The most popular show on television, The Great British Bake Off, will return to BBC1 next week with a Lithuanian bodybuilder, a London firefighter and this year’s youngest contestant, a 19-year-old arts student from Scotland, among those vying for the coveted master baker prize.
With its mixture of spectacular recipes, soggy bottomed disasters and relentless double entendres by presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the primetime cookery show may sound an unlikely TV hit.
But it has grown in popularity every year since it began on BBC2 five years ago and was crowned the biggest entertainment hit of last year, ahead of BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing and Simon Cowell’s The X Factor on ITV.
More than 13 million viewers watched Nancy Birtwhistle beat the show’s hottest ever favourite, Richard Burr, to the title, eclipsed only by the 14 million viewers who watched ITV’s coverage of England’s calamitous defeat at the hands of Uruguay in the football World Cup.
The new series begins on 5 August and will run on BBC1 until October. The 12 contestants taking part range in age from 19-year-old Flora, an art gallery assistant waiting to begin her degree, to this year’s oldest, 66-year-old Marie who learned to bake in Paris.
The line up includes a prison governor from Wales who used to be a member of the Coldstream Guards, a 35-year-old professional musician and a 41-year-old househusband who is also the Dalai Lama’s personal photographer whenever he visits the UK.
The show also has an international flavour with amateur bakers whose families originally came from Lithuania, Bangladesh, the West Indies and the Philippines. It echoes the UK appeal of the show, which has been licensed to 20 territories with the UK version sold to 196 territories to date.
The switch to primetime BBC1 last year did not prompt any changes to the formatcharacterised as “judging bread in a tent” by one of the show’s stars, Paul Hollywood, who casts his verdict alongside fellow judge, Mary Berry.
But last year’s series did feature its first scandal – of sorts – when contestant Iain Watters lost his cool and hurled his baked alaska into the bin after it failed to set.
In an interview with the new issue of Radio Times, Berry said the challenges for the contestants should not be made too complex. “My aim is not to get too complicated,” she said. “The simpler it is, the better, so that viewers can get the hang of it too.”
Hollywood said some of the contestants were “almost professional when they walk in. But most of them are just bloody good amateurs who, with a bit of training, could probably earn money from it, which is what they go on to do. Crucially they’re not formally trained, they learnt in their own kitchen”.
He said he and Berry never socialise with the contestants and had “never had a meal together”. Berry added: “It’s terribly important that we don’t get involved with them. I don’t want to see them out of the tent at all.”
Berry, who described cupcakes as a “fad that won’t go away”, said she was “very glad home economics is coming back into schools. Every child, boy or girl, should be able to cook a few dishes by the time they leave school, because not all mums and dads can or want to teach their kids”.
She said contestants on the show had got better each year. “Without doubt they are far more skilled,” she said. “In the very first Bake Off, nobody knew what they were letting themselves in for. Now contestants realise they had better pull their socks up and practise, so they know what they’re doing.”
Richard McKerrow, creative director of the programme’s producer, Love Productions, said: “Bake Off was five years in the pitching and people saying, why would you want to watch anything as slow and as tedious as baking on TV? And now it’s become the phenomenon that it is.”
McKerrow said the show was the “antithesis” of all the norms of a competitive reality TV show. “It’s not fast paced, it’s slow. It’s not loud, and it has ordinary people as contestants,” he recently told the Guardian.
The show has also prompted a slew of copycats, including Simon Cowell’s Food Glorious Food, which flopped two years ago, and ITV’s latest attempt to come up with a cookery hit, BBQ Champ, presented by Myleene Klass and featuring Man V Food’s Adam Richman, which begins on Friday.
Boyd Hilton, the TV editor of Heat magazine, said: “It’s the perfect formula, combining the excitement of finding out who is going to win each week with the sheer blissful pleasure of watching people baking something extraordinary.
“It is a complete word of mouth phenomenon. The only way it could possibly lose its appeal is if they changed the format or got rid of a presenter. The challenge for them is coming up with new recipes every year. There are themes that they repeat because there are so many things you can bake. That is the challenge, to keep it fresh.”
The Great British Bake Off began on BBC2 with just 2 million viewers in 2010, having been rebuffed by numerous broadcasters before it was picked up by the then controller, Janice Hadlow. The audience for its final has grown by around 50% each year since then.