For the first time last night, the residents of Chateau BC turned the dial to BBC One for the grand final of The Great British Bake Off, a phenomenon that's less a popular TV programme and more a cult for the 13.4m people who watched it. Having studiously avoided it, as a (former) non-watcher GBBO is impossible to escape. The show plays a fantastic Twitter game, the press are obsessed, and the News at Ten and Newsnight both featured the victorious Nadiya Hussain on their roster of the day's newsworthy, um, news.
Once we had it on, I couldn't help but be drawn in. Like the Sidebar of Shame, but without the foul aftertaste, watching the contestants hurrying hither, scurrying thither as they produced the most sumptuous food porn imaginable was compulsive. You couldn't taste the layered pastries or the cornucopia of cake, but it was almost as good. The camera work was every bit as explicit as the infamous M&S adverts of old. This was filth for foodies. But like all good game shows, for that is what GBBO is; tension and drama is the hook. The fun is rooting for your favourite and investing their travails with your hopes (and everyone was backing Nadiya, right?). So before we take the cake knife to the show, the first rule to peeling back the sugary layers of ideology is to note that above all GBBO works because it's entertaining.
Of course, entertaining itself is a loaded term. What we consider entertainment is fully loaded with cultural codes of acceptability/unacceptability and, of course, has a history. The experience of being entertained is underpinned by what the PoMos used to call intertextuality. To get a text, in this case a beloved TV programme, it demands the reader/viewer has a familiarity with genre, the cultural codes the show draws on, and something of the wider zeitgeist - fashionable structures of feeling and popular cultural practices currently enjoying wide affirmation and participation.
Let's lose the cultural studies babble. There are two important matters GBBO addresses. One almost banal and done-to-death, and the other less so. For right wingers, Bake Off was a manifestation of the dreaded PC culture. Even Ian the LibDem was treated like a human being, for crying out loud. This is socialist propaganda through the medium of chocolatey noms, a meringue-tipped missile threatening the last bigoted redoubts with tolerance and respect. How awful. And what really riles the right is the show's appropriation of the quintessentially English garden fete. The marquee is redolent of tombola, brick-a-brak sales, Hoopla with the vicar, and definitely no non-white people. Of course, Bake Off isn't cooking up full communism or anything of the sort. It articulates the contemporary sense of Britishness, a multinational identity that tries to include everyone who identifies as British, regardless of their background. It's pointless to speculate whether the inclusivity of GBBO is intentional. The point is that it reflects the experiences of increasing numbers of people. Hence why the unreconstructed xenophobic right hate it. It's less a statement of intent than a representation of what really is. Seeing a Muslim woman win by out-Englishing "proper" English people over 10 weeks rubs them up the wrong way. It reminds them that they've already lost.
The second key GBBO prop is that structure of feeling that, want for a better phrase, you might call 'cupcake conformity'. Back when I was a horny handed son of toil doing working in a factory, we had a peculiar tradition of birthday boys/girls bringing in cakes on their special day (shatloads of doughnuts when it was my turn, if you must know). It was a nice gesture of sharing that helped bring the twilight shift a ripple of harmony inbetween the effing and blinding, the bitching, and fallings outs. Fast forward, the provision of cake - usually of the cuppy kind - at managerial meetings/large gatherings is so ubiquitous that HR manuals surely must contain chapters on confectionery provision. It knocks the sharp corners off bad news. Discussing the possibility of redundancies and/or increased workloads seem less worse if the meeting papers are accompanied by a plate of fairy cakes. Food, of course, is often an accomplice of sociability. By giving cake, we can pretend the power structures that rule our lives at work are as fluffy as the delicious sponge. The employer/employee relation, an inequitable and exploitative fact of life for all capitalist societies, tastes much sweeter wrapped in a paper case. The better the cake, the duller the pain.
With its ubiquity in the workplace, it's little wonder we're living in the age of the March of the Cake. Going through a break up? Have some cake. Bricking it before the interview? Have some cake. Depressed? Have some cake. It's not just that human beings are sugar-loving beasties (which we generally are). The cake has moved from just being a treat to a therapeutic treatment. Huxley's Brave New World had soma, we've got chocolate gateaux. And because cake's ubiquitous, it would be shocking had GBBO never taken off.
GBBO works because it marries genuinely entertaining drama and suspense to a sense of inclusiveness, of reflecting and promoting British unity around a cake tray of goodies.