It’s time to admit Bake Off is feeling stale. As a former contestant, I know how to make it rise again

Utter the words “bin-gate” and you would be hard pressed to find any Great British Bake Off fan who wouldn’t go misty-eyed. Ingrained in our collective consciousness is 2014 contestant Iain Watters’ baked alaska-fuelled tantrum, resulting in the iconic presentation of a bin to judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in place of his showstopper.

Iconic moments have been in plentiful supply since The Great British Bake Off’s inception in 2010: Sue Perkins’ elbow inadvertently sabotaging a contestant; the Great Custard Robbery of 2013; Nadiya Hussain’s empowering winner’s speech.

Arriving to little fanfare, Bake Off was novel in the reality TV sphere for its innocence, captivating audiences with its gentle yet suspenseful dramatics. And the comedy was purely organic, with hosts Mel Giedroyc and Perkins vacillating between innuendo and benign teasing to create a uniquely wholesome viewing experience.

It was appointment television, with millions of viewers across the UK (and later the globe) tuning in to see whether their favourite contestant’s cake would rise, biscuits snap or custards set. Somewhere along the way though, something went awry.

In the final year of its original tenure at the BBC, 14 million people watched Candice Brown crowned winner – but just a third of those now remain, with 4.38 million watching Matty Edgell pip his fellow finalists to the post this week. What’s changed?

Well, nearly everything. Alongside spin-offs Junior Bake Off, Bake Off: The Professionals, The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer and the festive specials, Bake Off is on air in some guise for more than half of each calendar year. It has become a behemoth, with international franchises filling the 20-odd weeks where the show is off-air in the UK.

Resting the format, or at least giving it breathing room, would give the public a chance to fall back in love with the show rather than it feeling like an obligation, although, with the revenue it pulls in each year, this seems unlikely.

Over-saturation aside, the programme also started to attract criticism for its over-complex challenges, driving a wedge between the core audience who loved its accessible, near-achievable bakes and the show’s apparent drive to create spectacle over substance.

In 2015, Hussain, Bake Off’s most famous alumnus, was given four hours to create a three-tiered celebration cake as her final challenge before taking the crown. By contrast, last year’s winner Syabira Yusoff was asked to create a “large edible sculpture” on the theme of “Our Beautiful Planet”, consisting of a large cake base accompanied by elements demonstrating three other baking skills – with just 30 minutes more time to account for the added complexity.

Following the competitive trends of other reality shows as they began to crop up in the late 2010s, Bake Off’s producers upped the ante by making challenges harder. Bakes became more complex, time limits were cropped and instructions reduced to the bare minimum (“Make a lemon meringue pie” from series 13 comes to mind). Technical bakes such as ciabatta and jaffa cakes morphed into Danish aebleskiver and Tudor “maid of honour” tarts, leaving contestants baffled. The poor bakers were left scrambling to stay afloat – often on the brink of tears.

Bake Off fell foul of the very tropes it set out to subvert by engineering its format to construct water-cooler calamities, and the wheels began to fall off. This shift in focus led to fierce, sustained criticism from steadfast fans who were frustrated by the “borderline impossible” challenges, leaving the contestants “set up to fail”, and the less said about the ill-advised nation-themed weeks, the better.

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The unique selling point of Bake Off was that it celebrated its contestants’ triumphs rather than revelled in their misfortune. Losing sight of this led to some rocky years for the show, from which it is still struggling to recover.

Taking the opportunity this year to refresh the format with the addition of presenter Alison Hammond and some lovely new pastel pink benches, there were some encouraging signs of Bake Off from years gone by. We had time to fall in love with Saku and her ever meme-able facial expressions, Tasha’s unique brand of talented chaos, and Josh (a frontrunner for much of the series) created some of the most impressive showstoppers the tent has seen in years.

Despite this tonal shift, the show still seems a little past its sell-by date. The innuendo-heavy moments (“Nicky’s beaver”, for example) felt not just formulaic but forced, and the flashes of harshness in the judging this year left much to be desired.

What it hasn’t lost, yet, are its contestants, the reason viewers come back each week. They are Bake Off’s beating heart; each year’s bakers are reliably quirky, talented and, crucially, normal. They are the antidote to the show’s woes: let them succeed and the rest will fall into place.

  • Michael Chakraverty is a writer, podcaster and TV critic. He was a contestant on The Great British Bake Off in 2019