Here’s the thing about Bake Off in 2019. The contestants in the tent are some of the strongest the show has ever had. There is Henry, who constantly drops “oh what now?” expressions and says things with the same level of excitement as MTV’s Daria. There is Helena, who made you realise that what Bake Off actually needs is a sprinkling of death – and whose goth relationship with Noel (“I’ll be in my coffin if you want me”) melted my heart. And there is double-entendre aficionado Michael, who said: “I was definitely flirting with the bottom there. I was giving the bottom a cheeky wink,” at the end of this week’s episode.
Yet Bake Off just feels a bit off. The feelgood factor is lacking. It has nothing to do with the bakers; it is everything else. Take the decision to have an additional baker in the tent to celebrate the show’s 10th year. At first glance, it did not seem such a bad idea: another baker to fall for, an excuse to add another episode to the show’s run if they wanted to. Nobody would turn that down.
But instead of tweaking the format so there would be four bakers in the final instead of the usual three, they decided to go with the conventional reality show twist of threatening to drop two bakers in any given week. Then they mentioned it, constantly, as if this was Big Brother. But this is Bake Off; we watch it for respite from those sinister games.
But that was nothing compared to what happened next. They decided to do the double-dumping at the worst possible moment. In a week celebrating the Roaring Twenties, the silliest theme to date, Paul and Prue decided to boot out both Michelle and Helena. Michelle leaving was sad, but Helena? Who decided to make a giant evil sea creature emerge from custard pies? Who won that week’s technical challenge? Twitter, rightly, exploded. I have never seen this sort of tent rage before: it was the biggest scandal since the Baked Alaska debacle of 2014. It felt absurd – and unneccesarily cruel.
It is that cruelty that sets this year apart. A signature by Priya this week was judged to be “horrible,” not for its taste but the colour of its piping. There was the impossible Maids of Honour technical challenge, a bake that caused Hollywood to “jokingly” walk out of the tent saying “they’re awful, they are really bad”, even though the technicals are now so cryptic that all contestants are forced to bake something they may have never seen let alone tasted.
At the end of this week’s episode, Prue said: “You know what I find most disappointing? This is a baking competition, and both Henry and Rosie made dreadful cakes.” Dreadful? This isn’t MasterChef; the feedback is meant to tend toward to the positive. Although who could forget the time Mary Berry gave a death stare to someone who used shop-bought fondant (perish the thought)? Now, though, we hear round after round of criticisms, leaving people tearful and deflated.
The themes are also becoming more bafflingly abstract. There was dairy week, which confused everyone: don’t most bakes feature some form of dairy? Next up is festivals week – but do they mean bonfires and carnivals, or Glastonbury and comedowns? Why must they try and push the boat out into these weird new territories? There is no harm in reverting to the classic pie week or chocolate week of years gone by.
Thank goodness, then, for the bakers lifting us out of this pit of despair. The support between them is palpable. This week, Henry wore a spider brooch in solidarity with Helena. The contestants are constantly helping each other out – and not just in those huge moments when someone hellishly runs out of time. This week, they all held hands in a row during the final judging. That is what Bake Off should be about. How I wish the rest of the show remembered that.