Robin’s quest

It’s – as Noddy Holder says – Christmas. It must be. The lights are up. The crackers are in the shops. And the battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of the nation has begun in over-tinseled earnest. Telly Addict #22 checks to see if indeed the adverts are better than the programmes. They’re shorter. And cost about the same (except The Crown, which costs more than anything ever).  I’ve watched them all, so that you don’t have to, and can keep on fast-forwarding past.

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Britain’s fifth biggest chain Aldi remains very much an outlier when it comes to the annual battle for the hearts and wallets of the seasonally vulnerable, but they did well to hire national treasure Jim Broadbent to narrate their underpowered living carrot fable, which is undermined, festively speaking, by its message of abduction and cruelty. Like the carrot’s family, the little Waitrose girl also leaves a mince pie out, but for a robin. No mythic gift-givers or flying sleighs here, just a non-anthropomorphic bird and a girl. It’s my favourite.

Marks & Spencer plays the celebrity card, with dame-in-all-but-name Janet McTeer as Mrs Christmas. It’s overblown, unconvincing and explicitly links love to consumer goods made in a Chinese factory. Not sure what the colour-coded yetis are saying about Argos. That their products are abominable? John Lewis seems to have captured the national imagination AND annoyed nature charities with its bouncing wildlife (don’t try this with foxes, hedgehogs or dogs at home, kids).

I’m interested in the current campaign, Stop Funding Hate, to pressure big chains to stop advertising in newspapers that peddle hate speech. The link to their Facebook page is here. It may inspire you to put pressure on your local supermarket via head office. It worked on Co-op, and Lego!

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Right, all those mince pies are making me hungry.

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That Steak Diane from last week’s opening round of Masterchef: The Professionals (BBC Two) has taken my appetite away, and it was made by judge Marcus Wareing! As a lifelong fan of Masterchef, I used to be wary of Masterchef: The Professionals – back for its ninth series – as I couldn’t see the schadenfreude in trained chefs competing with trained chefs. But it’s actually fascinating and I’m delighted to have it back. Not least for the little silent movies acted out by the judges. There’s a montage of these, and of Greg Wallace’s best gurns and exclamations in Telly Addict.

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The BBC risks accusations of nationalism and tokenism by branding November #BlackandBritish, but so far, I’ve enjoyed British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga’s Forgotten History (BBC Two), which seeks to look even further back than the current casting crisis for black British actors, to African Roman Centurions and black Georgians.

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I read AA Gill in the Sunday Times knocking this series for being everything that’s box-tickingly wrong with the BBC but I disrespectfully disagree. In light of current global shifts to the “alt-right” – and the belated wake-up at the BBC and elsewhere to actual diversity, it’s a pretty vital warning from history.

Lionised British dramatist Stephen Poliakoff – whose last lauded drama for the BBC, Dancing on the Edge, was about a black British jazz band in the 1930s – is not my cup of tea. I vowed to give his new one, set after the war, a chance, but I only lasted 15 minutes. It’s just decent actors declaiming stuff that nobody says.

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I assume he actually instructed Jim Sturgess to do an impression of Sean Connery.

There’s a lovely moment of Zen comes from Planet Earth II, a series whose only misstep is to not have used the Duran Duran song as its theme.

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Oh, and regular visitors to this blog will know exactly what the object on the coffee table is.

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Naughty

Again, apologies for the delay, but Telly Addict‘s benefactors at UKTV were not in the office yesterday. I have no idea why. In any case, one of my favourite televisual experiences of last week was All Aboard! The Country Bus (BBC Four), a two-hour journey of the actual kind (as opposed to the emotional “journey” usually taken on TV today) from Richmond in North Yorkshire across the Dales, in real time, as part of the Slow TV movement originated in Norway.

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If you require volume, there’s always Joe Wicks: the Body Coach (Channel 4), a cross between Jamie Oliver and Russell Brand who’s already a superstar on Instagram, which is something you can be in this day and age. If he’s real, and not a sensational hoax played by a genius character comic who created him for an Edinburgh show, then I warn you against him if you find “healthy eating” anathema. I quite like him, in tiny doses. (Spot the difference in the following two photos.)

