Welcome back to a week of pies, shopping and horrible plastic surgery.
‘Bitching to a level, never before associated with cakes.’ This was the way James Morton described some of the hurtful comments made about the three women who were finalists in this Tuesday’s episode of The Great British Bake-Off. Former finalist James wasn’t the only one talking about the show online, as Raymond Blanc made several jibes about contestant Ruby Tandoh describing her as someone who looks like she doesn’t eat. I feel in a way that this negative press overshadowed a series which, up to last week, was all about good humour and sweet treats. I personally tried to ignore all of this and just enjoy the sight of Ruby, Frances and Kimberley attempting to impress Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood with their baking prowess. The final signature bake saw the three ladies try to impress the judging duo with their picnic pies and saw Ruby and Frances both attempt a similar structure. Meanwhile Kimberley, who was my personal favourite going in, tried a different design which failed as her mixture was too damp causing the dreaded soggy bottom. However, Kimberley gained back some of her momentum in the pretzel-based technical challenge as she offered the only bake that actually resembled a pretzel. After two bakes, Paul Hollywood claimed that Ruby was just in the lead, which probably led to people once again claiming that the silver fox fancied the former model. But I feel Ruby’s downfall was in her lemon and passion fruit wedding cake show-stopper which looked the most basic of the three. Kimberley’s was a more elegant affair and it definitely looked the tastiest. But she fell down on the outward design of the cake, something Frances has never been accused of. Indeed, the woman who has often been accused of favouring style over substance created a tasty and well-designed cake which was probably the main reason why she won the final.
If you’d told me ahead of time that Frances would’ve won the Bake-Off I probably would’ve thrown a cake in your face. In fact I’m still unsure if she should have won and it, for the second year in a row, it appears as if the dark horse as one the contest. The idea that the most consistent contestant, which was obviously Kimberley, wouldn’t win a reality show would be laughed at most of the time. But there’s something awfully British about rewarding the underdog, and that’s why I feel Frances won the final. Overall, The Great British Bake-Off has had an even more successful year than the last series. The show achieved BBC2’s best ratings in over a decade and therefore it’s been moved to BBC1 for series five. In a way, I feel this a bit of a mistake as the show feels distinctively BBC2. I hope the format doesn’t change one iota when it moves up to the main channel and if there’s a premium rate phone line to save the candidates then I’m afraid I’ll have to switch off. Indeed, the Bake-Off’s biggest success is the chemistry between the judges, presenters Mel and Sue and the twelve or thirteen contestants who populate the marquee every year. I’d be annoyed if this format was changed in any way and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Having said that, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they got rid of those history of baking segments. Ultimately, I’m thrilled that The Great British Bake-Off has had the success it’s had and I just hope that people can grasp the fact that this series is about celebrating achievements rather than criticising those who just want to make cakes.
BBC2’s other big show this week was Ambassadors, David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s attempts to move on from Peep Show and star in a much darker comedy. The fact that Ambassadors was a comedy drama was evident from its running time alone as the majority of sitcoms don’t run for a full hour. The tone itself was much more satirical as it concentrated on the new British ambassador for the fictional Asian country of Tazbekistan, Keith Davis (Mitchell). It seems that Keith is trying his best to fit in with local customs and is trying his best not to go the way of his predecessor, who disappeared while walking in the mountains. Doing his best to acclimatise Keith to the country is Neil Tilley (Webb), the deputy Ambassador who has been living in Tazbekistan for quite a while. It appears as if there’s more to Neil that meets the eye as we learn he’s in a relationship with a local bartender and that he may be involved in some sort of espionage. Both Neil and Keith are under the control of their irritable boss POD (Matthew Macfayden) who wants them to secure a contract for helicopters that could be worth millions. However, when young human rights activist Stephen finds himself jailed under false charges, Neil fears that he’ll be sentenced to death. As Keith uses his wife Jennifer (Keeley Hawes), to get the president’s ear, Neil pleads with his boss to help Stephen get released however his request seemingly falls on deaf ears. It’s then up to Keith to decide whether to do what’s right morally or what’s right for his career.
