I for one care nothing about the imminent demise of Great British Bake Off. Baking has always seemed to me a weird and hugely limited silo of cookery to choose as the foundation for a TV show, involving as it does about three processes, all of which require precious little human skill or kitchen savvy. Make a mix – it can be sweet or not-sweet but most of the time it will be starch and fat and liquid and (if you’re on Bake Off) something totally, desperately different like fennel seeds or hake throats. Slap your mix around more or less energetically depending on what you’re making (bread – a lot; cake – whoa, there!). Put the mix in the oven, and wait.
throw in some shit puns and the odd murderous glint from definite Brexiteer Mary Berry, and you’ve got a mystifyingly popular TV juggernaut
Permutations for drama are fairly limited, and are essentially binary in nature: the mix was good, or it wasn’t; you hit your mix hard enough, or you didn’t; you opened the oven door at the right time, or you didn’t. Following the “bad” path through this tree results (when viewers are extremely lucky) in a total car crash, undercooked mix glopping off surfaces in the tent like the aftermath of lamented sexual excess as a hapless home cook flops about like a dying fish; following the “good” path results in something quietly impressive but still unmistakably amateur. Repeat two more times per episode, throw in some shit puns and the odd murderous glint from definite Brexiteer Mary Berry, and you’ve got a mystifyingly popular TV juggernaut, one that – for all its talk of soggy bottoms and lingering close-ups on Paul Hollywood’s White Walker baby blues – is about as priapic and dynamic as a collapsed soufflé.
It is a toe-curling embarrassment as a piece of British Restaurant propaganda
On the other side of the ledger is Great British Menu. This is also a very bad, very boring show, which presents a bafflingly anachronistic and just plain weird vision of what “high end” cheffy food looks like in the UK in 2016. Every year a random occasion is chosen as the spurious justification for a final banquet; there is enough variation in the occasions that the chefs can plate their turgid food on different props but not so much variation that you couldn’t just cook the same thing each year and replace the wind-up radio with a plastic gold crown. The producers have also decided that restaurants only serve food in four different and rigidly unconnected courses – so instead of the small plates you actually see in restaurants (even, increasingly, the fancy ones) we get an aspic-preserved procession of starter, fish, meat, and dessert meagrely, joylessly extruded across four weeknights to meet the exigencies of the programming schedule, before a fifth “judging” session on a Friday, when everyone’s down at their local eating small plates anyway. It is a toe-curling embarrassment as a piece of British Restaurant propaganda. Even the sweet gentility of its judging panel cannot save it from being surely the most misguided, jeopardy-free “event” show on TV.
Isn’t it weird, that these should be the twin poles between which our national food programming hangs? There should be a satisfying confluence, somewhere the two worldviews meet in the middle, but we don’t have one of those, either. I can’t (Gregg Wallace) think (Gregg Wallace) of a single (Gregg Wallace) reason why Masterchef (when it’s on the air) isn’t something I watch regularly, but it assuredly is not. Partly it shares Great British Menu’s odd fealty to a wholly inaccurate visualisation of what the word “restaurant” means: instead of the vibrant, democratic places that dot the capital and most of our other major cities, the wannabe cooks spend a genuinely distressing amount of time in the kitchens of soulless expense account moneypits, banging out expensively utilitarian food for vulpine Private Equity types. Crucially, too, it focuses on the wrong things that make cooking interesting: assembling three courses for Jay Rayner in an hour – a truly terrible indicator of someone’s ability to bang out forty plates of risotto in twenty minutes, a skill of actual value to a cook – is inherently irrelevant entertainment compared to the “What would I do?” fun of the all-too-rare Invention Test. These failings combine to make something that provides precious little reward for the investment of our time. Also, Gregg Wallace.
These flagship shows do us all a disservice; in putting them out, front-and-centre, the BBC fails us and an industry at large. Home cooking is about more – so much more – than baking or trying to ape the techniques and presentations used in faceless Square Mile dens of iniquity and inequity. Eating in restaurants is about so much more than a three-course meal. Cooking in restaurants at the high end, at the cutting edge, is about so much more than putting a “witty” spin on a classic dish (turbot and chips, served in a newspaper; lobster curry, served in a tiffin box). The BBC’s stated mission is to “enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” In presenting such a limited, boring perspective on food, on cooking, on eating, the Beeb fails on every single count, leaving us misinformed, ill-educated, bored, and – across multiple dimensions – poorer. Maybe losing Bake Off to Channel 4 is a blessing in disguise after all. C