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BAKE OFF! by Dick Hobbs T he taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine… which my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or lime- flower tea. Like most of us, the only Proust I have read is his section in the dictionary of quotations to look up the famous line about baked goods triggering memories. Marcel is right, incidentally: at one time I had a regular Wednesday evening routine of the supermarket shop, pick up a takeaway at Pizza Hut and watch The Bill. For years afterwards I only had to hear the theme tune to smell melted cheese. Given that food is all about taste and aroma, how can we explain the huge popularity of cookery shows on television? And more important, how do we explain the concept of cookery competitions on television? How can we, the audience, feel a part of the process if we cannot experience the factors which mark good from bad. It is like watching athletics with the finish line rubbed out. Inevitably producers have to resort to gimmicks. One programme has a former greengrocer who shouts at the contestants “cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”. I think it probably does. Which brings us, inevitably, to The Great British Bake Off, a programme which is the very epitome of niceness. It is hosted by the two nicest people in the world who were once comedians. One of the judges is an official national treasure, and if the other is a bit up himself, he does it in a very nice way. It is filmed in a tent, in an orchard, in Somerset, on the three scorching sunny days we have each summer. And most of all it is about cake. Cake! Is there a nicer concept than cake? One of the high spots of a wedding is when they cut the cake. From the 98 | TV-BAY MAGAZINE: ISSUE 83 NOVEMBER 2013 age of three we are conditioned that birthday equals cake. they are cooking, so we have to put our trust in the judges who can. So how, then, do we explain one of the finalists in this year’s GBBO taking to the pages of a national newspaper, writing an article headed Why did our show attract so much vitriol? Raymond Blanc, who is a proper chef, waded into the Twitter war, tweeting “Not much skills, female tears”. Yes, if you are a Michelin-starred chef, you might look down at some of the techniques on show, although you look a chump if you do. But “female tears”? Are they somehow less valuable than other sorts of tears? “I am surprised at just how much nastiness was generated from the show,” she wrote. “An extraordinary amount of bitterness and bile has spewed forth every week from angry commentators, both on social media and in the press. How did a programme about cake become so divisive?” There was an astounding amount of casual cruelty. To the review of the final on the website of Britain’s leading conservative paper, an early comment was to the effect that he hoped the winner would spend some of the money on getting her teeth fixed. At least, I assume he was a man: the comment was of course under whatever is the electronic equivalent of a nom de plume. A columnist in Britain’s leading conservative tabloid paper earned her fee (which I am sure is considerably more than TV Bay can afford to pay me for this page) with a piece under the headline “You let the wrong woman win Bake Off”. That is not only nasty, but it is hard to understand where it comes from. Remember that we cannot taste, touch or smell what (An aside here, but recently I heard on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 a discussion about “the male penis on television”. I am still waiting for the sequel about other sorts of penises). The BBC admits it runs psychological checks on potential contestants for GBBO. “It is our responsibility to ensure they are going to be all right,” a spokesman said. “We are not going to put someone in front of the cameras if they are not going to be able to cope with it.” Which suggests the concern is more for the production budget than the contestant’s well-being. Social media is here to stay, and for services like Twitter, which largely depend upon anonymity, it is a charter for people to be nasty, to say things they would not in person. I guess we have to live with it, even if personally I do not like it. I wrote last month about big data projects using social media to canvas audience reactions to programmes: clearly it has to be done with a great deal of care. For, as finalist Ruby Tandoh said in her newspaper article, “if a show as gentle as Bake Off can stir up such a sludge of lazy misogyny in the murky waters of the internet, I hate to imagine the full scale of the problem. But it’s not something I’m willing to tolerate. Sod the haters. I’m going to have my cupcake and eat it, too.”