The Great British Bake Off

Channel 4/All 4


SCOTLAND, do not despair. The oil is going, the heavy industries have gone, and the chance of another indyref, should that be your desire, is disappearing faster than a tray of warm steak bakes from Greggs.

But never mind – we have hope of victory in The Great British Bake Off.

The GBBO returned in what was a triumph for logistics and the human spirit. When you have survived the loss of Mary Berry in the move from BBC1 to Channel 4, a mere pandemic is not going to sink your sponge.

Can you imagine if Bake Off gone the way of Wimbledon, the Edinburgh festivals, and every other event that disappeared down the gullet of Covid-19? There might have been rioting on the streets of Middle England, or at the very least people standing around in groups of six having a ruddy good moan.

Scotland would have had something to say, too. We have had a dog in this most civilised of fights before: James Morton, doctor/baker/author/and for all we know candlestick maker, who was a finalist in 2012.

This year the hopes of a nation rest on the young shoulders of Peter Sawkins. The 20-year-old accountancy student from Edinburgh has been baking since he first watched the GBBO at the age of 12.

Watkins and the other 11 contestants, together with the four presenters (including new arrival Matt Lucas) and the crew, had to form a bubble over six weeks to avoid the need for social distancing inside the tent. “It’s unbelievable,” said Watkins. “I’m living in a wee Bake Off village, a wee Bake Off town.” It sounded like something Prince Charles would have had a hand in creating.

As a reward for their sacrifice of holing up in a luxury hotel for weeks, Bake Off looked the same as in any other year. After a quick self-administered pat on the back for making it on to the screen – consider the sequinned gauntlet thrown, Strictly – it was down to the first order of baking business: make a Battenberg.

With a dozen contestants it was hard to keep track of who was who, but a few stood out. Lottie the panto producer from Sussex looked like she will be this year’s Joanna Lumley-type (posh, yummy, destined for her own series or at the very least a cake shop in Islington), while Rowan, a music teacher from Kent, was deliciously ambitious in a way that looks likely to end in tears.

His Battenberg was inspired by The Magic Flute, complete with a “temple of enlightenment” inside. “How are you going to represent a temple inside a Battenberg?” said judge Prue Leith in a question that could only arise in Bake Off. Loriea, a radiographer from Durham, went completely left field with a bubblegum and fruit soda Battenberg.

Slowly, surely, Watkins emerged as one of a talented handful who could go all the way. He made a gluten-free chocolate and orange Battenberg (his brother is gluten intolerant), judging when it was cooked by using a tip he picked up from a previous series: cake listening. Apparently, if a cake sounds as though it is “boiling” it is still wet inside.

His pineapple upside down cakes were second only to Sura’s (another hot contender). For the showstopper challenge, Watkins’ 3D bust of his celebrity hero, Sir Chris Hoy, was praised for being as clever as it was tasty. With Hoy wearing a helmet and goggles, Watkins did not have to fuss over hair or eyes.

Some of the other attempts at sculpting with sponge threw up cakes that were the stuff of nightmares. Bob Marley turned out green and missing a mouth. The choux buns for Marie Antoinette’s hair fell flat (ambitious Rowan again), and someone else’s idea of a celeb was the author Bill Bryson (rather good actually).

New face Matt Lucas, taking over from Sandi Toksvig, slipped easily into the role of chief chum to Noel Fielding. Lucas jollied contestants along nicely, and managed to make light of an incident that will go down in the annals of Bake Off as #whoopsiedaisy gate (one contestant, trying to swat a fly, knocked another’s cakes to the floor by accident).

Hardly #bin gate (contestant dumped his melted baked Alaska and was subsequently dumped) or #custardgate (contestant picked up someone else’s custard), but it brought a little drama to proceedings.

Lucas’s humour might be too close to that of Fielding’s to work – if wacky surrealism is not your thing, too bad – or they could go together like jam and cream on a scone. We shall see.

After an hour and a half the scores were in: Watkins was named the first star baker of the series, and Loriea (bubblegum Battenberg) was the first to leave the tent. We're on the march with Peter's army, Scotland.

Through it all, Paul Hollywood, Leith’s judging partner, kept twinkling. “Same old Bake Off,” Leith had promised, “familiar, comforting, lovely.” Just what the times ordered.