‘The Great British Bake-Off’ and 21st Century Britishness

The landscape of British TV is becoming greener and more pleasant by the day. It has been a gradual thing, a creeping and joyful presence which has casually manoeuvred itself into the primetime schedule. After decades of miserablism, and in the murky global milieu of Breaking Bad and House of Cards, a new and potentially nauseating theme is emerging. British television is in 2013 a rather patriotic affair: crisp, cheerful and adorned with doilies.

The most prominent of today’s merry exports is, of course, the saccharine Downton Abbey, which has been flag-waving for England ever since it first threw on its handmaiden’s frock in 2010. Julian Fellowes’ ode to soft-snobbery has gripped audiences home and abroad, handkerchiefs at the ready, for four award-winning seasons, and in its orchestral rendering of the Edwardian aristocracy and its First World (War) Problems, it has given us the kind of unbridled throat-lumping we usually reserve for state funerals and X-Factor eliminations. Its England is bonnie and bountiful; a picture postcard from a time before the Mansion Tax, and upper-lips across the land are all a quiver.

Yet Downton is no longer Britain’s only cheerleader. Televisual tributes are cropping up left and right, from the casually chirpy (Countryfile) to the downright partisan (The Great British Sewing Bee,), as the country begins to re-brand itself as an attraction. Britain is back in vogue — on TV at least — and among the rabble, one programme in particular is hijacking the conversation. It’s a dark horse of a very familiar breed.

The Great British Bake-Off operates in familiar eight o’clock territory. A cohort of bakers is whittled week-on-week down to one aproned victor; it’s a breadmakers’ Battle Royale. Competitive food preparation is of course a brilliant, if manipulative, formula when fishing for evening audiences, since with the allure of ‘food porn’ (the cakes are distractingly prominent, drawing the guilty gaze like so many of Robin Thicke’s bimbos), together with the urge to ally oneself with one contestant or another, we are sucked into the weekly clutches of the make-believe kitchen.

But the real engine behind the The Great British Bake-Off is its mood, not its structure. A quintessential cooking competition with a distinct lack of bite, unlike Gordon Ramsay’s aggressive operations, it’s all prudence and profiteroles. There is something Wallace and Gromit about the natty precision of frosting on a bun, while Union Jack bunting unashamedly drapes the interiors, and the stately setting (white marquee; country parkland) lends a Jane Austen homeliness to what is in actuality a calculated, dog-eat-dog affair.

Mel and Sue, the resolutely non-foodie presenters (they spend easily as much time eating as they do presenting), serve as a constant antidote to the intricacies of pro-baking and a reminder that the consistency of one’s buttercream is not a matter of life and death. Heavy with innuendo (“..bit of a soggy bottom there”), the show, like the British, teeters between the polite and the comic.

These details are not lost in remuneration, and the The Great British Bake-Off is up 50 per cent in the ratings on its closest rival, Masterchef. The highest-rated programme on BBC2 by far, and gaining considerable ground on evening staples like soap operas and long-standing serials, it’s credited with changing the face, not just of baking, but of British television itself.

But what Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake-Off are really cashing in on is something that goes beyond the melodramatics of the upper-middle-classes. These shows are so popular in Britain today because Britain is so popular in Britain today. We are riding a new wave of patriotism which has nothing to do with foreign policy or gold medals — it’s a mushy, ideological thing, an odd sense of abstract collectivism that has been wafting among us of late.

Big on self-spoofing, but secretly bigger on our homeland, the British as a group have long been furtive nationalists. It’s a post-colonial hangover thing, I’m told. But married with a tendency for the aloof, in recent decades it had been wont to arrive in our living rooms laced with irony and a thousand apologies. The Britain of Four Weddings and a Funeral was dearly beloved, but it was a restrained and self-conscious sort of love. No gushing or flag-waving was permitted.

If the ’90s were aloof, the ’80s were positively apathetic. The anti-Thatcher team was the sexier and the more vocal, the establishment having been robbed of an image of dignified fiefdom with the arrival of the Sex Pistols. The Union Jack was about as marketable a brand then as Lehman Bros is today. On television, Yes, Minister was crippling a long and concerted effort to misinform the public on the competence of its own cabinet, while the relentless Prime Suspect followed, exposing the gritty crevices of life on the breadline of urban England. There wasn’t a Victoria Sponge in sight.

Our new wave of jingoism is a good laugh for all concerned, but its roots, and its ramifications, are a little murkier. It might be argued, for example, if one were in the business of political punditry, that Britain is in as ropey a state today as it has been in years, and that with some fairly distressing unemployment figures, and an unfortunate tendency to muck-in on overseas military operations, the time for self-congratulation is hardly upon us.

Yet we have been swept — presumably in the lingering throws of Olympic giddiness — into a paradoxical party which grows in scope and sincerity with every Bake-Off. And what is a niche movement on the TV is a bigger deal in the real world.

No one has done better from Britain’s love-affair with itself than the people in charge. The Royal family — whose last half-century, if memory serves, had been an irksome one at best — are enjoying an unprecedented level of popular approval. Polls indicate that 66 percent of the British public believe, contrary to whatever formerly dominated popular opinion (“hang the bastards”, presumably), that today we are better off as a monarchy than a republic.

And a more potent winner is the indefatigable Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and general disturber of the peace, whose litany of hilarious transgressions has done nothing to dim his blond mop or his political persona. The most buoyant of Brits, he has laughingly dodged the political dustbin to emerge a conquering national hero. His path from tabloid scoundrel to future overlord has been nothing short of meteoric.

What the Bake-Off represents is an unusual time to be British. It isn’t in our nature to be so openly sentimental; we aren’t a pledge of allegiance kind of place. The irony and self-mockery so enduring in our identity have fallen away in favour of bunting and buns, and what we are left with is a new wave of World War II-ish togetherness. It’s a great time to be a monarch or a television executive, but a slightly disconcerting one to be a citizen.