FOR the avoidance of doubt, let’s be clear: I don’t bake. I’m an expert onlooker. My unsought technical advice is, I think, second to none. I can pronounce the word “scone” as God intended. But I am to baking what Mary Berry is to bricklaying.

True, if you find me a vintage Be-Ro Home Recipes Book covering the major food groups – “Scones, Cakes, Pastry, Puddings” – I could knock out something that wouldn’t involve NHS 24. The kitchen wouldn’t be pretty afterwards, but the pancakes would deserve the weird name “Scotch”. The fact remains that where real baking is concerned I am just like 14 million other people.

That’s a rough but educated guess. The BBC reports that 14.5 million tuned in last week to see Nadiya Hussain from Leeds win the latest series of its Great British Bake Off. I’m prepared to bet scarcely half a million of them see a kitchen and don’t think – “that room where the microwave is”.

The fact is related to the worst-kept secret in publishing. People buy cookbooks by the truckload and never use the things. It has been claimed, in fact, that one volume in 10 is never actually opened. On average, we each own six cookbooks, but make the same nine meals – as one despairing report put it – “over and over again”. If we cook at all.

Jamie Oliver might have sold £126 million worth of his how-to books by 2012, but a BBC Good Food poll of 10,000 people last autumn found that 10% of respondents couldn’t so much as boil an egg. That’s the equivalent of five million incompetents. We can assume they don’t spend their time fretting instead over their crème patissiere.

Last year, the market research firm Kantar Worldplay found that time spent in the kitchen is on average almost half of what it was in the 1980s. People are busy, people can’t be bothered, people are ignorant: these things are connected. We do get through 1.6 billion ready meals in a year, however.

Questions about all of this have been asked often enough. At a time when any recipe you desire can be found online, why have cookbooks become a vast and growing part of the publishing industry? If the average person can’t be bothered to spend more than 34 minutes in the kitchen on any given day, why the immense fascination with Bake Off?

Sometimes TV is question and answer combined. The Good Food survey found that barely half of households sit down to meals. In those happy homes, however, 67% eat in front of a screen. In fact, in one in five households there are “two or more” screens on at meal-times. In other words, peak viewing for Bake Off last week involved the best part of 14.5 million people eating ready meals on their laps while Nadiya was producing miracles from scratch.

Is that depressing? Given Britain’s obesity rates, probably so. But Bake Off, like all those cookbooks full of culinary fantasies, is an alternative to reality. Without the show, people would still be at their screens, still putting away their share of the astounding 919 million pizzas consumed annually as evening meals, and still watching some talent show or other.

The difference would lie with the show. It would probably be another of those tawdry affairs dedicated to the crushing of the human spirit, another cheerily vicious attempt to destroy hopes, humiliate participants, and have us laugh at their pathetic dreams. Bake Off, in contrast, exudes kindness like the smell of warm bread. It might be too sweet for my taste, but no-one, least of all the BBC, argues with a number like 14.5 million in an age of fragmented TV audiences.

By all accounts, it was the highest viewing figure achieved by a programme this year. It was a reminder, in fact, of what used to be called family viewing before satellite, cable, the internet and a plethora of “devices” split the nuclear unit. In many households there must have been nostalgia in the viewing experience itself. That the programme involved wholesome fare – one free pun with every column – was part of its appeal. Bake Off is a British version of that old American cliché, motherhood and apple pie.

No-one gets hurt; no-one is humiliated; no-one learns how to bake. The last part ought to go without saying. Even if you missed the point and thought this was a programme about amateur bakers, you wouldn’t learn much in the how-to line. On the other hand, lessons on how to hug, smile in adversity, praise, encourage and pretend that Britain is a gender-balanced, racially-equal society contained within one giant virtual village marquee are available freely.

It’s a fiction, then, but a fiction that a great many people find irresistible. TV’s 21st-century version of a Woman’s Institute contest answers a yearning that is, by its lights, perfectly rational. You might prefer to observe that if this is “British” it is utterly false. You might detect an undertone of “let them eat cake”

(or a Paul Hollywood croissant) in Bake Off’s avoidance of reality. For many, that reality is well worth avoiding.

The programme-makers have grasped something their competitors have missed. The audience, much of it, needn’t stray far to find viciousness, humiliation and disappointment. The chance to pretend briefly that there is such a thing as a kinder, better Britain full of solid, domestic virtues and decent, ordinary people is better than no chance at all. They know it’s TV. Where’s the problem?

Last week, clearly, similar thoughts were going through the minds of people who write speeches for David Cameron. Before the final, it was made known that Nadiya, of Bangladeshi descent, was the Prime Minister’s “favourite”. This was just before Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told the Tory conference that there is “no case, in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced”.

When Cameron’s turn came to address the party, his writers had already forged a grisly pun to cover his boasting: “the Great British Take-Off”. He then had much to say, impressive in isolation, about poverty, discrimination, racism and equality. It was as though his advisers had sensed a public appetite. Wasn’t this part of Bake Off’s vast appeal? Wasn’t it – a detail not to be overlooked – part of the pitch made by Jeremy Corbyn?

The problem with the Cameron souffle was in the difference between words and deeds, between the truth of tax credit cuts that will throw 200,000 children into poverty next year and the rhetoric of a man pretending to eradicate poverty. If he hoped to exploit the kind of reaction Bake Off receives, Cameron forgot something. The reality the audience hopes to escape is the one he is creating and sustaining.

A kinder, gentler, more decent Britain in which the worst thing that can happen is a bit of a problem with your icing? There are worse fantasies. But TV, like all fiction, plays strange tricks. You can see that what it shows isn’t really true. You can then ask just why it has to be false.