The most enduring image from the first episode of the new series of The Great British Bake Off was of an abortive Black Forest Gateau. Disintegrating like a failed state, oozing like a flesh wound, steaming like a dung heap, entropy in action. What is both great as well as greatly British about the Great British Bake Off is the way it fetishises failure. It is a hymn to the art of stuffing things up. A few days after watching it I can’t tell you the names of the new contestants – although obviously there’s the young one, the one with the piercings, the one with the surprising job and the one who’s spent her whole life cooking cakes and as such will make it through to the final and then not win because she’s not marketable enough to sell a cookbook. Neither can I particularly recall their gooey triumphs, but boy can I remember their calamities. Not just the poor lady whose Black Forest Omnishambles is now my screen saver, but the guy who put his sponge in the oven on a sloping tray and thus created a wedge – a wedge that he then tried to make do and geometrically mend with a proportional wodge of buttercream. Or the guy who put whole, not chopped figs in his Madeira cake, was warned by Paul ‘the hitman’ Hollywood that whole figs would sink to the bottom – but he did it anyway. The figs sank. The hitman smiled.
It helps that a boshed-up cake is a great emblem for failure. A cake that has failed fails more visibly than any other type of food – over-cooked fish may not taste quite right but it doesn’t look like a cow pat. In the wonderful beauty parade that follows Bake Off’s ‘Technical Challenge,’ (the one where the bakers have all cooked the same cake) the eye is drawn not to the winner, but to the disasters, the ruins, the ones where, you imagine, the creator would like to fling their fiasco across the room and pipe a chocolate dog poo on a plate for good measure.
It’s not just the best cakes that are a ruddy mess – the entire programme is, really, and all the better for it. The title sequence, as so often, is representative. The camera homes in on a magnificent country house – only to fly over it and instead focus on a sweaty tent on the back lawn, where you might expect the catering staff to be making the canapés. This, not that, is our colosseum. Even the humour in bake-off is a celebration of the substandard – all puns and pre-school innuendo, which, much as I love them, are the last refuge of the tittering dunce.
And the contestants themselves are what some in the playground, or America, might fain call losers. (I use the phrase advisedly as someone who most people might fain call a loser.) Paul Hollywood is, in many ways, the greatest loser television has ever created. A man in his late forties doused in hair gel who dresses like a motivational speaker and has spent five series of Bake Off entirely failing to get the joke (where the joke is him). Mary Berry is a dotty old bean whose Aga cook book and jars of branded condiments once adorned my mother’s shelves, and yet in her dotage she has somehow been transformed in to Bez, queen of our hearts, factual entertainment plenipotentate. All of this institutionalised floundering is what makes Bake Off so British and so great. It is the triumph of the hobbyist, the ‘loser’, the apotheosis of amateurism. And as such it appeals to anyone who has ever tried and failed, which is to say everyone.
Perfection, by contrast, is tedious, something that the Great British Menu, which also returned this week, doesn’t seem to get. It may claim to be Great and British but it is neither – it takes three really good chefs and allows them to fluctuate between being really good and slightly better than that. The same chefs come back year on year, getting better and better, all cooking with local ingredients and generally being wonderful. Someone didn’t get the GBBO memo – no one cares about professionals being professional. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s flailing about and cocking it up that defines Britishness to Britons. A true great British menu would consist of an over-ambitious starter, a burnt roast and several helpings of profuse apology. All followed by a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
That was precisely what the City Sauna in Sheffield offered, for £50 – with free sex thrown in. A Very British Brothel was a Channel 4 documentary about what Orwell called ‘spare time occupations’ in The Lion and the Unicorn, his essay on Englishness. Actually Orwell was referring to things like stamp collecting, pigeon fancying and baking, rather than a little bit of what you fancy with a dominatrix, but a Very British Brothel suggested that they’re all of a piece.
A Very British Brothel was a sweet, slice ‘o life portrayal of a friendly stop-off run by a mother and daughter who couldn’t have been further from the common image of Madame Whiplash (which is basically Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link in PVC). This was a classic ‘not what you think it is’ documentary, one perhaps that will make many people who’ve never considered paid-for sex think about giving it a go, like they might taking up bowls. What’s the worst that could happen? (Chlamydia, possibly).
It never, however, took the time to make it clear what it thought was Very British about this brothel, other than all that tea. There were no comparisons with brothels abroad, or indeed any mentions of Britishness at all. City Sauna was just a nice house of ill repute, clean, a little quiet, with a few cheery regulars and a large laundry bill – though no sauna as far as I could see, which could cause confusion.
I suspect that to have seen the real Britishness of the brothel we would have had to have been privy to what went on behind the ‘Room in Use’ signs on the various doors. I didn’t start this whole baking innuendo thing, but for true depictions of national character you couldn’t do much better than a soggy bottom and a failed loaf that just wouldn’t rise for any coaxing.