Our love of a good story: or why we watch The Great British Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off final screens tonight and at least 12 million of us are expected to cluster around our televisions to discover if Nadiya, Tamal or Ian will win.

Countless thousands of words have been written about the continued allure of this programme. I've argued that Bake Off appeals because it conjures up a rural way of life about which we are deeply nostalgic: the world of the village fete, of an England of "long shadows on cricket lawns", as John Major once put it; or Orwell's "old maids bicycling to Holy Communion'. Of warm ginger beer and Downton; fresh scones and buttered crumpets; the promise of "honey still for tea"; the sound of leather on willow.

It's also a world of kindness: bakers are givers, and work in a "spirit of generosity", according to the BBC's Martha Kearney. If a Charlotte Russe starts to fall apart, or the biscuit panels of a chocolate showstopper shift, the bakers will spring into action to help one another - even if Ian's set jaw hints at a  determination to win.

Crucially, as I've blogged here, the appeal of the GBBO also lies in teasing out the psychology of the bakers: puzzling why a junior hospital doctor might want to spend his spare time fashioning a cardamom, blackberry and raspberry Charlotte Russe. Or why a photographer to the Dalai Lama is so perfectionist he forges Heath Robinson style gadgets to ensure his bakes are sufficiently precise. Or a mother-of-three, who never usually feels proud of herself but whose inner conviction grows as we watch her, decides to enter the competition in the first place.

But I've also realised that the GBBO fulfils our need for a good story. Plotting my third novel, I've been reading John Yorke's excellent Into the Woods: how Stories Work and How We Tell Them, and thinking about the narrative journey, the conflict and jeopardy a protagonist must go through. Yorke's analysis covers films and TV programmes such as Thelma and Louise, Spooks, and Pulp Fiction - a far cry from the gentle, apparently plot-free world of Bake Off - and yet the idea of a hero facing several feats as s/he battles to fulfil his/her quest of becoming the winner; of him overcoming adversity and undergoing a process of self-realisation applies just as neatly here.

At the risk of over-analysing a programme about bakers in a tent, I believe we love the GBBO because we want to see that hero evolve: we believe the winner should be the contestant who endures the greatest set backs in their journey and who develops the most throughout the ten weeks. The worthy hero is the baker who has undergone the greatest process of self-realisation: having battled their own self-doubt, and undergone their own baking disasters - a wrongly-judged flavour or, better still, a collapsing structure or a timing crisis; something that puts their existence in the competition in real jeopardy - while whipping up exquisite cheesecakes and patisserie.

The rightful winner - according to our need for a good story - and the favourite to win is, of course, Nadiya. Her back story alone marks her out as a worthy hero: the young girl who grew up in a Bangladeshi family where they cooked, but never made desserts. Taught to bake by her school home economics teach, she didn't make star baker until week five and initially struggled with the technicals - failing to complete her vol au vents. But with her creative inventiveness, she has battled through to become star baker three times; while her expressive facial expressions and emotional honesty mean she lets us, the viewers, in on the journey she is experiencing. Ian is just too emotionally cool; Tamal, despite his Eeyorish fear that he would never be star baker, perhaps a little reserved for that.


Of course, on a wider level, the hijab-wearing Nadiya deserves to win, according to the rules of a good story, because she was perhaps the most unexpected contestant. As she told The Radio Times: "Originally, I was a bit nervous that perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a headscarf, and wonder if I could bake." 

When the first programme aired there was snarling in the Daily Mail about the line-up being "more right-on and politically correct than a Benetton ad", and yet with her humour and, crucially, her skill she has silenced such critics. This weekend, the Telegraph championed her for doing so much to remove prejudices against women wearing the hijab. As Nadiya herself has said: "I hope that week by week people have realised that I can bake - and just because I'm not a stereotypical British person, it doesn't mean that I am not into bunting, cake and tea."

Of course, our need for a good story doesn't mean she will win. Never underestimate a baker, such as Ian, who makes their own gadgets: after all, Nancy, who turned up with a jaffa cake guillotine in week one, triumphed last year. And Mary Berry has done much eye-twinkling and winking at both Ian and the series' beauty, the equally impressive Tamal. 

But, worthy winners though they may be, there will be a collective groan at 8.58 tonight if Nadiya doesn't claim the Bake Off crown. Her inventiveness means she deserves it -  but this isn't about the bakes; it's about her undergoing a quest and experiencing a hero's journey. 

It's the ending that the story of this year's Bake Off deserves.