Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Great British Bake Off and the Power of Nice

Two interesting things happened last week that prompted this blogpost. The first was that The Museum Of Curiosity - QI's sister show on BBC Radio 4 - won a Rose D'or in Berlin (Naturally, I was very happy about this as I work on the show as a researcher/writer). The second thing was that the BBC lost the UK's most popular TV show The Great British Bake Off to Channel 4. The public outcry was extraordinary and prompted more than one commentator to point out that if the British public got as agitated about the slow but steady sell-off of the NHS then maybe it would be a lot safer. But people were angry. And they were sad. 'It won't be the same!' they cried. And they may have a point. Bake Off could lose its most defining factor.

Its niceness.

Niceness is a quality that programme makers overlook far too often. And they're missing a trick because people like nice shows.

The Museum Of Curiosity works because it's a kind of reverse Room 101; instead of having people on to bitch about the things that annoy them, we have people on to talk about things that make them feel inspired, happy or astonished. That's why the show regularly attracts people to appear on it (despite the pitiful radio appearance fees) like Sir Terry Pratchett, Kate Adie, Sir David Frost, Dr Alice Roberts, Buzz Aldrin, Helen Sharman, Neil Gaiman and many more. And look at some of the most popular shows on TV ... Strictly Come Dancing. Bargain Hunt. QI. Pointless. George Carke's Amazing Spaces. Would I Lie To You? Bake Off. They're all shows that make you smile from start to finish. There's no nastiness; even Craig Revel Horwood's pantomime histrionics have a knowing smile behind them and the public boo and cheer along with the joke. He is a world away from Simon Cowell's flat and emotionless put downs or Gordon Ramsay's sweary abuse.

It's interesting to look at the most watched TV programmes of 2015 - the most recent annual figures we have - and note that eight of the Top 10 are episodes of Bake Off. The other two are the finals of Strictly and Britain's Got Talent. From 11 to 20 it's all Bake Off, Strictly and BGT - except for an anniversary episode of Eastenders. The only other shows to make it into the Top 40 are Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife and the finales of I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! and Broadchurch. The vast majority are nice shows.

I'll admit that I'm a nice-oholic. My TV viewing invariably sways away from shows where people are rude, abusive, angry, combative or deliberately controversial. I can't watch soap operas any more because all of the warmth and humour has been replaced by 30 minutes of people shouting at each other. I can't watch 'misery porn' shows about bailiffs taking someone's furniture away or about beaches that kill, holiday nightmares or botched plastic surgery. I avidly avoid shows that focus on the negative and perpetuate the idea that life is shit - so no Grumpy Old Men for me. And no Can't Pay, We'll Take It Away and no Benefits Street either. I hate reality shows like The Apprentice that turn greed and arrogance into supposed entertainment (and it gave us Katie bloody Hopkins). I can't even watch Masterchef any more. Instead you'll find me watching Masterchef Australia where the judges are kind and supportive and, as the result, the contestants put up food that the British show would kill for.

The show has a real Bake Off vibe to it. Even the guest judges join in the niceness.The hugely scary Marco Pierre White was guest judge in Week 1 of the current series (showing weekday evenings on the W Channel). During a tough team challenge where the contestants had to run a real restaurant for an evening service he asked them 'Do you want me to go easy on you or make you sweat?' The contestants chose the latter and he put them through their paces. One or two were reduced to tears by the pressure. Were they mocked? No. Were they laughed at? No. Were they shouted at? No. Marco spoke to them, encouraged them, built up their confidence and they went back to work and they succeeded. And this week we have Nigella Lawson as guest judge. When someone did well yesterday she hugged and kissed them. When one contestant - a huge Nigella fan - did badly in front of her hero the domestic goddess didn't say 'That's terrible' or 'You didn't do very well.' Instead, she pointed out that 'If you don't make mistakes you stop learning' at which point the other judges - all top chefs and food critics - chimed in that they had all made terrible mistakes at some point in their careers. It made that contestant feel better and they worked doubly hard in the next challenge. That's my kind of cookery show, not some top chef throwing a contestant's food in the bin and calling them 'a f*cking waste of space'. Maybe that's why Masterchef Australia attracts the cream of world chefs to appear on the show? Last year Heston Blumenthal set the challenge for the final episode and then employed the winner at his Fat Duck restaurant. He's back again this year, I'm pleased to say. I wish that the British incarnation would follow the same model. If it did, I'd watch it again.

