Baking the goose that laid the golden egg

GREED, as Gordon Gecko famously remarked, twanging his scarlet braces, is good. Well, that was back then – but post recession, sub-prime mortgages, bank collapses and the dead hand of austerity, perhaps we don’t think he was quite as smart as he thought he was.

Greed is, however, always with us, and it reared its unappealing bling locks over one of the UK’s little treasures – the Great British Bake-Off.

The production company went for an auction, in which the BBC was predictably and comprehensively outbid, and in consequence one of the nation’s favourite shows will go to Channel 4. Not that I have anything against Channel 4 – it has fearlessly reported the news for many years now, has commissioned excellent films, shown drama that really is challenging, launched many careers and been an examplar in demonstrating that commercial television and high quality programming can go together.

What seems to be so wrong here is taking GBBO away from the BBC, which gave the show a chance, when no commercial operator would have countenanced a programme about baking, with an elderly albeit respected cookery writer, a skilled baker with no television career, and two comedians best known from the radio and afternoon television.

It is true that the BBC put it on BBC2, which was not a huge vote of confidence, but that’s not too difficult to understand. Think of W1A and imagine those (all too believable) pompous asses and career executives believing anyone (other than perhaps the sort of elderly aunt that they would obviously avoid) actually wanting to watch a programme about cakes.

For those of us who watched it from the start, it had an engaging, gentle quality that was utterly missing from most so-called reality television. It has sympathetic presenters in Mel and Sue, whose puns may make you wince, but whose kind hearts are always evident. It has the marvellous, ageless and elegant Mary Berry, who wears her expertise with a light charm and never belittles the contestants. It has Paul Hollywood, who does the testosterone bit among all these women. He is a formidable master baker, and his criticism can be withering, but there is a twinkle that is never far from his amazing blue eyes.

Bake-off won our hearts because it wasn’t like anything else. It put ordinary people in a marquee in the grounds of a grand country house and over several weeks it put them through their baking paces, with the now-legendary Signature Bake, the scary Technical Challenge and the Showstopper, which over the seven years has seen some breathtaking creations.

It has produced its own stars – not only the presenters and judges, whose catch-phrases have become part of daily speech, but the bakers themselves, and none more so than the 2015 winner.

If you watched last year’s Bake Off from the start, you were probably among the majority who expected the inventive and competitive Ian to win. He was the week’s Star Baker so many times it felt like a foregone conclusion. But if you looked carefully, you spotted a true star in Nadiya Hussein.

This unassuming, quiet-spoken Bangladeshi mother of three, with her traditional headscarf and her impish smile won millions of hearts. Most of us were rooting for her and were delighted to see her crowned champion baker – and to get a glimpse of what the win meant to her in terms of her own confidence.

Her megawatt star quality was recently seen on her own two-part television series, when she travelled to Bangladesh, visited her family in their village near Sylhet and then went on a river journey to see more of the country than anyone else in her family had ever done. Her delight in the fishing otters was a joy.

Only the BBC would have allowed this show to grow as it has, organically, not tiddling around with it, adding “celebrities” and ramping up the faux tension. It is hard to imagine what Channel 4 will do with its expensive purchase, minus Mel and Sue, who announced immediately that they would not follow it from the BBC and Mary Berry, who has voiced similar loyalty to the BBC.

Honourable behaviour is so rare these days that it is a real surprise when you encounter it. What a shame that the Bake Off production company did not feel the same. We won’t be switching on for Bake Off in 2017, and we won’t shed many tears if this particular golden goose has waddled away from the kitchen.

Fanny Charles