Oo-er! Let’s keep the Bake Off innuendo coming

The funny side: Bake Off’s Noel Fielding (right), Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood
The funny side: Bake Off’s Noel Fielding (right), Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood Credit: PA

Gosh, what a relief! It took a good 15 minutes for the new series of The Great British Bake Off to get in the mood but once it got going, there was no stopping it.

After worrying reports over the summer that there would be fewer “soggy bottom” jokes in Channel 4’s new version of the show, it came as a pleasant surprise on Tuesday evening when new host Sandi Toksvig gently brought us down into the gutter.

“Right, bakers, you have two minutes to bring this to a fruity conclusion,” said Toksvig, straight-faced as a judge as she chivvied them along during the Signature Bake round. “And, you know, who doesn’t want that?” Well, quite. Before long, everyone was at it. Co-host Noel Fielding got very excited about a contestant’s “moist clutch” (calm down, the poor woman was only making a cake shaped like a handbag), while one flustered chap complained that his mini roll was “dripping all over the place”. Bloody things, always doing that.

Noel Fielding chats to a contestant on The Great British Bake Off Credit: PA

For all the suggestions to the contrary, we should perhaps have guessed that the double entendres would survive Bake Off’s move from the BBC to Channel 4. They are integral to the show’s appeal: Bake Off without its hot baps and erect biscuits is about as much fun as a crumpet without butter. Former hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins might be gone but their gloriously smutty legacy lives on – and a jolly good thing that is, too.

Bake Off isn’t the only show filling the public’s minds with filth, though. Innuendo keeps popping up in the least likely places. The BBC nature series Springwatch is full of – to put it politely – avian jokes. “We all like to see tits in HD,” remarked Chris Packham once. Even stuffy old Antiques Roadshow has been hitching up its skirt and getting in on the act. “I’m mightily impressed by the size of your anchor,” snickered one of their experts in March.

But actually, these comfortingly old-fashioned shows are just the sorts of places where innuendo thrives. It is a peculiarly British form of humour, which plays on our nation’s reputation for prudishness and sexual reserve. The primmer the environment, the funnier the innuendo becomes. It is, I suppose, all about slipping in a quick one where you least expect it.

It has always been thus. In the Seventies, we had the BBC’s Are You Being Served?, which was set in a well-to-do department store, where Betty Slocombe’s discussion of her pet cat was nothing more than that, of course. Meanwhile, some of the best scenes from innuendo-filled Sixties radio comedy classic Round the Horne took place in “Bona Books”: “Would you be interested in Spenser’s Faerie Queene?” “No, he’s not interested in mine.”

Once you’re in the swing of things, you can’t stop hearing double entendres. Then we all become a bit like Finbarr Saunders of Viz magazine, who couldn’t leave the house without seeing or hearing something racy. “You’re asking for it, young man,” a Pc tells him. “As the actress said to the bishop,” Finbarr fires back. By the time Bake Off’s over, there’s a bit of Finbarr in all of us.

The joy of innuendo lies in that unspoken understanding between comedian and audience: we’re all in on the joke, of course, even if no one is quite willing to admit it. “If you feel down in the mouth, suck Quillies,” was one of innumerable memorable double entendres from Eighties much-loved Radio 4 comedy series Radio Active, a parody of commercial radio co-created by Angus Deayton. Quillies? Oh, just a brand of throat lozenges.

If it’s funny enough, innuendo allows us to get away with saying things that might otherwise seem offensive or – worst of all – crass. This is why writers as far back as Chaucer and Shakespeare had such fun with it. “The bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon,” says Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. The Elizabethan Globe theatre audience would have been in hysterics, no doubt.

Humphrey Lyttelton

But the real art of innuendo lies in the delivery. The music hall and pantomime strain of it tends towards wink-wink, nudge-nudge ribaldry, but that master of the form Humphrey Lyttelton, the original host of Radio 4 panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, preferred to play things straight. “It wouldn’t have worked if he had done it in a knowing way,” panellist Barry Cryer said. “It was a shared experience with the audience, as he only seemed to realise what he had said at the same time as they did. He had this brilliant gift of appearing not to know what he was doing.”

Bake Off’s Fielding could perhaps learn something from his subtlety: he proved a bit blunt in his smuttiness in the first episode, threatening to drop his trousers to match the mini rolls’ exposed bottoms, which was more single entendre than double.

As for the future of innuendo, to judge by Bake Off viewers’ glee, it will ever continue to amuse and delight. The difference is that where it once felt naughty, even rebellious, it has now become something gentler and more nostalgic. In the age of the internet, it actually reminds us of a more innocent time, where lewdness was suggested rather than shoved in our faces. As an actress might say to a bishop: keep it coming.