“When it was announced that I was doing it, some people thought: what the hell is he going to do? Wear a top hat and throw all the cakes on the floor?”
The clues that Noel Fielding, best known as co-creator of psychedelic farceurs The Mighty Boosh, would not wreck The Great British Bake Off with his oversize comedy presence have been there since the very first publicity shot (above).
It’s all about the hair. Gone was the wild mane – instead, his long locks are now luscious, pristine, beautifully conditioned and sensibly parted, signifying a new primetime persona as he joins new co-host Sandi Toksvig, new judge Prue Leith and perma-tanned Paul Hollywood, smiling and holding a cupcake.
Along with Sandi Toksvig, Noel Fielding is pitch-perfect in the opening episode of series eight
Fielding still claims he is more comfortable playing “a merman with a vagina” than overseeing bakers in an oversize tent – but, along with Toksvig, the 44-year-old is pitch-perfect in the opening episode of series eight.
Perhaps it is because Bake Off, like Doctor Who, say, is a near-perfect format. And with a format this strong, key players can be switched without the show losing its magic. Just as the Doctor can be transformed as actors switch but the joy of adventures in time and space continue to tantalise, so Bake Off essentially relies on selecting a dozen bakers and watching them rise.
The key is the temperature setting in the Bake Off kitchen. And Fielding and Toksvig set their personality ovens to toasty warm. If Toksvig is the quickest, keenest wit in British comedy, all wordplay and fiery intelligence, then Fielding is one of our more ethereal mirth makers. His comedy is wilfully off-kilter and depends on a keen eye for the absurd – but while Fielding floats like a butterfly, he rarely stings. And this is vital for Bake Off’s continued success.
In the kitchen, he grins over the shoulders of bakers like a goofy, supportive goth uncle as he casts an inexpert eye over proceedings, relishing the words “fruity cake” as he sets the new batch their first task. Fielding plays Toksvig’s co-conspirator and maintains a self-deprecating air, even offering to leave himself rather than see a contestant leave.
Meanwhile Toksvig’s renowned wordplay is positive and playful. “You have two minutes to bring it to a fruity conclusion,” she announces, as the first bake nears its end. “And who doesn’t want that?” The duo look comfortable in each other’s presence and enjoy the opportunity to show off their skills in what is essentially an extended improv session, reacting to situations with well-timed gags to break the tension.
Newcomer Prue Leith also manages not to break anything, especially not hearts. She is forthright, but contrasts nicely with Hollywood, proving her expertise, offering opinion, but never overpowering the judging sections.
The bakers have been as well chosen as the new presenters. Love Productions, who make the show, know its winning formula only works if the viewing public are crossing their iced fingers and wishing the bakers to succeed. They’ve selected 12 people that together showcase the diversity of the UK, and indeed, the success of GBBO in building a mass audience is now reflected in the way baking bonds this disparate bunch across ages, ethnicities, sexualities and regions. Genuine pleasure and delight is taken in each other’s achievements.
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Also, being Bake Off fans before joining the show, the new contestants join in knowingly, tailoring their own personas and projecting their best selves, self-aware enough to know what might win favour.
As this new group of sweethearts bake sweet treats there are the usual nerves, tears and binned botched bakes. Leith reveals that, when catastrophes occur, Toksvig races off to the kitchen to make tea to serve with her sympathy.
What could be more symbolic of a show built on solidarity and warmth? What better way to confirm that the real stars are the bakers? When Fielding says: “You are going to love the bakers. It is about them and their stories,” this is not false modesty or self-deprecation. It is confirmation that the new Bake Off hosts understand the format and that the nation’s favourite show is in safe hands…
The new series of The Great British Bake Off is on Tuesdays, 8pm, Channel 4
See this week’s Big Issue for more on The Great British Bake Off, including how social enterprises are using food for good