I’m the last person you’d need to persuade of the importance of the Great British Bake Off to the Great British nation. But as this year’s final approaches, I have to admit that even a rabid pastry fangirl like me could not have predicted the extent to which the country’s most important annual television event would come to reflect and even influence the country’s most important and controversial political discourses.
The centrality of the BBC’s public service remit was impressed upon me in every media studies lecture I attended (quite a lot of lectures) back in the early Noughties. But the extent to which that remit would be manifest in a show about cakes and breads and melty gateaux is something I never could have imagined. As the Grand Final approaches, I find myself wishing that I could re-enroll in my useless postgraduate course solely to pursue a dissertation on Britain’s culture wars as fought on the sticky battlegrounds of the Bake Off.
Per usual, this year’s series has been rife with the kind of human drama and opportunities for heated day-after debates about oven temperatures that make going to the office feel worthwhile. There’s been snobbery about people who have worked hard to achieve their skills (training! My gosh, how immodest) and an expression of the great national concern about gluten consumption in the form of a pitta bread challenge.
But this week in particular been simply replete with the kind of riches that a baking scholar lives for, semiotics as rich as a full-fat cheesecake. There’s been Amanda Platell’s Islamophobic claim that losing contestant Flora Snedden might have had a better chance in the competition if she made a “chocolate mosque” rather than the chocolate carousel that Paul Hollywood rightfully described as “wonky”.
Yesterday, David Cameron waded into the fray to endorse frontrunner Nadiya Hussain, because, he says, he regards her as 'cool under pressure'
There’s been distinguished Bake Off judge Mary Berry wading awkwardly into the debate around Britain’s obesity trends by remarking in an interview that she takes measures to maintain a slim figure because “people don’t want to see a large person judging cakes”. Insulting, no doubt, but maybe also a sad reflection of Berry’s own self-image, more than the passing of a judgment on people who are not on television judging cakes, but feel the freedom to be at home enjoying them. That Berry is one of the few women of a certain age permitted by the BBC to be a major presence on a factual television programme is something that makes her deserving, perhaps, of a kind of sympathy.
In a country other than Britain, one might assume that the latest claims of insider betting on the show would represent the climactic manifestation of the country’s most pressing national neuroses. But instead the most striking development in this week’s baking fray is the news that the prime minister was moved to give an official statement on the matter of the Bake Off. Yesterday, David Cameron waded into the fray to endorse frontrunner Nadiya Hussain, because, he says, he regards her as “cool under pressure” – no doubt a personality trait that he wishes himself to embody.
It might seem quite big of Dave to give a nod to Nadiya. But given that Hussain is the British-born daughter of immigrants to the UK, a group of people to whom much of the PM’s recent policy has been remarkably unkind, it’s hard not to think that this statement smells of spin. The prime minister’s penchant for restricting immigration and applying austerity measures to public services is like a sinister version of Paul Hollywood's enthusiasm for soft, fluffy crumbs. Hussain has cited a teacher at her state school as a key inspiration to her success in the tent: Cameron’s government, left unchecked, will prevent many children from having the kinds of opportunity for education and aspiration that Hussain did.
And thus: as we settle deeply into our sofas to watch the last bakers battle it out in the Grand Final, it’s clear that season six of the GBBO will be a perfect time capsule of 2015, wrought in sugar and flour and butter. For some lucky future historian, it will be one delicious PhD.