sure he deserves to be flash-fried like this.
Meanwhile my son cooked his cake and his sister loved it. “Nice texture,” she said, “and no sign of a soggy bottom.”