I didn’t expect to enjoy The Great British Bake Off. I don’t like reality TV much, and some smug austerity-chic show which instructed us all to Keep Calm and Eat Cake looked like an unpleasant new strain. Hardly surprising that a society in the grip of economic turmoil, facing possible political break-up and unsure of its role on the world stage should turn to cosy nostalgic visions of its heartlands. But did I have to watch them covering the myths in buttercream icing and judging each other on its consistency? No, Socrates, I did not. Time to pretend that Mary Berry’s son-in-law wasn’t the vicar in the village where I grew up, and grumble from a safe distance.
But then I watched a couple of episodes. And it’s absolutely splendid, isn’t it? I mean, this thing is properly excellent. The drama, the confectionary, the glorious reuniting of Mel and Sue after so many years. One of the things I love about it most is the concern with actually making a cake. Not a presenting a cake concept that gives you chills, or expressing my own personal philosophy in a cake, or rebranding the whole cake idea for the twenty-first century. Making a really good cake that you can eat and it tastes good like a good cake.
Aside from liking cake (as you might have gathered), I like the craft involved. So much TV – particularly reality TV – seems keen to confuse doing something with being something. The singing on The X Factor takes second (or fourteenth) place to the storylines which can be produced from images of the entrant’s past lives, or the invented friction between the judges. You can sit through episode after episode of The Contender without seeing more than a few highly-edited clips of anyone doing any boxing, whilst the camera spends ages watching people talk about their families and what losing would mean to them. And this contract for American Idol auditions, which recently found its way onto the Internet, blithely demands that aspiring performers agree that the producers can disclose any humiliating or damaging information about them during the show – or just make some up and disclose that instead. Whilst they claim to show us people doing things well or entertainingly, these shows (at their worst) blur the lines between the struggle to do and the struggle to be. They make people’s selves into projects, and then into products. The gap between skill and personality is narrowed until there’s nothing aside from the person for a judge to work on. And then they get to work judging that.
The sociologist and philosopher Richard Sennett has suggested that “craft” is a way we can resist the demands that the modern market puts on us to be instead of to do. In books like The Craftsman and The Culture of the New Capitalism, he talks about the erosion of people’s sense of self caused by the increasing corporate stress on fluidity, “creative destruction” and shifting between tasks. We’re always being told that we are our own brand, that we should see ourselves as entrepreneurs or freelances in search of our next role. We should maximise our personal potential for an employer, and work on making our hobbies and our personality part of the marketable package. In place of this narrowing, instrumental vision of our selves, Sennett offers “craft”, the hours spent concentrating on an object outside us, on doing something well for its own sake, and on producing something excellent which isn’t part of ourselves. His definition of craft stretches across (amongst other things) making music, writing code and cooking. He suggests that groups of people intent on their chosen craft show a concern for getting it right, are less offended when someone points out problems in the work, and aren’t threatened by the necessary failures which are involved in improving.
That’s part of what attracts me about The Great British Bake Off. I expected a load of “aspiration” and weepy interviews and people talking about how their edge was the fact that they’re just a little bit different. Instead I got a load of people talking about (and indeed demonstrating) what happens if you don’t pre-heat the oven to the right temperature, and slicing their fingers whilst trying to make chocolate flowers. In a world where you can’t turn on a TV without someone telling you that they’re passionate about insurance, or in a deep emotional intimacy with providing broadband, it’s great to see people who really like making pies and want to make a better pie than the last pie. The closest the contestants on GBBO get to a personal brand is putting their hand down on a heated griddle. And I think it’s all rather splendid.