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I remain vexed by the BBC’s Sitcom Season (BBC One, BBC Two), which marks 60 years since the corporation broadcast but didn’t record or keep Hancock’s Half Hour. Rather more reverence is afforded the form these days, but not in the case of Are You Being Served? (BBC One), a karaoke version with a top-drawer cast having the time of their life doing impressions of beloved characters from the 70s and early 80s. I loved this show between the ages of seven and 12. And I don’t blame seasoned Benidorm writer Derren Litten (with whom I briefly worked on the early days of Not Going Out), for taking it on and pushing the envelope of taste (there’s a double entendre about “seamen” that might not have made it in 1972). But I just don’t know why it was on my telly. Surely you celebrate classic sitcoms by showing them, not remaking and rebooting them?

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Victoria (ITV) started well, and beat Poldark (BBC One) in the overnights. That’s despite Poldark giving its hyperventilating fans (I’m among them) a pumped male torso glistening with sweat in the first 20 minutes. Victoria has no such titilation, just upstairs-downstairs intrigues and protocols for the Downton crowd. I’m hooked already.

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I’m also hooked on The Night Of (Sky Atlantic), a remake, eight years after the event, of Peter Moffat’s legal drama Criminal Justice, re-set in New York and New Jersey and inflated to eight episodes. By the time you read this, I may well have binged on the whole series, which is utterly addictive. Even if, as I do, you remember the original really well, including the outcome, which I hope they’ve changed. One objection: the credit “Created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian”. Created? Really? Like Derren Litten “created” Are You Being Served?

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A nod to John Bishop, whose In Conversation With (it’s on W, which always look odd when typed) chat show slot is proving worthwhile. It’s no mean feat for a man who talks for a living (I’ve interviewed him – he’s a superb guest) to shut up so respectfully and professionally, leaving guests like James Corden and Charlotte Church to take centre stage for the best part of an hour.

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There is no prize for working out what’s on the coffee table this week (because there never is), but someone out there might get it. Here are all the Telly Addicts gathered in a YouTube playlist.

Do not dicker with me

Ah. The first Bank Holiday-delayed Telly Addict. It feels like a milestone. Shot on Tuesday morning instead of Monday, we apologise for its late running. After a couple of weeks of scouting the listings for shows worth reviewing – and in many cases, finding valuable things that I might ordinarily have missed – it’s all on a plate for me from now ’til Christmas. The new season is with us. And what better signifier than the return of The Great British Bake Off (BBC One)? Back for its seventh series, it is, I am happy to report, the same. This is what we want. Mary Berry makes the early claim that she is “expecting the unexpected,” but she has the wrong end of the spatula. It is the expected we expect.

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There is no point in me trying to convince you of the Bake Off’s value if you remain immune. If you didn’t like it before, you won’t suddenly like it now. Indeed, at some point it will surely have to stop rising, as it were, and plateau, or gateau. The last series averaged 12.3 million viewers, making it the most popular show on the BBC, and possibly on TV, outside of international sporting occasions. It’s a dozen bakers baking. That’s it.

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Certainly, the smutty annotation of Mel and Sue is vital to its appeal, and the cold, hard stare of Paul Hollywood, and the wet bunting, flapping, and the occasional squirrel (or, possibly a first for this series, a pheasant). We don’t need a scandal involving bins, or theft, or fridges, just 12 well-intentioned home cooks, cooking – and helping each other. You don’t get that on most competitive shows.

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By the way, I’ve said this on Telly Addict and typed it on Twitter and it was tumbleweeds both times, so allow me one final crack at it. The Bake Off contestant whose name is Selasi is promising. This is my assessment of him: I rate Selasi highly. [long pause] No? [longer pause] No? [even longer pause] Alright. [tumbleweeds bounce across the lawn at Welford Park]

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I was encouraged to give MasterChef Australia (shown here on the disarmingly named channel W) a look, as I’m such a fan of the UK version, and the first 16 minutes of the opening show of its eighth series – which runs for 63 episodes! – made me appreciate MasterChef UK even more. Gosh, it’s run at such a high pitch. Everybody’s shouting and squealing and fanning their faces (unless that’s just because it’s Australia and it’s hot) and whooping and cheering. I feel tired just typing about it. But for all the reasons I like Bake Off and some of you don’t, you might like the sheer volume of MasterChef Australia. After a brief taste of it, the prospect of Gregg shouting in my ear seems like a blessed relief.

