18 Aug 2010
There was a moment three-quarters of the way through The Great British Bake Off (BBC Two) when you expected the picture to topple forward and hit the floor as the cameraman finally gave up the will to live. Mel Giedroyc was talking to an interminably dull Victorian wedding cake expert. Meanwhile, the 10 amateur contestants, about whom we knew little and cared even less, had completed two and a half of the three tests to see who was going to be sent home before the next round (yes, I’m afraid there’s more of this).
You could certainly forgive the cameraman if he were to commit hara-kiri in a giant pool of egg and flour. Within 20 minutes of this hour-long programme the narrator sounded like a bored drama school student who would rather be somewhere else. The audience probably already were.
No doubt you can guess the format: production crew scours the country for the “top amateur bakers” to take part in “television’s first amateur bake off”. The contestants were harmless enough – a few jolly, wholesome housewives, the obligatory competitive young man, and a bus driver from south Wales whose cakes “are the talk of the depot”.
It’s more than can be said for the presenters. Mel was joined, of course, by Sue Perkins who, while marginally less annoying, looked as though she was constantly trying to stop herself cracking jokes. Both appeared positively lovable in contrast to Paul Hollywood, a “master baker” who looks sinister without being interesting. The food writer Mary Berry hovered in the background, looking censorious. In fact, her face when she tried to keep down someone’s “chocolate celebration cake” was about the only good thing in this first episode.
Although we were treated to the sight of the contestants’ signature cakes, we learnt next to nothing about how they were actually making them. The “dramatic” music came across as horribly trite compared with MasterChef’s genuine excitement. And the occasional interludes about the history of baking were linked in such a sledgehammer way that you wondered if they weren’t added as a filler afterwards.
There were tears, inevitably, and hugs, and cutbacks to families, like a budget X Factor for diabetics. The narration was moronically patronising, with the contestants wound up to say how much they wanted to win, as if anyone really cares which amateur baker is slightly less bad than the other. Why does making food have to be competitive anyway? And when the bus driver and the nice woman from Scotland were told that their Victoria sponge cakes weren’t quite up to scratch and they’d be going home, away from what Giedroyc referred to as the gang of “bake off bakers”, you wondered whether the rest of them weren’t just that little bit jealous.
One man who’d enjoy a good cake is Martin Strel, the hilarious subject of More4’s documentary Big River Man. His son, Borut, put it best: “My father is not an average world-famous athlete. First, he is a bit overweight. Second, he is a big drinker. Even when swimming, he drinks two bottles of wine a day. Thirdly he has accomplished most of his feats over the age of 45. When he swims the Amazon, he will be 53 years old.”
We met Strel in his native Slovenia, where he is something of a celebrity, eating horse burgers, gambling, teaching the flamenco guitar, drink-driving (he is one of the best drunken drivers in the country, his son intoned) and walking around in his Speedos.
If you think it all sounds a bit Borat, you’d be right. But the tone changed once Strel arrived in Atalaya, Peru, and started his attempt to be the first person to swim the length of the Amazon (he had already swum the Yangtze). The comic scenes continued with Borut, who acts as his manager, applying grease to his father’s semi-naked body. Strel, despite a blood pressure of 150/95 (in a healthy man it would be below 120/80), remains convinced that the best cure for sunburn is beer.
Yet it was soon clear that the swim was making Strel unhinged; he took to wearing a white mask, like Michael Jackson’s children, and started hallucinating. Thousands turned out to cheer him on but Strel often ran away and wandered around naked on beaches.
The most frustrating thing about this extraordinary film was that we heard so little from the protagonist, and so much from his son. Strel, we were told, likes swimming because he was beaten as a child and wants to raise awareness of the destruction of the rainforest.
Five months after his successful swim, and none the wiser, we rejoined him, still fat and semi-naked, on his sofa in Slovenia, having gambled away all his sponsorship money. Borut announced that he was off to college. His father said nothing.