The Great Christmas Bake Off review: Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig fail to add humour to festive episode – The Independent

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The Great Christmas Bake Off review: Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig fail to add humour to festive episode – The Independent

Even those of us who don’t know our sodium bicarbonate from our aniseed can comprehend that the key to good baking is balance. There’s taste and texture; different types of flavours; variations in textures; contrasts in colour, ingredients, design, even temperature. The same goes for television and, in particular, for The Great Christmas Bake Off (Channel 4), the first of two festive spin-offs we’re being treated to (a New Year’s Day edition follows).

Thus, for this instalment, the four contestants – who all previously appeared on GBBO – are nicely balanced in age and personality, from nerdy engineer Andrew Smyth through token kid Liam Charles to Waitrose mom Jane Beedle and homely scouse nan Flo Atkins. (Maybe one day she’ll be asked to do a Nan bread just for the gag.)

They get on pretty well, though I would maybe enjoy a bit more conflict and accusations of copying and sabotage between them – all for the honour of being named Star Baker and presented with what looks to be an inscribed dinner plate that passes for the “trophy”.


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On the other hand, it is Christmas, and you’ll have had enough of that sort of baked-in domestic tension by now. So, fine, I guess.

Then there’s Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, complex seasonings that don’t really work together as happily as, say, cinnamon and vanilla, or that well-known off the shelf flavouring mix, which can be added to any light entertainment show, Mel and Sue. I don’t know what Channel 4 pay Noel and Sandi to gang around and wrestle with challenging lines such as “Bakers, you have one hour”, but I suspect it is disproportionate to the lift they give to this particular dish. There is only one real attempt at humour, which involves Noel and a chocolate Yule log, and that has no place in a civilised society, let alone the hygienic environment of the GBBO tent. 

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1/10 10) Save Me

Lennie James’s missing-child thriller Save Me looked as though it might be a paint-by-numbers affair. Instead it was a gripping start to Sky Atlantic’s impressive run, with James taking the lead as Nelly, the womanising bum who gains a new lease of investigative energy when his estranged daughter Jody vanishes. A smart script kept us guessing right up to an ending that denied us the closure we had expected. A second series has been commissioned.

Sky

2/10 9) Cunk on Britain

How much you enjoyed Philomena Cunk’s history of Britain depended on how funny you find Diane Morgan’s resting confused face. I find it hilarious. Her interviewees are kind of in on the joke but clearly briefed to take it as seriously as possible. They’ll be mid-flow and she will cock her head and drain all the interest from her face. “What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened?” she asked Robert Peston, who did his best to answer with a straight face. Co-producer Charlie Brooker’s fingerprints are everywhere in the way Morgan’s vain, poorly informed, easily distracted Cunk operates within a ruthlessly satirical production, which sends up the tropes and cliches of every dodgy documentary and history programme. She might not be the comic creation we need, but she is the one we deserve right now.

BBC

3/10 8) Sally4Ever

You either love Julia Davis or think her sick filth ought to be banned. Sally4Ever proved yet again that there is nobody working today – or at least nobody with the same platform – with a blacker sense of humour. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) was already surrounded by monsters: her loser of a boyfriend (Alex MacQueen) and tricky colleagues played by Julian Barratt and Felicity Montagu. Then Emma (Davis herself) arrived, a tornado of sex and bad intentions. Beneath the shagging, drugs, excrement, manipulation and malice were pockets of tenderness, but you had to look pretty hard to see them. Luckily there were also gales of laughter. N.b. If you have yet to see it, please do not watch it with your parents or children on Boxing Day and then write in to complain.

Sky

4/10 7) The Little Drummer Girl

This was a spiritual successor rather than a sequel to The Night Manager. It was still a Le Carré adaptation on the BBC sprinkled with famous faces, but the differences were as pronounced as the similarities. Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur, directed with a high sense of style. Florence Pugh was dazzling as the ingenue actress Charlie, recruited for a dangerous mission across Europe, ably supported by Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon as her spook handlers. Some viewers switched off after the first episodes, which took time to set the scene. They missed out on a vivid, beautifully told thriller.