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The big guns are being rolled out by the terrestrial channels. Although Versailles turned out to be a surprise hit, by shoving it out during the summer holidays, the BBC weren’t exactly cooking with confidence. Likewise Brief Encounters on ITV, which also seemed to create a buzz. (Sorry.) Ripper Street (BBC Two) and One Of Us (BBC One) are the first two big new dramas of the season, one returning for its fourth series – having been on Amazon Prime since January! – the other something fresh and seemingly self-contained like an Agatha Christie made by Universal Studios in 1931. I’ve made my ardent feelings about Ripper Street known before. If anything it has improved since Amazon re-mortgaged it. Though three years have passed and a lot of scrubbing up has taken place in Whitechapel, its principals, and its principles, are intact, and we rejoin the story.

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I have never forgotten Matthew Macfadyen’s Inspector Reid warning a wrong’un back in series one, “Do not dicker with me.” Who wouldn’t be thrilled by such rich, fruity, arcane language? I once wrongly attributed an absolute belter of a speech by Reid to chief writer and creator Richard Warlow when it was, in fact, penned by Toby Finlay, and these things matter. His overt presence shall be missed this series (or is it season, now they’ve gone all Amazon?), but I feel him lurking in the dugout.

One Of Us, not so keen. I am hugely enamoured of writing brothers Harry and Jack Williams after their astonishing, fleet-footed first series of The Missing and cannot wait for the second. But this doesn’t hit the same heights of subtlety and nuance. It’s a Gothic melodrama in which everybody’s a suspect and  thunder and lightning and torrential rain stand in for jeopardy, even though there’s plenty of jeopardy already. It’s too hysterical for my tastes. But I look forward to The Missing.

Here’s a pheasant instead. Exit, pursued by air.

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Oh, and the “item on the coffee table” this week is a Puzzled puzzle book from 1987 for which I drew the cartoon cover. It was, at the time, my job. I had to eat.

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Water cooler moment

Hooray, Telly Addict No.5 is up on time! View it here and check out Telly Addicts Nos. 1-4 while you’re there.

And here is your actual Water Cooler Moment from this week’s TV: an actual water cooler in a rented office from the first half of the first episode of Channel 4’s newest reality TV format The Job Interview, bubbling away to itself. It is, as gently hinted at by its title, based around job interviews, which are filmed for our entertainment, and, one presumes, the participants’ narcissism.

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Channel 4 have built a wall around their new show by calling back the top brass off of Very British Problems, who sit and unravel anecdote by the yard in what I always assume are NOT their kitchens to camera, and getting them to say similarly pithy things about employment for My Worst Job. Is this Jimmy Carr’s kitchen? Or the kitchen of one of the show’s producers?

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There’s a new season of glossy US legal drama Suits on Dave, who are owned by the same people who own me, although I was already a fan, so happy to report back from Episode 1, which makes me wonder why I wandered away from Season 5. It’s still super-slick, glamorous, alpha and a little bit eugenic in its casting, but the beautiful people at Pearson Specter Litt are in trouble and that’s always a good place to start. I’m already a fan of First Dates, as you’ll known, and I approve of Celebrity First Dates on a purely anthropological level. Here are its charming waiting staff, craning their necks at someone who they partially recognise.

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And finally, this week’s What’s On The Coffee Table? It’s a promotional Masterchef apron, which I am fond of, even though it gets its own catchphrase wrong (“Cooking doesn’t get better than this”?!) I’ve noticed that the pastries always look like they are for giants, when in real life, they are normal pastry-sized. The lies that TV tells.

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Take a seat

Firstly, please do click this link and visit the YouTube page, get the conversation going below the line. Thank you!

There will be spoilers, as this week on the slightly delayed Telly Addict #3 I’m daring to assess the two-episode finale of Season Six of Game Of Thrones. (I was once admonished below the line at the Guardian not for the content of a GoT-bearing Telly Addict, but for the use of a supplied publicity still for Season Three at the top of the page, which enraged one particularly tardy user still catching up with the box set of Season Two because the very act of illustrating my review with a photo that contained some characters from Season Three meant that those characters didn’t die in Season Two. Incidentally, those characters had been heavily featured on hoardings placed by Sky Atlantic advertising the new series.) Clearly, if you haven’t seen it yet, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WATCH THIS EDITION OF TELLY ADDICT.

