Stephen McGinty: Bake Off takes the biscuit

Talk of dastardly doings on the BBC's reality contest and a diplomatic incident over the British Embassy's celebrations have thrown a dark shadow over the whole cake and caboodle. Picture: Contributed
Talk of dastardly doings on the BBC's reality contest and a diplomatic incident over the British Embassy's celebrations have thrown a dark shadow over the whole cake and caboodle. Picture: Contributed
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Once a world of gentle jam sponges and peaceful profiteroles, this week we’ve seen the uglier side of cake and pastry making – and believe me, it’s not a pretty sight, writes Stephen McGinty

BRITAIN got in a bit of a batter over cakes this week. If we lived in an independent Scotland we would have been able to watch from the sidelines as the rest of the UK was whipped up into a curdled peak over the issue of baked goods, we could have munched on an oatcake with a clean conscience and left our former brethren to clean up their own Eton Mess. Yet as this contented nirvana of honey-drizzled black bun and Dundee cake is still at least three weeks away then we remain both part of the confectionery problem and I will argue part of the solution.

The problems that cakes and biscuits present to both politicians and members of the public was brought home to me several years ago when, on behalf of The Scotsman and our army of inquisitive readers, I was charged with the responsibility of interrogating David Cameron on his favourite biscuit. The leader of the Conservative Party was not yet prime minister and could not expect to be without a full disclosure to the British people of what exactly he preferred as an accompaniment to a cup of tea. Earlier in the day Gordon Brown, who was then prime minister, had come unstuck during an online discussion with mumsnet when he had refused, despite repeated prompts, to reveal his favourite biscuit. It was his “Plan B” moment and led to his swift departure from No.10 where he had squatted after punching through the wall of No.11 and forcefully evicting the rightfully elected tenant.

Looking back, I can only imagine that Mr Brown, with his love of American politics, had remembered when President George Bush Snr had admitted to a strong dislike of broccoli and faced the ire of that vegetable’s loyal farmers. Had he, I pondered, been unable to remember Britain’s most popular biscuit or slice of cake and feared picking an unpopular minority option, like Cadbury’s Animal Crackers? Still the damage was done. To the mums of mumsnet, if the contents of the official biscuit barrel at No10 was a state secret then what else was Mr Brown hiding?

By contrast, Mr Cameron, the former PR man, was slick smooth and utterly unconvincing. When asked by The Scotsman with tape recorder held up to his mouth lest there be any dispute over the exact quote, he said “an oatcake”. Now while I can quite understand his reluctance to admit that he favoured a juicy French tart, for fear of any misapprehension, the bare-faced opportunism of choosing a Scots biscuit that reeks of either prudence or penury is rather galling. Was he really telling the British public that, if presented with all the cakes and biscuits from around the globe, he would choose the humble oatcake? Well, yes.

Unfortunately Mr Cameron’s tight control over the explosive issue of cakes and biscuits has departed him, for how else is one to explain the British government’s decision to this week mark the 200th anniversary of British troops torching the White House than by baking a giant replica of the White House in sponge and icing sugar then surrounding it with lit sparklers? After the British Embassy tweeted a picture of the cake (they drew a veil over the 200th anniversary barbecue which was also held) they were forced to apologise a few hours later such was the outrage on Twitter from American patriots.

The potential for cakes to transform into political hot potatoes was discovered two years previously when the Swedish minister for culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, was invited to cut a cake in the offensive shape of a naked stereotypical African woman at an event designed to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. The resultant photographs led to the impression Ms Liljeroth was attempting to carry out the procedure on the recumbent cake.

So now that I have set the scene, laid the table so to type, let us examine the barney on the Great British Bake Off. First I have to admit that I came to the controversy as a neutral witness.

My wife and I were avid viewers of the first couple of seasons when each week I was contentedly carried off on a cloud of goodwill, for not only did the show unwrap the complexities of baking but the atmosphere of support and genial encouragement from Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry was so utterly at odds with the contemporary TV culture of confrontation, belittlement and verbal abuse as to be revolutionary, as was the pairing of an older woman and younger man – it is always, always, the other way around. I was watching long before they pried off the “SMEG” letters from the fridges. So imagine my surprise when Chris Evans on Radio 2 alerted me on the morning after the night before.

What was this talk of a cake hurled in a bin, a contestant storming out and the duplicitous sabotage of a Baked Alaska? It was as if one had waved farewell to an angelic child and returned a few years later to be greeted with a gobby teenager with a mohawk and a flick-knife, or well, a dangerously brandished serving spatula.

After a careful viewing of Wednesday night’s episode on BBC iPlayer, which I followed up with Newsnight’s interrogation of Iain, the cake hurler, by Kirsty Wark, a former contestant, and John Humphry’s interview on Radio 4’s Today programme with a former winner, I am now in a position to separate right from wrong and restore a sense of calm to that pitched tent in a corner of a Somerset field where it is always summer. First Iain, the bearded construction engineer from Northern Ireland, was right to put his ice cream Baked Alaska in the freezer part of the fridge, despite the fact that it was also being used by Chester, Nancy and Diane. If the producers had failed to designate specific fridges for specific contestants then he was certainly not at fault for crossing a line that had not been drawn.

Secondly, Diane, the 69-year-old Woman’s Institute member, was wrong to take out Iain’s Baked Alaska from the freezer to make room for her own. The correct thing to do was to ask whose it was and point out that she had now kindly left it for collection melting on a countertop beneath studio lights on the hottest day of the year. I do, however, appreciate that in the heat of a culinary deadline not everyone is thinking straight.

Thirdly, Iain was wrong for hurling what he believed was a ruined pie into the bin and storming off. This is the Great British Bake Off not Big Brother, no-one storms off. Contestants frown, sigh, bite their lips and pretend to accidentally cut themselves in what was probably a classic case of self-harm through suppressed anxiety as in the case of John back in 2012 who got in a bloody tangle with an electric mixer.

Fourthly, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood were right to insist Iain presented the contents of the bin for had the contestant not himself turned it into a larger inverted cake stand? The judges were right to send Iain home as he had effectively disqualified himself for failing to complete the task and destroying evidence that he tried. However, Diane was also wrong for not offering a plea in mitigation and sharing her scoop of the blame.

Fifthly, everyone who tweeted lines like “justice for Iain and a thousand lashes for the ice-cream melting super-villain Diana” is wrong as are those cretins who advocated, even in jest, “stone her”.

Sixthly and, well, finally the BBC is wrong to edit a programme in such a manner that 8.3 million people are left with the impression that a Baked Alaska was ruined after a contestant deliberately took it out of the freezer then, when there is public outrage at said contestant’s behaviour, release a sanctimonious statement explaining that the Baked Alaska had only been sitting on the counter for 40 seconds: “Diana removing Iain’s ice-cream from the freezer for less than a minute was in no way responsible for Iain’s departure.” You can almost hear the press officer’s patronising sigh that anyone could possibly have come to such a wrongful conclusion. That is trying to have your cake and eat it.