It can’t have escape your notice that there are a lot of Great British… shows about, not to mention all the others that build on the concept with increasingly daft applications. I seem to have been on a bit of a binge of these recently, they tend to be just the right level of engaging for a tired brain that wants to ignore the world for a bit. So here’s my rundown of the various options, and the all important question – which has the most innuendo?
The Great British Bake Off (BBC / C4)
Amateur bakers in a tent, shepherded through by amiable comedians and judged by experts. This is where it all seemed to begin, something about the niceness of it all, the contestants are supportive to each other and the judges encouraging. Over the years the challenges have gradually got more obscure and the contestants less amateur – macarons started out as the ultimate test, now they’re merely thrown in as a decoration. Mel and Sue set the tone for the series, I read somewhere that if a contestant was getting too upset or stressed, Mel and/or Sue would swear so that the footage couldn’t be used. Moving to Channel 4 saw the handover to the unexpected combo of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding who turned out to be amazing together. Steely eyed Paul Hollywood has been with the series throughout and still has a look of “what on earth am I doing here” about him. legendary Mary Berry was on the BBC and replaced by the less legendary Pru Leith and have a shared taste in horrible clothing. The contestants are fairly universally nice, although with a heavy theme of white middle classedness.
The Great British Bake Off: The Professionals (BBC / C4) – Like Bake off, but with people that know what they’re doing. Theoretically.
This series also moved from BBC (where it was painfully called Creme de la Creme). The judges are currently the terrifying Cherish Finden and incredibly French Benoit Blin. When they don’t like something they are utterly unforgiving and leach all joy out of food, but when they like something they bring it all back again. The presenters are currently Liam Charles (Series 8 of Bake Off) and Tom Allen who form a fun duo but seem at odds with the tone the show is trying to set.
The Great British Sewing Bee – Like Bake Off, but with sewing machines instead of KitchenAids
I’ve only recently started watching this and have seen the first season and the most recent one and I love it! It follows the same pattern (ha!) as Bake Off and has the same tone of very gentle competition between lovely people with some combination of talent and passion. Claudia Winklemen started it off, and she is wonderful in absolutely everything (up to and including a head and shoulders advert) and the most recent series had Joe Lycett who is weirdly endearing. The judges are uncompromising but always encouraging, they seem genuinely sad when they have to give negative feedback, and have a joy and open mindedness that is very positive and a step above the Bake Off judges.
The Great Pottery Throwdown (BBC / C4) – Like Bake Off but replacing the KitchenAids with pottery wheels
Another one that I’m new to only watching the latest series which has successfully moved from BBC to Channel 4 where it’s presented by the lovely Mel Sykes. However the star of the show is judge Keith Brymer Jones who is a giant bloke who bursts into tears at the weirdest of things. He’s friendly, encouraging, supportive and absolutely wonderful. There’s a second judge too but I have no memory of her. The contestants do tend a little bit towards the posh end of the spectrum and can sometimes be a little bit irritating in their pretentiousness about Art. But I grew to like them.
The Great British Menu – Like Bake Off but with Michelin stars
I’ve only watched the latest series of this, because I was lured in by Susan Calman who is wonderful and I won’t hear a word said against her. The series is a bit of a slog with 3 episodes a week, over 9 weeks; if not for the fact that it coincided with lockdown, I might not have made it all the way through. The contestants and the judges are all professional chefs and can come across as rather dry, and everyone (including the judge for 2 of the 3 days) rotates out each week so there’s not much opportunity to form a connection. There’s also a fundamental structural problem where the judge during the week decides who’s going through to the head-to-head. The two remaining chefs cook pretty much the same meals yet again and then you get a trio of judges, who suck all the joy out of food and who often completely disagree with the previous judge, giving away the fact that taste in food is entirely subjective and at this level, picking between dishes is pretty bonkers.
Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC) – Like Bake Off, but you have to eat vegetables
The first season was lovely, nice people making nice food, with Claudia Winkleman floating around like an overenthusiastic puppy just stealing food whenever she could. The second season (which also dropped the “Britain’s” from the title) took a turn for the miserable. They kept setting unreasonable time limits and critiquing food as if they were on Masterchef rather than celebrating food for the family. Mary Berry and Angela Hartnett are brutal in their critiques and I frequently shouted at the screen, Chris Bavin tries to be a bit nicer but is usually drowned out. They’ve completely missed a trick by not having at least some of the judging done by families and the people who are actually eating normal food in normal homes.
Next in Fashion (Netflix) – Like Sewing Bee but with professionals (theoretically)
There’s an interesting structure in that the contestants are paired up for most of the show, some of the teams know each other but others are complete strangers which is a recipe for some interesting psychology and some absolute disasters. The contestants are international and have lots of variation in their styles and experience levels and in their annoyingness which some of them really excel on. The stars of the show for me were expectation busting Marco and Ashton who present as tattooed, leather wearing LA fetish wear designers and are the nicest, sweetest, most supportive pair of people I’ve seen on one of these shows. Tan France and Alexa Chung are an absolute hoot as hosts, but are a little more stand-offish than some other presenters as they are also involved in the judging.
Blown Away (Netflix) – Like Pottery Throwdown, but with glass
This is a Canadian series but with an American host and international contestants, and it leads to a blend of styles and attitudes that can feel muddled. The glass blowers are all very experienced in their field (this isn’t exactly a hobby to do in the kitchen) and many know each other, so there are some interesting relationships already established. Some of the contestants are zero fun to spend time with – obnoxiously competitive, judgemental of others and highly defensive of their art; while others are more easy going and probably more relaxed then they should be around face meltingly hot equipment. The contestnats have such big personalities that the judges and presenter completely fade into the background.
Zumbo’s Great Desserts (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with insane Australians
Zumbo is like some Heston Blumenthal-esque Willy Wonka but without any of the actual charisma. His creations are incredible and it’s a good concept that each episode has the two lowest placed contestants trying to recreate one of his concoctions. The first round is just the contestants making their own offering on a theme and showing off their personalities, which is where many of them fall down. It’s hyped up and over-blown with contestants clearly egged on to be over the top and competitive and that makes them very hard to warm to as they’re all very fake.
The Big Flower Fight (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with ridiculous flower arranging
Pairs of people making giant sculptures out of plants and flowers. Yes, really. The international pairs of contestants have clearly been chosen because they are wacky and overly dramatic, and I don’t think I would survive more than 30 seconds in a room with any of them. Vic Reeves plods through like he’s having an out of body experience and Natasia Demetriou is visibly trying to work out what happened to her career. The regular judge is the fabulously dressed and equally fabulously named Kristen Griffith-Vanderyacht who is as confused as the audience about what on earth this show is doing. There’s a revolving door of guest judges having an even more baffling time.