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Channel 4 is risking another bland Bake Off with this cookie cutter line-up

Last year's forgettable series proved that nanas and young pups make the most memorable bakers. Why haven't lessons been learned?

Cookie cutter: six of the 12 contestants are in their 30s
Cookie cutter: six of the 12 contestants are in their 30s

Like a tricky technical challenge, this year’s baker’s dozen have been placed on the gingham altar for our inspection. Having peered at them from several angles, poked critically at their crumb structure and raised a quizzical eyebrow Paul Hollywood-style, my initial verdict is: “Very nice but where are the nanas?”

Channel 4 has unveiled its line-up of contestants for the Covid-delayed 11th series of The Great British Bake Off and it’s a delight to see them - all eager grins, wide-eyed doughy dreams and pristine calico-cotton aprons. The nation’s favourite sweet-toothed contest returning at last will be a soothing balm after a deeply strange six months.

The 12 hopefuls look as wholesome as ever, with a generous pinch of intriguing characters. There’s a radiographer, a music teacher, a panto producer and an armoured guard. There’s the prospect of the first ever paraplegic contestant in Cornish sculptor Marc, a single father who lost his leg in a motorbike accident. Much-needed and long-awaited, this could be the most heartwarming series in years. Yet something about the casting still doesn’t feel quite right. 

Bake Off is at its glorious best when it’s populated by eccentrics of all ages. Past fan favourites range from the frighteningly young pups (Flora Shedden, Liam Charles) to the hobbyist middle-aged blokes - the likes of prison governor Paul Jagger (of bread lion fame), Alan Bennett-esque Howard Middleton (of stolen custard fame) or flamboyant Buddhist Brendan Lynch (of greasing-up-his-arms fame).

Seasoned bakers, with their quirky habits and culinary superstitions, have also proved hugely popular in previous years. Who can forget dancing headmistress Val Stones, retired naval officer Norman Calder, lippy Liverpudlian Flo Atkins or Wakefield wonder Karen Wright, who munched on a packet of cheese and onion crisps while she waited by the oven?

Linda (r) is the only female baker over 40 Credit: Mark Bourdillon

We need the endearingly batty nanas, the have-a-go dads and the cheeky mums, alongside a couple of rosy-cheeked millennials and experimental hipsters. It’s this eclectic mix - and the unlikely friendships that form between them - which has become such a key part of Bake Off’s alchemy.

Looking at the fresh crop, I’m not quite convinced they've nailed it. Six of the 12 contestants are in their 30s - including four of the half-dozen women. Only one female baker is aged over 39. There are none in their 40s or 50s. The closest we’ve got to an eccentric grandmother is 61-year-old Linda from East Sussex. She’s got a glint in her eye but leaving all the mature quirkiness to her is a huge responsibility. Let’s hope Linda’s not knocked out in week one. 

My niggling worry is that lessons haven’t been learned. Last year’s 10th contest should have been a celebratory milestone but ended up being one of the dullest series in Bake Off history. Go on, can you really remember who won? I’ll tell you at the bottom of this article but, no, it wasn’t Rahul. He was the year before. 

Its blandly millennial crop of contestants were a major factor in its forgettability. The class of 2019 were the youngest ever, with an average age of 31. There were only two over-40s and both were sent home by week five. The final six were all white and middle-class. Three of the four semi-finalists were, uncannily, aged 28. Many viewers own cookbooks older than that. 

Variety is the spice of life inside that bunting-draped marquee, but last time around it was lacking. Channel 4 can’t afford another disappointing series. The expensively acquired franchise’s magic might begin to fade.  

Dapper self-taught baker Rowan looks to be excellent value Credit: Mark Bourdillon

Bake Off is a show which prides itself on diversity and in many respects, that’s still there. There are four BAME contestants out of 12, with their roots in Jamaica, Benin, Asia and the Middle East. Other bakers profess a passion for French pâtissérie, Irish ingredients and traditional Highland recipes. There should be no shortage of cosmopolitan culinary influences or fascinating flavours. 

However, 10 of this year’s crop are English, mostly from the south. Just one - this year’s young pup, 20-year-old Peter from Edinburgh - is Scottish. Viewers from Wales and Northern Ireland might feel a little swizzed at being unrepresented. Hermine was born and raised in Benin.

At least there are three male bakers in their 50s and they look like a lively trio. Alongside Marc the sculptor are Makbul from Manchester and, perhaps most promisingly, dapper self-taught baker Rowan, who wears a tie in the tent and looks like he could be excellent value. 

Confusion will surely reign, though, due to the fact that the field includes a Mak, a Mark and a Marc. There’s also not one but two accountants. Nobody needs that much high-octane excitement. 

Of course, some slack must be cut this year. The coronavirus crisis threw all the production team’s plans up in the air, including the selection and vetting of contestants. Over-65s or anyone with underlying health problems was presumably ruled out automatically. It’s a minor miracle that the contest is happening at all. Its dozen bakers deserve our admiration for their determination and willingness to brave the bubble. 

Next year, when we trust this pesky pandemic will be over and the TV landscape will have returned to something approaching normal, let’s have Bake Off back in August where it belongs. And when it comes to casting, let’s mix it up again. Fewer millennials and more nanas please, producers. 

(Oh and by the way, the reigning Bake Off champion is David Atherton. Still none the wiser, are you?)