The Great British Bake-Off is telly perfection. Just as Blighty goes all cold, wet and jumpery, it brings us crumble. It brings us Mel and Sue, with their easy alternation between hugs and snark about slack custard and soggy bottoms. It brings us Mary Berry being kind about something that obviously tastes horrid. About the only thing that could improve the format is if Willy Wonka’s Television Chocolate camera was real, and all us Mike Teevees on the sofa could reach in and grab a fistful of that bread thing Kimberley made in Week Two.
(Or Howard’s Japanese pagoda made out of biscuits. Or Frances’s scones that looked like little cauliflowers. Possibly not Robert’s psychic octopus bread – yet I applaud the ambition.)
And of course, there are the actual bakers. What’s always set the Bake-Off apart as reality telly is how not like reality telly it is. No one is giving a mathematically impossible percentage of effort. No one is going on a journey, or doing it for their dead nan. No shiny floor, no phone-in votes. It’s just some nice people doing some cookery in a tent. There’s even an educational bit in the middle. It’s a wholesome, Blue Peterish guiltless pleasure.
But this year it all went wrong.
Frances got a right hammering week after week. Kimberley seemed a bit under-praised. Ruby seemed the opposite. And because the show gave us many reaction shots of Ruby looking disappointed even by praise, and more importantly because Ruby is young and pretty and slim, she became the show’s first ever true villain, versus two clear righteous underdogs.
Finalist Ruby Tandoh’s own riposte to the outpouring of vileness she’s faced online is articulate and full of sense, and you should read it.
If you’re still thinking But she’s so whiny, she’s so grumpy… It is not Ruby Tandoh’s job to smile because you want her to.
She’s always thinks she’s useless… Bake-Off is always brim-full of high-achieving capable women who lack confidence. Cathryn and Sarah-Jane from last year; series two winner Jo Wheatley. Plenty of the men too – Howard, Brendan, winner John.
When Lovely Scottish Knitwear James made his giant skewiff what-the-hell gingerbread shed last year and confessed he was ‘winging it’, he got Star Baker, and the audience cooed over how lovely it was that such a nice young man – doing his final exams, even! – was such a creative spirit. When Ruby made her wonky, bag-of-crap allotment, ‘winging it’, while also doing her final exams, she also got Star Baker – and hundreds of ‘she must be sleeping with Paul Hollywood’ tweets.
The problem here – for the show – is that the grim misogyny of the audience reaction to Ruby (from both women and men) doesn’t fit the rules for a Bake-Off final.
Rule no 1: we’re honestly not meant to mind who wins. We’ve probably got a bit of a favourite. But they’re all nice, because the show is a warm, fond, happy place which puts squirrel knackers onscreen just for the lols. None of it matters, really. It’s only cake.
Rule no 2: there is a journey. It’s a much quieter one than that in X Factor et al, because we usually don’t see more than a tiny glimpse until the final, but it is fundamentally life-affirming. John Whaite’s win in series 3 wasn’t about cake: it was about his mum being proud of her gay son for, in his eyes at least, the very first time. Jo Wheatley’s win in series 2 was about a young mum reclaiming some space for herself, an identity that was all her own.
Ruby’s journey would’ve been ‘bizarrely over-modest girl finally registers she’s brilliant’, and generally that’s a perfectly good story – but the villain winning? That’s not life-affirming. It’s cold and wet and jumpery out there, goddammit. There are 350,000 people in the UK using food banks. The NHS is being destroyed piecemeal by a government with no mandate to do so. We bloody well need a happy ending.
It’s broken, I thought, before the final. They’ve broken this warm, cosy, cuddle of a show. It’s not only cake now. It matters who wins.
But you know what? It’s not broken after all. The final was genuinely impossible to predict, with surprising bakefails from everyone. The winner gave us exactly the narrative we craved – because actually ‘I worry I’m crap and it turns out I’m not’ is a story we all share.
And this year, for those of us who engage in the ‘communal watching’ thing, we got an extra narrative: this one, about Ruby, and the reaction to her, why it happens and what we can do about it; maybe even a handy bit of mental shorthand – the Ruby Rule, if you will: Would you think/say/post/tweet this if the target was a man?
That conversation’s just as welcome and comforting as all the macarons and mucky puns. Because we’re grown-ups, and it was never only about cake.
Also there was that time Robert made a Dalek out of biscuits.
Is it 2014 yet?