Betrayal, heartbreak, shock and scandal. Words often applied to describe a Taylor Swift album but in this case can also be used to sum up the biggest breakup of 2016: the Great British Bake Off’s decision to move from BBC One to Channel 4. The thought of having to watch ads combined with the collective loss of long-standing judge Mary Berry and presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc caused great pain and outrage throughout the nation. By the time Channel 4 hosted its first season, we were not ready to forgive or forget with only 7.7 million viewers tuning into the finale compared to the 14 million people who watched the same equivalent episode on BBC the previous year. Pretty abysmal by Bake Off standards and it seemed that the studio would never be able to win back those stubborn seven million viewers. That is until 2020 came along. The year of the coronavirus pandemic, lockdown and social distancing also saw Channel 4 win its best ratings ever for the show, with 9.2 million viewers tuning in to watch baby-face contestant Peter Sawkins win the coveted title last week. But this is no coincidence, this is the work of the most surreal year since… well, ever.
COVID-19 has dictated everything from where we can go to who we can see and what we can do. It has also affected our hobbies and cultural trends, with baking taking the place of pub-crawls and going to work. This very specific method of cooking became such a phenomenon that it spread from the kitchen to the internet, where every food, fitness and beauty influencer jumped on the trend to bake. Who can forget the reign of banana bread back in April or the ridiculous, but aesthetically pleasing, pancake cereal trend on TikTok? Our pastimes are what forge trends online and can ultimately affect what we watch on TV. The country’s new-found love and appreciation for cakes was always going to make GBBO 2020 one to watch.
With baking being such a big hit online, it’s no surprise that the latest series was also a big hit with the younger generation. Following episode four, Chocolate Week – AKA the week everyone’s heart broke at Sura’s devastating elimination – Channel 4 reported its largest ever viewership aged between 16-34. This has enabled the show to expand its popularity onto a whole new platform run by young people: TikTok. The site dominated by pranks, dance videos and lip-sync challenges is now the home of the “I Bake My Way Through All The Technical Challenges On Bake Off” series by Alice Bakes Things, as well as comedian Morgy T’s hilarious and inaccurate “Bake Off Roundup”. There are also numerous videos capturing iconic moments (everything Lottie said), innuendos (too many to count) and dodgy-looking cakes (let’s hope Lupita Nyong’o wasn’t watching), all of which have received hundreds of thousands of likes. This comical content then inspires more young people to watch the programme and the cycle continues.
But how were there so many TikTok-able snaps in the first place? Well, the series was filmed during lockdown and so the contestants, crew, judges and presenters all had to live together in a social bubble away from their families in order to create the show. It seemed that those six weeks spent living in a cocoon of soda bread variations and cages made entirely out of pastry sent everyone – cast and crew – a little bit mad. Although the pandemic is only mentioned occasionally, it is represented in the general intensity of the season. In the first episode alone there are more mishaps, dramas (Sura swatting a fly and accidently swatting Dave’s cakes halfway across the room) and bizarre confessions (who knew so many of the baking contestants don’t like cake or marzipan?) than there would ever normally be in whole seasons. However, their social bubble also gave them time to bond more and so there was a lot more comradery earlier on in the series, which has been lovely to watch when you’re trying to forget about the scary reality of the world.
Baking and watching other people bake is a cathartic and time-consuming process, two things the public desperately needs right now in the midst of lockdown 2.0. Whether we like it or not, the true trend-setter of 2020 has been COVID-19 and its consequences. Resulting in not just the success of series 11 but also the success of the contestants following the show. It’s no coincidence that Nadiya Hussain and Candice Brown were the winners of the most viewed seasons of the show and have continued to play a huge cultural role in the cookery landscape. Remember Sophie Faldo? Nope, me neither – but we’ll be talking about Peter Sawkins for a long time to come.
By Lucinda Diamond, food and travel reporter for CORQ.