Ladies finger cutters and a fondant gusset: the secret of GBBO's success

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It was a question the author and journalist Allison Pearson knew might be seen as "heretical." Has this series of The Great British Bake Off become just a little bit dull?

Had the "perfect soufflé of primetime patisserie run out of puff?" she asked. The contestants bland; any sense of suspense or jeopardy gone. Had it not only deflated this year but never really risen at all?

The Telegraph columnist, posing the question last week, was absolutely right about the lack of suspense. There's been no Bingate this year - the carefully-edited moment in which a Baked Alaska was taken out of a freezer and left to melt by a rival contestant. Ian's reign as star baker was becoming wearing, and, before Wednesday night when the contestants were culled to five, there was not one ounce of jeopardy at all.

And yet for me, and I suspect many of the ten million viewers who still tuned in this week, suspense isn't the reason we watch this primetime success. We view it for the characters as much as any competition or bakes: trying to fathom what motivates them to spend three hours in a tent constructing a Victorian fruit cake decorated as a tennis court.

Why would a prison governor discuss, in all earnestness, and without any sense of irony, the importance of fashioning a bread lion - and not a dog? What leads a gentle male nurse, on the edge of tears, to confess to over ten million people: "My father was a general. Failure is not an option." And why does a young mother-of-three, dispelling stereotypes by baking in a headscarf, and with a superlative array of facial expressions, admit, her voice shaking with relief and a sudden shot of self-belief: "I'm never proud of myself but I'm actually really proud." Moments like these - swift glimpses into the deepest recesses of the contestant's psyches - are the point of Bake Off:

I'm intrigued as to why firefighter Mat, who grew up in a house "where we didn't have dinner parties; don't think my mum ever made a vol au vent" thinks he can wing it in a competition in which he didn't practise for the latter stages, never thinking he'd get there. ("Don't let a fondant tennis court be the end of it," admonished Sue. And yet it was.) Or why bluff prison governor Paul, a man who shrugs off criticism like the proverbial duck in water, wants to fashion a fondant bikini, with gusset, or sculpt an apple into a swan. ("I learned it in a day. It's what I like doing. The arty side of things," he told Mel.)

Then there are the bakers who are so perfectionist they make Heath Robinson style gadgets with which to perfect their creations. Last year it was Nancy, who produced a guillotine to slice her jaffa cakes in the first episode - and went on to win. This year, it's Ian, who bakes bread in a flowerpot, fashions steel to create leaves, and this week produced a ladies finger chopper.

"Each of my ladies fingers is exactly nine centimetres long," he explained, with a somewhat wolfish grin. Coming after his Road Kill pie, inspired by kill that's been "bumped not flattened", this sounded not just exacting but slightly sinister.

 

Of course, these eccentricities are gentle. Bake Off remains a warm, comforting bath in a troublesome world. An hour of unapologetic escapism in which people are largely nice - although, over half way through, some more overt rivalry is finally, thankfully, coming to the fore.

It was there in Nadiya's one-handed clap against her bicep when Ian constructed a show-stopping Victorian crown and her less-than-effusive "very good". (The sort of "very good" you could imagine her giving a child who consistently draws better than its younger siblings - but still wants praise.) It was there in Flora's shake of the head, arms crossed like a curmudgeonly gossip, and her or Nadiya's: "Flipping heck!" (It could have been either of them.) We could see it in Mat's flash of irritation - "Aww, you've twisted it" - when Paul, trying to help him ease his Charlotte Russe onto a pedestal - apparently exacerbated the split. And in Ian's barely-perceptible tic of disappointment - a slight tightening of the jaw - when anaesthetist Tamal, beautiful, and distinctly Eeyorish after daring to hope he might do well and then failing last week, finally became star baker.

Writing in yesterday's Telegraph, last year's winner Nancy revealed that "once you get to half way it's a completely different atmosphere. It becomes more intimate." Much of the set is cleared away and the crew scaled down; contestants know the production team, the judges, and each other.

For the viewers, things become more interesting, too, for we know the remaining, more-focussed, bakers well enough to care. We're attuned to the tensions, as well as to their loyalties - or lack of them. We can predict that Nadiya will look at Mat in utter disbelief when he says he's put his icing tennis rackets in the oven.

"Oven?"

"Yeah."

"Were we supposed to put it in the oven?"

Or that Mat, in those few seconds of horrified disbelief, will know, as we do, that he's going home that week.

In fact, that moment encapsulates the GBBO style of suspense. Momentary and understated but still poignant and telling in its own small way.

It's the quarter final next week. Here's to more of these vignettes.

 

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