The Great British Bake Off has always felt part of another, kinder, parallel universe, uniquely protected from the harsh and wicked realities of the real world. Inside the tent the stakes for success and failure, for gladness and despondency, are comically low: whether an Italian meringue will add too much sweetness to a brownie; whether a Genoese sponge will be overbaked, rendering it a touch on the dry side; whether the act of adding polenta to a citrus-flavoured soda bread will cause it to taste like “lemon drizzle cake in a sandstorm”, as Paul Hollywood put it. In the Bake Off tent exists a Britain that is safe, multicultural, meritocratic; where class difference is played for laughs; where oddly dressed men can safely be fond and affectionate to each other without attracting spite.
The formula, over the past decade, has perhaps seemed a little stale at times, as it weathered and survived its move from the BBC to Channel 4, and lost its benign tutelary goddess, Dame Mary Berry. But this year’s season is as fresh and delicious as a fruit scone straight out of the oven and slathered thickly with jam and clotted cream. It seems that Bake Off is just what the troubled mind requires in a pandemic. It is a rule that Bake Off never mentions politics – a rule that was gleefully broken at the beginning of the first episode with new presenter Matt Lucas’s cheeky parody of the prime minister’s coronavirus press conferences and the motto “stay alert – protect cake – bake loaves” emblazoned on his podium. Mercifully, though, politics are absent from the tent itself. And because of the pandemic the contestants, the judges and the production team formed their own “bubble” – making the metaphor of Bake Off’s separation from the rest of the world quite fittingly and suddenly real. In Bake Off world, that Shangri-La, people actually hug one other.
Like cake itself, Bake Off might be seen as a guilty pleasure – but since guilt, as the cliche goes, is a useless emotion, let it now be banished. If the act of baking served this spring as a kind of national occupational therapy (at least for those with the time, resources and space to indulge in it), let watching others bake be a guiltless pleasure this autumn; let there be an hour or so of the week that offers freedom from anxiety. Let the studied wryness of Lottie be enjoyed. Let Hermine’s panicked facial expressions be delighted in. Let Dave’s gimlet-eyed competitiveness be archly noted. Let all admire the attempt to render a “temple of enlightenment” in the form of battenberg cake. Let Prue Leith’s sudden bark of gastronomic pleasure – the “Prugasm” – be sniggered at with impunity. As the nights draw in, as autumn gathers force in the real world, it is still summer in Bake Off. May the sun, in that Land of the Lotus-Eaters, long continue to shine.