BBC

5/10 6) A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant… can act? That was the first surprise in this smooth, stylish BBC retelling of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. He burst convincingly out of the charming fop mould he has slept in so comfortably for thirty years. What have we been missing all this time? The other shock was remembering how recent it all was. The government is still up to a lot of nonsense, but the days of this kind of cover-up, for these reasons, is surely over. Or is it?

BBC

6/10 5) Patrick Melrose

Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have the kind of precisely drawn interiority that makes any kind of adaptation seem doomed to fail. Instead, the Sky Atlantic series brought them convincingly to life. It is not a happy tale. In flashback we saw Patrick’s childhood in the shadow of his monstrous father David (Hugo Weaving), and the decades of self-loathing and substance abuse that followed. At the centre of all this was Benedict Cumberbatch, as good as he’s ever been. His Patrick could be brilliant, witty, cruel and pitiful, sometimes in the same smack-addled sentence. Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh as David’s wife Eleanor and Pip Torrens as his ghastly friend Nicholas Pratt all put in memorable performances, too.

Sky

7/10 4) Dynasties

At an age where most of us are long past doing anything, David Attenborough is still changing our expectations of what a nature documentary can do. Like The Rolling Stones, he has been on his farewell tour since about 1970, but unlike Jagger & Co, the returns are not diminishing. Is he fuelled by anger at the world’s response to climate change? Or simply driven by some massive internal dynamo, a soul-quest to improve our ability to relate to penguins? Whatever the motivation, Dynasties was wonderful, telling complex stories of the animal kingdom with beautiful photography.

BBC

8/10 3) Killing Eve

It’s unusual for a TV writer to attract more attention than the stars or director. Perhaps the world is changing. Or perhaps it’s simply that the writer of Killing Eve was Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of Fleabag, Star Wars and one of the country’s outstanding new talents. Here she turned her hand to a spy thriller, an adaptation of Luke Jennings’ novels about a beautiful assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and the MI6 agent given the task of hunting her down, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Both leads demanded attention: Comer the magnetic murderer, Oh the harassed but brilliant spy. The script swerved between comedy, action and drama often enough to keep everyone guessing.

BBC

9/10 2) England vs Colombia

Yes, the national team have played on television in a World Cup before, but I’m including this because the outcome, an England penalty shoot-out victory, was so unusual as to count as a whole new format. At a time when we all watch things at different times, here was something unmistakably live. We watched Gareth Southgate’s men knowing that the rest of the country was, too, poised in living rooms and pub gardens, ready to bury their heads in a sofa or throw their pints in the air. No other TV programme sold as many waistcoats.

Rex Features

10/10 1) Succession

The ageing patriarch and his scheming children. Not an original concept. Trust, the drama about the last days of Getty family, proved that it was possible for a series built on this premise to have actors, scenery, direction, script, etc etc, and still somehow fall short. Succession, by comparison, felt alive. If US production values and ambition gave it its scale, its heart was dark and British. We can thank Jesse Armstrong, co-creator of Peep Show, and his all-star line-up of British writers, including the Lucy Prebble, Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett. They made the Roy family expats themselves, and you could hear the old aristocratic froideur in every withering put-down. But we cared for them, too. One of the many TV professionals I consulted for this list thought Succession was so much better than everything else this year that the top 10 should just have it listed in bold and then nine blank spaces. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s certainly at the top.

Alamy Stock Photo


1/10 10) Save Me

Lennie James’s missing-child thriller Save Me looked as though it might be a paint-by-numbers affair. Instead it was a gripping start to Sky Atlantic’s impressive run, with James taking the lead as Nelly, the womanising bum who gains a new lease of investigative energy when his estranged daughter Jody vanishes. A smart script kept us guessing right up to an ending that denied us the closure we had expected. A second series has been commissioned.