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For me, Season Six of Game Of Thrones scored in the 87th minute, and washed away the clogging, A-to-B frustration of what went before. Stuff happened in episodes 9 and 10, and I mean really happened. They won on penalties.

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As well as GoT, the new Telly Addict also reviews Billions (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), which you can also read in written form on this blog here. It’s halfway through its run on Sky, but it’s been available to subscribers as a series-dump box set since May. I am currently considering re-watching the whole thing for a second time. That’s how prime I feel it is. To mangle Paul Giamatti’s US attorney: the decisions it makes, the judgements it brings, have weight. Talking of serious, there’s a defence of Bettany Hughes’ Nietzsche programme from Genius Of The Modern World (BBC Four) – I say “defence” as I’ve read a couple of sniffy reviews from critics who want to make plain how much they already know about the subject (also, Freud, Marx). I was eager to learn.

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Throw in a couple of references to the Euros, Celebrity Masterchef and the ongoing delight that is Versailles, plus a weird HBO animation called Animals, and it looks like we’ve got ourselves an under-ten-minute YouTube show. Keep clicking and subscribing and liking and all that. It’s your visible support that will make Telly Addict V 2.0 a going concern at the garden of earthly delights that is UKTV, where there are pastries, and skills, and facilities. Tune in, turn on, turn in.

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Multimedia postscript: you can also hear me discussing Game of Thrones S6 on the brand new and tremendous Bigmouth podcast with regulars Andrew Harrison and Matt Hall (who, incidentally, produced the first Telly Addict in 2011 when he worked at the Guardian), and fellow “Thronehead” Sarah Bee, who knows GoT in a far more profound way than I, and was thus confident enough to be even more critical of the way it’s been going since they waved goodbye to the novels. Listen to it here. (We also discuss Glastonbury and Roisin Murphy’s splendid new album.)

The tube

The return of Telly Addict. Can it really have been a whole week since the first “soft launch” broadcast pilot went live under my new roof at UKTV’s YouTube site? I have yet to wean myself off the “refresh” key, as it’s a new toy to me. There was no way of monitoring views on the Guardian website, but YouTube make it too easy to fixate and tap. We’re also under a whole new dictatorship of stats, so when I ask if you wouldn’t mind awfully clicking on “like” and “subscribe”, be gentle with me. I’m new here. It’s fortuitous that Celebrity Masterchef gets a nod this week. Regular viewers will know that I have no defences against this brand and have even succumbed to Masterchef The Professionals, thus swelling my portfolio. It’s a tired old dig to remark that you have not heard of some of the “celebrities” on Celebrity-prefixed formats, but having been on Celebrity Mastermind myself (I came second), I can hardly mither. Not knowing who this young gentleman was is my failing, not his.

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He’s Marcus Butler, 24, and he has over 4.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, despite not enunciating his words very well. He seems nice enough. hey, I am over the moon to have had 817 views of the first Telly Addict. But give me time. (Oh, I watched the first of Marcus’s clips, and it seemed to be about him saying that men should be more empathic of women, and then trying to put on a pair of tights as if to prove what a hard life women have. It was pretty thin stuff.) I am not in competition with Marcus Butler. I’m not in competition with anybody. I review three or four programmes that I watched last week, which this week also includes: the series finale of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic), the series finale of The Good Wife (More4), and, to please my UKTV overlords, the new series of format-of-formats Taskmaster (Dave), which I raved about on Telly Addict long before UKTV came to my rescue. Also, a tip of the hat to The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV), which is on ITV Hub here. It’s a heart-warming, pre-Brexit vision of a functioning South West London multicultural utopia, in a place of work where 50 languages are spoken. I hope everybody we see on the show still has a job and has not started getting sly abuse from emboldened thickos.

Get clicking.

