BBC’s Great British Bake-Off is no more. The show (known as The Great British Baking Show on this side of the Atlantic) has moved to the private station Channel 4 in England and with the transfer, there’s been a major, heartbreaking exit of talent. Gone are Mel and Sue with their innuendo and perfect blazers, and Mary Berry with her high standards and predilection for bakers who use slightly too much alcohol.
With the exception of Paul Hollywood (the only of the original GBBO fab four to stick with the program), the once comfortingly familiar tent is now filled with strangers — new hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, and new judge Prue Leith.
It’s a Twilight Zone version of Baking Show where the tent is the same, and the catchphrases are identical, but the people saying them are unfamiliar. It’s a strange juxtaposition, especially when Paul always came across (at least to me) as the least likable member of the original group. The type of guy who wears too much hair gel and seems like he drives a red sports car (and that was before I saw the photo of him dressed as a Nazi for a costume party in 2003, for which he’s recently apologized).
His remaining with the Great British Baking Show while the other cast members remained loyal to the BBC had a whiff of opportunism.
But now, Paul is the beautiful, blue-eyed lifeline to the old iteration of the show. His familiar face is the bridge that keeps season 8 of The Great British Baking from feeling like it’s entirely through the looking glass.
Fielding and Toksvig are obviously attempting to create a similar feel to the performances of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins: Like Mel and Sue, the new duo opens the show with a cheesy, groan-worthy sketch, and sprinkle the episode with as much innuendo as possible. At times, the effort seems a little self-conscious, as if Sandi knows baking-related innuendo is a necessary part of the job and not her natural sense of humor. “Cheekily, do not worry about leaving a bare bottom,” she said, referring to iced Swiss rolls. Somehow, calling out the line as cheeky in advance negates the cheekiness. Mel and Sue operated their innuendo with a literal or metaphorical eyebrow raise that made their lines feel improvised. For now, Sandi remains a little stiff, and her chemistry with Noel — let’s just say Paul Hollywood might call it under-proved.
Noel, however, is delightful in his own right, able to bring a zaniness that feels like something unique to him and not an imitation of Mel and Sue’s way of behaving. His interactions with the contestants are a bright spot that gives me hope for his future as a host.
As for Prue, well… Prue isn’t Mary Berry. Mary took on a near-mythic persona in her role as the all-knowing matriarch of the tent. In the vein of Ina Garten, Mary Berry has ascended to pop culture icon, the meme-able grandmother we all wish we had. Most importantly, it felt as though she had an unspoken superiority over Paul Hollywood. Her partnership with Paul elevated him beyond the sometimes seemingly overconfident schoolboy who takes bread way too seriously. Their dynamic worked. Now, with Prue, Paul is unquestionably the senior member of the pairing. His handshakes are the coveted reward for a miraculously good bake. There is no icon to impress, even as the show itself necessitates forcing Paul into that role.
In Prue’s first one-on-one introduction for the camera, she mentioned that a cake had to be “worth the calories.” That moment alone, just a few minutes into the season 8 premiere, put a bad taste in my mouth. The Great British Bake Off isn’t about calories; the tent creates a magical world where baking is a pure and friendly thing. All that matters is that something looks good and that it tastes good, and the ultimate purpose of baked goods are to make people happy. Referencing calories breaks the fantasy, ripping the viewer out of the mythical English countryside — where we’d live in a cottage like Kate Winslet in The Holiday and wear galoshes and have a fireplace and drink tea — and drops us right back onto our couches where we’ve been watching Netflix for the past four hours and really need to go to the gym. Prue broke the spell of the Great British Bake Off first by not being Mary Berry, and next by reminding us that cake is a tangible thing, not just a symbol.
But for all of the cast’s shakeups, the show itself is still almost exactly the same. There’s still the signature bake and the technical challenge, and someone always screwing up on the technical challenge, and the improbably beautiful showstoppers. The tent is still bunted with the Union Jack, and the cast is still students and architects and scientists and grandmothers who just love to bake. This show is still delicious, calming comfort food, Xanax in television form, and an escape from a world with much bigger problems than pies with soggy bottoms. Change is always frustrating and scary, especially when that change comes to the one thing that’s supposed to be an institution, the thing that’s never supposed to change. But even on a new network, even with new hosts, even without Mary Berry, this is still the Great British Bake Off.