Sky

2/10 9) Cunk on Britain

How much you enjoyed Philomena Cunk’s history of Britain depended on how funny you find Diane Morgan’s resting confused face. I find it hilarious. Her interviewees are kind of in on the joke but clearly briefed to take it as seriously as possible. They’ll be mid-flow and she will cock her head and drain all the interest from her face. “What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened?” she asked Robert Peston, who did his best to answer with a straight face. Co-producer Charlie Brooker’s fingerprints are everywhere in the way Morgan’s vain, poorly informed, easily distracted Cunk operates within a ruthlessly satirical production, which sends up the tropes and cliches of every dodgy documentary and history programme. She might not be the comic creation we need, but she is the one we deserve right now.

BBC

3/10 8) Sally4Ever

You either love Julia Davis or think her sick filth ought to be banned. Sally4Ever proved yet again that there is nobody working today – or at least nobody with the same platform – with a blacker sense of humour. Sally (Catherine Shepherd) was already surrounded by monsters: her loser of a boyfriend (Alex MacQueen) and tricky colleagues played by Julian Barratt and Felicity Montagu. Then Emma (Davis herself) arrived, a tornado of sex and bad intentions. Beneath the shagging, drugs, excrement, manipulation and malice were pockets of tenderness, but you had to look pretty hard to see them. Luckily there were also gales of laughter. N.b. If you have yet to see it, please do not watch it with your parents or children on Boxing Day and then write in to complain.

Sky

4/10 7) The Little Drummer Girl

This was a spiritual successor rather than a sequel to The Night Manager. It was still a Le Carré adaptation on the BBC sprinkled with famous faces, but the differences were as pronounced as the similarities. Park Chan-Wook, the Korean auteur, directed with a high sense of style. Florence Pugh was dazzling as the ingenue actress Charlie, recruited for a dangerous mission across Europe, ably supported by Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon as her spook handlers. Some viewers switched off after the first episodes, which took time to set the scene. They missed out on a vivid, beautifully told thriller.

BBC


5/10 6) A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant… can act? That was the first surprise in this smooth, stylish BBC retelling of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. He burst convincingly out of the charming fop mould he has slept in so comfortably for thirty years. What have we been missing all this time? The other shock was remembering how recent it all was. The government is still up to a lot of nonsense, but the days of this kind of cover-up, for these reasons, is surely over. Or is it?

BBC

6/10 5) Patrick Melrose

Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels have the kind of precisely drawn interiority that makes any kind of adaptation seem doomed to fail. Instead, the Sky Atlantic series brought them convincingly to life. It is not a happy tale. In flashback we saw Patrick’s childhood in the shadow of his monstrous father David (Hugo Weaving), and the decades of self-loathing and substance abuse that followed. At the centre of all this was Benedict Cumberbatch, as good as he’s ever been. His Patrick could be brilliant, witty, cruel and pitiful, sometimes in the same smack-addled sentence. Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh as David’s wife Eleanor and Pip Torrens as his ghastly friend Nicholas Pratt all put in memorable performances, too.

Sky

7/10 4) Dynasties

At an age where most of us are long past doing anything, David Attenborough is still changing our expectations of what a nature documentary can do. Like The Rolling Stones, he has been on his farewell tour since about 1970, but unlike Jagger & Co, the returns are not diminishing. Is he fuelled by anger at the world’s response to climate change? Or simply driven by some massive internal dynamo, a soul-quest to improve our ability to relate to penguins? Whatever the motivation, Dynasties was wonderful, telling complex stories of the animal kingdom with beautiful photography.

BBC

8/10 3) Killing Eve

It’s unusual for a TV writer to attract more attention than the stars or director. Perhaps the world is changing. Or perhaps it’s simply that the writer of Killing Eve was Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star of Fleabag, Star Wars and one of the country’s outstanding new talents. Here she turned her hand to a spy thriller, an adaptation of Luke Jennings’ novels about a beautiful assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and the MI6 agent given the task of hunting her down, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Both leads demanded attention: Comer the magnetic murderer, Oh the harassed but brilliant spy. The script swerved between comedy, action and drama often enough to keep everyone guessing.

