My wife and I have been watching the Great British Bake Off since the first series. It’s been part of our very sparse viewing habits – the only thing we sit to watch together is #GBBO and DVDs of the West Wing – and of course, Doctor Who.
A wee while ago, when it looked as though John Whittingdale was going to manage to fillet the BBC entirely, I popped this in a facebook post:
“So following John Whittingdale’s ideas concerning the BBC, where they ought not to compete with ITV and others, I can imagine the meeting where the BBC tried to pitch terrible ideas, so they can make sure they don’t attract too many viewers.
“how about a story involving a crotchety old man who kidnaps two teachers and his Grand-daughter in a phone booth which travels through time? Surely no-one will be interested?”
“oh, okay, how about pro-celebrity ballroom dancing? Surely no-one could possibly complain about us trying to grab ratings if we put on pro-celebrity ballroom dancing on in primtime?”
“Right, alright. How about a detective show which involves people dissecting corpses? No-one can think forensics are glamorous.”
“Last chance. We’ll put on a show about a group of complete amateurs, and we show them baking cakes. The prize at the end is a cake stand. No money. We’re basically televising a cake . Surely, surely no-one will watch that?”
The BBC has lost a number of its flagship programmes recently. The Voice has channel-hopped to ITV, as has Jonathon Ross, Top Gear has in all but name gone to Amazon, and any sport the BBC used to have has long gone, Cricket and Formula 1 chief amongst the losses. In the era when little is produced “in house” and therefore where the BBC does not own the copyright, it may be an increasing trend amongst shows in the future.
But Bake Off without the BBC is either a pastiche or a departure from the success. But it’s loss points to something about the BBC – an institution which is one of the few things which makes me truly, unashamedly proud to be British.
Here’s why I think the BBC is the best of British, and why it is the essential ingredient to bake-off and so many other shows:
Firstly – The Winner gets a cake stand. Despite it’s incredible success, the BBC has cultivated a programme where people want to take part because they like baking. Even now in the latest series, they’ve managed to find people in that tent who seem to have no interest at all in being famous. They just like baking.
Secondly – it’s not lowbrow. So much commercial TV strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s almost as though the editorial decisions made in shows such as the x-factor are deliberate to make sure there is nothing at all that the viewing audience can’t easily and completely grasp. Aaron Sorkin, one of the greatest writers of our age, said that the greatest crime a show can commit is to tell the audience what it already knows. Built into the DNA of the BBC is the desire to gently stretch the viewer as well as entertain and amuse. That’s why even in the most popular programme in the country, there are those little Lord Reithian moments when Mel or Sue tell us all about the more obscure bakes, their history and culture etc.
This was never more evident than in the “Chronicles of Nadya”, a two-part (only two!) series concerning last years’ Bake-Off winner, who took us all to her ancestral home in a small village in Bangladesh. It was educative, entertaining, touching, just brilliant. And no-one would have been able to do it in a way which was “broad church” enough for a mainstream viewing audience. The great gift the BBC has is not just that they make shows no-one else does, but that they make them in a way that a large audience wants to watch them.
Thirdly – Generosity. I love the generosity of the programme where everyone wants everyone else to do well – and that the editorial decisions emphasise that, rather than the competition and the tension/drama. I’m sure they could cut it like that if they wanted, but they don’t. This was evident in the Voice, which is now lost to the other side. It’s also the case with much of the BBC’s output, from Who to Strictly to almost anything it makes. There is a genuine virtue woven into the fabric of the programmes. I don’t know if they’re all happy places to work, but you certainly get that impression. That’s bourne out by the reason they lost Jonathan Ross and Jeremy Clarkson – they were sacked because in the end ratings were less important than what feels like decency. In a world where anything to do with the media feels cutthroat, it feels that the BBC wants to hang on to something better – in fact, I’d go further. It feels as though the BBC believes that it has a duty to reflect something genuinely good about the British character. It’s a good news broadcaster.
Fourthly – and I know some will find this to be a controversial statement, it is scrupulously unbiased. I have many issues with the way that politics is covered in this country, and the BBC is part of that: I think they like to focus too much on the soap opera rather than the policies, and they often fail to employ that great ability to communicate facts in an easily digestible way when it comes to political news. But they are never biased for or against any one side. This is again an ethic in the BBC. I know from my own very modest input, that the folk within the beeb seek above all else to be impartial – almost to a fault, one might say, and certainly to a lot of expense and effort. The ethic of being unbiased, and of giving voice to the sides of the debate that the BBC, as a liberal moderate institution, would not want to hear, has been one of it’s hallmarks.
Lastly– it’s the one element of our establishment which is truly innovative. The BBC has a unique link between radio and TV and much of the best comedy in the last fifty years has come from the fertile soil that the BBC has given to young comics, as well as drama writers. When I see parliament, a stodgy, antediluvian, hierarchal, male-dominated institution, criticising the BBC, it’s like watching Boss Hogg bullying the Dukes, or Jabba laughing at Luke. Because the BBC is always going to be the slightly naughty one with the better morals and the lightsabre. Only its victories are through the medium of dancing and bread.