I was interested to read, a few days ago, that Bake Off's cosy feelgood factor is largely down to Mel and Sue who flatly refused to make the show overly dramatic. They actually threatened to walk off the show in Series 1 if the producers insisted on them bringing out the human drama. "We felt uncomfortable with it and we said 'We don't think you've got the right presenters'", Sue told The Telegraph newspaper in a recent interview. "I'm proud that we did that, because what we were saying is 'Let's try this a different way' - and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their souffle collapsed, but nobody's crying because someone's going 'Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?' Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honoured technique for introducing tension into a television show, but it's no way to treat your family." And even when the contestants do have a breakdown, Mel and Sue make sure it doesn't get to air by blocking the camera's view of the contestant and by swearing a lot so that the segment won't make the final edit. It's just one of the many reasons that Bake Off works - kindness, consideration, niceness.

People want to see nice shows. Channel 4 paid £75 million to buy Bake Off - the nicest of the nice - so they, presumably, agree. Time will tell if their money was well spent; after all, a TV show isn't just a format - it's the sum of its parts: good scripts, good content, the right presenters, the right 'feel'. As Top Gear has learned to its cost, you have to have all four. I'll confess that I'm sad about Bake Off's move to Channel 4 but, had the presenters made the move too, I might be happier. Without Mel and Sue and possibly Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, the show won't be the same. That isn't necessarily the end of the world so long as the new presenters maintain the winning format. But the minute it turns into the kind of mawkish slush that Mel and Sue fought so hard to keep out of the show, it will fail. It will also fail if the judges try to do a Gordon Ramsay or a Simon Cowell. Nastiness is old hat. The viewing figures say it all.

There's a well-known, and possible apocryphal, story about a teacher who writes out the Nine Times Table on the board in front of her class and gets the answer to 6 x 9 wrong. The class sniggers behind her back. So she asks them, 'What are you all laughing at?' And the class replies, 'You got 6 x 9 wrong'. The teacher then says, 'Yes I did. Deliberately. I wanted to teach you all something about life. Isn't it interesting that you all were keen to point out my one mistake and yet no one congratulated me on the eleven equations that I got right? I got far more right than I got wrong but all you focused on was my mistake. That, sadly, is how life works. Make a mistake and everyone will point it out. Do good and hardly anyone will say a word about it, let alone reward you. But the reality is that there's far more good than bad in the world - once you realise that you'll be happier people."

And, to quote from my most recent book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?

'I recently met Jimmy Wales, the founder and public face of Wikipedia. Here is a man whose aim is to ‘give every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge’ which, as aims go, is pretty damned good. We talked about the ‘wiki’ philosophy, the fact that absolutely anyone can alter, add or delete information on Wikipedia and I asked him whether this was a worry. Wasn’t it possible that bad people could misuse that kind of free access to do bad things? ‘I don’t think so’, he said, ‘Wikipedia works on the radical assumption that mostly people are okay. If you read commentary in newspapers and on the internet, you weep for the future of the species as it seems there are so many horrible people out there. But if you really think about everyone around you, out of every 1000 people you meet, 990 of them will be perfectly nice, maybe another nine will be extremely annoying but there’s only maybe one in a thousand that is actually malicious or a troublemaker. And yet we go through life designing everything around the bad people, locking things down. We should be designing things around the majority of good people and then deal with the bad people when we need to.’

 I couldn’t agree more.'

I don't need TV shows that focus on the negative. The world is already full of people doing that. I want shows that make me feel good. Shows that I learn from. Shows that inspire me. I hope that Bake Off survives its transition. And I hope that programme makers make a lot more of the same.

That will be very nice indeed.


  1. So true! I want to watch shows that enrich my day, not bring it down.
    Many years ago I saw a card which read:
    When I am right, no one remembers
    When I am wrong, no one forgets
    I always try to turn that around by giving praise for every small success and giving encouragement for every failure.

  2. wonderful article Steyvn :) couldn't agree more.