BBC


9/10 2) England vs Colombia

Yes, the national team have played on television in a World Cup before, but I’m including this because the outcome, an England penalty shoot-out victory, was so unusual as to count as a whole new format. At a time when we all watch things at different times, here was something unmistakably live. We watched Gareth Southgate’s men knowing that the rest of the country was, too, poised in living rooms and pub gardens, ready to bury their heads in a sofa or throw their pints in the air. No other TV programme sold as many waistcoats.

Rex Features

10/10 1) Succession

The ageing patriarch and his scheming children. Not an original concept. Trust, the drama about the last days of Getty family, proved that it was possible for a series built on this premise to have actors, scenery, direction, script, etc etc, and still somehow fall short. Succession, by comparison, felt alive. If US production values and ambition gave it its scale, its heart was dark and British. We can thank Jesse Armstrong, co-creator of Peep Show, and his all-star line-up of British writers, including the Lucy Prebble, Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett. They made the Roy family expats themselves, and you could hear the old aristocratic froideur in every withering put-down. But we cared for them, too. One of the many TV professionals I consulted for this list thought Succession was so much better than everything else this year that the top 10 should just have it listed in bold and then nine blank spaces. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s certainly at the top.

Alamy Stock Photo

As for the baking… it is all very impressive indeed, as you’d expect. The technical challenge, set by judge Paul Hollywood, playing Grinch to Prue Leith’s Mary Poppins, is to create some obscure Icelandic decorative poppadoms called laufabrauo. All the bakers naturally fail, but the instructions are so deliberately opaque that I’m surprised any of them got near. Seems unfair, contrived even. It’s when Jane triumphs here that I think she is destined to win, as this is the round that always weighs so heavily in the judges’ scales.

I am, though, also rooting for Flo, so to speak. I remember her awesome – genuinely – water melon replica cake from the summer run, and I admire both her technical skills and soaring imagination – a fine balance of qualities in any cook. 

Anyway, she has the strangest concoction of all to bring to the showstopper round. This is where the bakers are asked to make “a cake that looks like a Christmas present and Inside is a design you see when you cut it open”. A cake within a cake, you see? 

Liam essays a “speculoos” theme, which has me worried until I google it. That isn’t grand or, indeed, neat enough for a win. 

Andrew reaches back to childhood memories of Christmas trees, and decides to suspend a pair of baubles in his sponge, though sadly one of them drops too early and rather lets the side down – decidedly unbalanced. 

Jane, characteristically, is more cautious, avoiding trying to bake one cake inside another and instead just sticking to a simple cake-on-cake construction with cute penguins – less ambitious but very on trend for 2018. 

But Flo! Flo decides to make a sponge that is spiced – in the way Charlie Sheen is spiced – with an entire bottle of mulled wine. She then adds three cheese-themed fillings – with real cheese ingredients. Real cheese, and not shy ones either – Roquefort, Stilton and cream cheese. It is, she explains, a balance between two ends of the spectrum. Arriving on a marzipan sleigh led by marzipan reindeer, it looks, well, show-stopping.

The judges hate it. “Not good,” says Hollywood. “I don’t like it,” goes Leith. It is Noel’s moment. “But a kind of genius,” he exclaims. He is right. Flo is robbed. It’s the sort of thing Heston Blumenthal does, not some amateur. Yet the audacious Flo transcends the rules – and everything turns sour.

Anyway, I want one of Flo’s “Christmas in a Cake” cakes in a way I rarely desire anything on a telly cookery show. I expect to be eating one this time next year, probably bought from Waitrose, which seem inclined to this sort of innovation. They should share the vast profits they’ll make with Flo. That would be a sweet balance of taste and decency. 

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