The year may come when the return of The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4) is not a tonic, a comfort, and a joy that’s all the finer for being low-key. This is not that year. Series 12 shows no early signs of staleness.
It helps that the Bake Off’s casting process, dedicated to showing that the kind, self-deprecating charm of the hobbyist cuts across every social boundary with the possible exception of class, feels more pointedly celebratory of diversity than ever.
This time around we have Jürgen, the German IT guy, who brought in nuts, bolts and a spanner to aid him with the final task, and the Italian engineer Giuseppe, whose pronunciation of the phrase Jack and the Beanstalk was sweeter than sugar-cane cannoli. We have Jairzeno, the gay Trinidadian, and Freya, the 19-year-old Scarborough vegan. Amanda is a detective who likes wild swimming; Tom seems like the sort of man who would be at home in a model railway shop. Fortunately, his family runs one.
We also have ready-made larks in the form of GBBO’s best judge-contestant doppelganger since 2015, when Paul the prison governor arrived bearing both the first name and the stubbly manliness of Paul Hollywood. This year’s spooky double, the retired nurse Maggie, doesn’t share the name of her alter ego Prue Leith, but she does have the judge’s toothy smile, ruddy WI forthrightness and aluminium-floss hair. This can only be to Maggie’s advantage.
Meanwhile, the presenters are purring. Matt Lucas has quietly but assertively taken over as the main comic presence, and is likely to have masterminded the fairly extraordinary musical opening sequence. Hosts and judges donned denim and lank wigs for a rendition of Achy Breaky Heart that relied on Breaky sounding a bit like “bake”, and “heart” rhyming with “tart”. The old BBC days, when Mel and Sue made do with off-kilter spoken intros, suddenly seemed quaint. The show’s new confidence has, in his fifth series, spread to Noel Fielding, who has finally ceased looking like the personification of an anxiety dream where you’ve been given a high-pressure job by mistake.
As for the baking itself, it began with a simple mini roll, which of course is not simple at all since overcooked sponge or overheated filling mean messy disaster. Lizzie, a Liverpudlian keen to make up in banter what she lacked in baking skill, inexplicably surrounded hers with family photographs, which backfired when her tahini caramel escaped: “It’s dripping on everyone’s faces!” Greek-Cypriot dad-of-three George, affected by the benign but palpable tension in the Bake Off tent, couldn’t roll his rolls and resorted to smothering them in melted chocolate. Future winners tend not to do this.
Talking of which, week one is not too early to mentally sort the bakers into three tiers. There are the potential champions, the solid performers who will probably get to about halfway, and the game but inept ones who will not survive long enough to see Bread Week. Round two, the technical bake – where all the contestants work from the same recipe, in this case malt loaf, leading to fine margins and unpredictable rankings – was, as usual, little help. But the climactic showstopper, a trompe-l’oeil “anti-gravity” cake, identified the big players via the elegant artisan creations of north Londoner Crystelle (an upstanding bouquet of flowers that was actually a cake), Giuseppe (a hovering cloud that, in fact, was cake) and Jürgen (an anglepoise lamp that was really a cake, pointing down at a book that proved, on further inspection, to be cake).
Contenders for immediate elimination were many. HR professional Rochica made do with an apple-styled ball of cake hanging from a branch, which wasn’t much of an optical illusion. Tom’s simple stack of cakes ignored the brief altogether, while Leicestershire sales manager Chigs made a cake that was not so much anti-gravity as an advert for gravity: a key component fell to the floor during judging. Jairzeno’s attempt at some sort of super-sized swiss roll descended into a sloppy wrestling match that was comfortably won by the sponge.
Someone had to go, but Bake Off potters happily on.