The plateful eight

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And then … there were eight. This series of Masterchef (BBC One) has been one of, if not the best ever. We’re on the cusp of the semifinals. The nine contestants in the above screengrab were reduced, like a fine sauce, down to eight on Friday. (We were sorry to see queen of puddings Natasha go.) But even in the early weeks, we were seeing talented and inventive cooks being eliminated, so high has the standard been. It’s hard to believe we got here without Pedro, and Jacob, and Julie, and Alec, and Mark, and Noma, and Kath, and Caron, and Jessie, and Tom, and Rob, whose names are already fading from memory (I made one of those up, just to prove it). In any other year, some of those competent and imaginative preparers of food would still be in the competition, but the heat is so intense this year, and has been since the start. Usually a “home cook” would still be in the running, but although “full-time Mum” Jane was initially patronised into that Masterchef archetype, it seems a dim and distant memory. It’s true that some of the “characters” have fallen by the wayside, but that tends to happen, as the quarter-finals require a raising of the game (especially when cooking game) that allows less room for mucking about and/or getting away with it.

Masterchef12final11 Last year was a big one for me and Masterchef – and I speak as someone who watched the very first Sunday-afternoon incarnation of the show in 1990, with future sauce mogul Loyd Grossman – it’s the year I accepted Masterchef: The Professionals into my heart, after seven years of denial. A full-time adherent to Celebrity Masterchef – a spin-off format I even stuck with after Michael Buerk tried to derail it by not only being a bad cook but by clearly not wanting to be on the programme in the first place – I snubbed The Professionals, as I could not for the life of me see the appeal of watching professional cooks cook. (In many ways, this is what sucks Bake Off: Creme de la Creme of the mothership’s charm.) I was wrong. In August last year, I met and interviewed no-nonsense Professionals judge Monica Galetti at an exclusive screening of the first episode in a cinema in Edinburgh attended by hardcore Masterchef fans, and it opened my eyes. (Yes, the contestants work in professional kitchens, but at a level that makes them just as keen and hungry as the non-professionals. The format works. I’m in.)

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It’s a big commitment watching a full series of Masterchef, as, unlike the Bake Off, it’s way more than just a bucolic weekly pleasure. We’re talking at least three, and up to five times a week (the precise format is constantly tinkered with). That’s a lot of reductions, fondants, tuiles, ganaches, three-ways, crumbs, purées, brittles and inadvisable sous-vide bags, and a lot of variations on the clichés: “I’m gutted,” “I like to push myself in the kitchen,” “I want to show the judges what I’m made of,” “I go to bed at night thinking about food and I wake up in the morning thinking about food,” “Food is my life,” “I hope I’ve done enough to stay in the competition,” and the bingo classic, “I’m cooking outside my comfort zone.” (Every time we hear one of those phrases, I’m inside my comfort zone.) Sometimes it can feel like an endurance test, but when it catches fire like a blowtorched lettuce leaf, rarely does an edition goes by, not even in the wheat/chaff early rounds, when some magic doesn’t occur, whether it’s the crescent shape of the accompaniments to a beautiful dish, a Gregg Wallace gurn or a John Torode “lovely, lovely thing”. In most hour-long programmes, it’s all three. Masterchef done three ways, in fact.

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We all have our favourite rounds. I’m not sorry to see the back of the palate test (unless it re-emerges in semifinal week), where they have to guess what’s in a dish John has cooked and copy it. The meat and potatoes of Masterchef is, for me, and has always been since the 2001 revamp, a round in which a dish is prepared, or three dishes are prepared, and evaluated by John, Gregg, past finalists, restaurant critics, or fellow chefs. (I understand the need for the professional kitchen round, which is more of an insight into how much of a git a professional chef can be, but it’s too tense for me.) This series, the visiting critic has chosen a key ingredient for the contestants to showcase – that’s new – but it all boils down to the basics: can you take some things and make them taste nice? As John and Gregg habitually put it: “food you want to eat.” As opposed to the other kind: food you want to look at, or Instagram. (In a later episode of Parks & Recreation, while everyone else tucks into a tasting menu, Tom takes photos of the food and is the only one who avoids getting food poisoning from a mini calzone.)

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Of the remaining “Plateful Eight”, the favourite has got to be either Jack (above, glasses), or Liz (above, top of head), with Annie and Juanita in the running. But there’s always room for a late spurt, and the more arduous cooking tasks of the semis sometimes reveal new frontrunners. I was glad that the two early contestants who had that Apprentice-style over-confidence and outward determination to “win” didn’t survive. It’s not about winning, it’s about cooking. You don’t “win” the professional kitchen round; you survive it. You don’t “win” the blockbusting semifinal tasks, you just cook, in teams, in pairs, or individually, to the best of your preternatural ability, and with the ingredients provided, and leave it to the judges to judge. (As with the Bake Off, Masterchef contestants support one another – they all want each other to win.) Billy is the closest to a “win” contestant in the remaining quorum, but he’s a softie. I can’t think of a knockout competition with so many hugs and tears.

In The Apprentice – a Hunger Games for monkeys which I forsook many years ago – it’s “You’re fired.” In Masterchef, it’s “You’re fried.”

 

Tray disappointing

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I don’t believe I need reiterate my hopeless devotion to The Great British Bake Off. Like Adele, even its blockbusting, world-beating success cannot wither my love. It’s bigger than all of us. And yet, it retains its ancient charm: the marquee, the repartee, the good-natured competition, the squirrels, the judgely dynamic, Mel and Sue, the puns, the fun, and, at the end of the day, its joy of baking. The frangipane franchise’s latest and first conceptually apart Great British Spin Off is with us, Bake Off: Creme de la Creme (BBC One), and it’s soured before it’s started. I actually fast-forwarded the first show to the end, just in case there was a delicate hidden layer of fondant pleasure to be had from the stupid confectionery skyscraper round. There wasn’t.

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It’s held in a stately home. Already, this is less welcoming than a tent. (By the way, I understand that it’s not the Bake Off, but Masterchef seems more than capable of extending its brand without – usually – tainting it. I currently subscribe to three versions of it, and that’s a big commitment.) Secondly, Tom Kerridge, a TV chef I’ve long been drawn to for his Gl0ucestershire twang, his odes to eating, and his achievable gastropub style, is not yet ready to host an arena-style TV show. Talking us through his recipes over the kitchen table, one on one, as it were, no problem. But he lacks the authority and the shirt of an actual presenter. (Did he think this was just a run-through? Surely a producer could have nudged him towards trousers?) Thirdly, the judges, who claim to have reached the top in pastry by cooking “from the heart”, but who come across as superior and nit-picky and entirely free of “heart”. I suppose that comes with the territory – it’s Bake Off: The Professionals by a sillier name – but it’s the show’s downfall.

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There is nobody to love, or to root for in this contest. The three teams of three top desserters have nothing but contempt for their competitors. They are in it to win it. When the first round of trays were presented to our unsavoury judges, subtitles allowed us to hear the bitchy comments from the other cooks. (I will not be the first to make comparisons with The Apprentice.) One particularly arrogant gentleman with sticky-up grey hair and “30 fucking years” in pastry, swore twice, lowering the tone further with each “****”. While the Bake Off – and I know it’s not the Bake Off! – runs on a rare, renewable energy of niceness and neighbourliness and lending each other a cup of raising agent, Creme de la Creme is Thatcherite in its sense of cutthroat competition, and should be held in the City, for people who work in the City and still wave wads of banknotes around. That one of the teams comes from a firm that caters privately for City oligarchs who can afford not to fraternise with the wider populace says it all. We are the wider populace; they are literally not for the likes of us.

If this entire show was an elaborate hoax set up by a psychology department to see if a pastry chef would actually kill another pastry chef in order to win a cake-off, I’d find it easier to understand. (By the way, the subtitling was woefully inconsistent: the English-speaking cooks were subtitled when they whispered nasty things to each other, but not the French judge, or the one from Singapore, or the Scottish team captain, all of them literally incomprehensible at points.)

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It’s a show about food. It should be mouth-watering. It should be moreish. It’s not. It should make you want to cook. It does not. Because the endless identical rows of laser-guided concoctions of preening silliness do not make you hungry. (Or at least, they only make you hungry for an M&S-bought fancy out of a box.) Who wants to watch a competition that involves metal rulers and, at one stage, a piece of cutting equipment that looked surgical by nature. I don’t watch Bake Off – and I know it’s not the Bake Off – to be reminded of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.

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I shan’t be watching this show again. Mean-spirited contestants making stupid food that is judged numerically, like ice dancing? It stuck in my throat.