As a big fan of everything Mitchell and Webb have done, including their sketch show, I really wanted to like Ambassadors, and to an extent I did. Surprisingly Robert Webb delivered the stronger, more assured performance out of the central duo. He made Neil more likeable, wiser and an unlikely romantic lead opposite Natalia Tena’s Tanya. Mitchell meanwhile was born to play a diplomat and the part of Keith seems like it was written for him. However Mitchell’s performance felt like something we’d seen before and I failed to believe Keith’s change of heart in the episode’s latter scenes. But Ambassadors’ main problem was its odd tone, which shifted from slapstick comedy to serious human rights issues in the space of one scene. Rupert Walters and James Woods seemingly wanted to make a satirical piece about how British ambassadors behave in the small, more barbaric countries. Instead, what we given was an uneasy balance of classic sitcom humour and some fairly dark scenes in which Neil is bribed into feeding secrets to a shady organisation. The funniest segments for me were definitely those involving the bumbling spies who were tasked with listening in to all the mundane conversations going on within the residence. Despite all of its faults, Ambassadors definitely showed some promise and, if the right balance is struck between comedy and drama, then this could be another success for Mitchell and Webb.
Finishing our triple bill of BBC2 offerings is Iceland Foods – Life in the Freezer Cabinet. The documentary focuses on everybody’s cut price frozen foods retailer and told the story from the perspective of all of the employees. We were first introduced to Iceland’s CEO Malcolm Walker, a showman who started Iceland with just £30 to his name. The brand has since grown and today Malcolm revels in being the showman in charge of an empire, as he flies round in helicopters giving money to stores who’ve triumphed in his latest incentive schemes. If also found it incredibly interesting to see how some of Iceland’s more inventive dishes came to be. This was the job of Head Buyer Nigel, a man who knows immediately if a product will sell just by seeing it on the plate. We followed two of Nigel’s deputies as they pitched ideas to him with a rice krispie covered prawn dish winning out over alcoholic jelly shots. But this wasn’t all about the management as we got to hear from the lowly cashiers about why they enjoyed working in Iceland as much as they did. At first, I really felt as if this documentary would be nothing more than a PR stunt for Iceland, but as it went it was clear that it would leave no stone unturned. For example we saw Technical Manager Trish deal with the problem of there being no chicken in the store’s Chicken Supreme. Ultimately Iceland Foods evokes memories of last year’s Inside Claridge’s, as both were interesting, funny and offered an insight into a world that some of us have no idea about. In addition, the documentary looks to be incredibly topical as next week’s instalment will deal with the horse meat scandal.
While there are traces of horse in the Iceland lasagnes, the horses are very much alive in the streets outside The Paradise department store. The undeniably popular BBC1 costume drama returned for a second series which saw the titular store face closure following the collapse of the marriage between Moray (Emun Elliot) and Katherine (Elaine Cassidy). It soon transpired that, since her father had passed away, Katherine was the new owner of the shop alongside her new husband, former soldier Tom (Ben Daniels). As the store had somewhat fallen into disarray, Katherine had sent for Moray to return in order to help The Paradise become the talk of the town once again. However, Moray was more interested in seeing his lost love Denise (Joanna Vanderham) who refused to marry him as she felt Katherine still held a torch for him. Elsewhere The Paradise’s Head of Fashion Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire) was looking for love and later proposed to Denise’s uncle Sam (Stephen Wight). Finally we were introduced to the store’s cook Myrtle (Lisa Millett) who dreamed of one day becoming a member of staff on the shopfloor. I personally wasn’t a fan of the first series of The Paradise, but this second series already seems a lot stronger. I feel that Bill Gallagher has a better grasp of the characters while the performances, especially those of Lancashire and Daniels, were incredibly engaging. The cinematography throughout the episode is undeniably sumptuous while The Paradise itself is expertly designed. On the other hand I find Vanderham to be a weak leading lady and I find there to be little chemistry between her and Elliot. While it’s still not my cup of tea, I feel that costume drama lovers will be glad to have The Paradise back and I can at least now see why they like it as much as they do.
Finally this week, a bit of surreal comedy courtesy of Matt Berry’s Toast of London. The sitcom was initially part of Chanel 4’s Funny Fortnight last year, but has returned for a full run this time around. The focus of the show is over-the-top actor Stephen Toast (Berry), who in the first episode finds out he’s won an award and has to be interviewed by a notoriously harsh journalist. However, top journalist Susan Random (Emma Fryer) soon falls in love with Toast, despite him being a completely inappropriate drunk. As their relationship progresses, Stephen finds that Susan has some odd quirks including a love of throwing trolleys into canals and the fact that she’s an extreme hoarder. Elsewhere, Stephen has to fend of the advances of the unhinged Jemima Gina (Morgana Robinson), who is still electronically tagged after having stabbed her last boyfriend. Though Toast’s romantic predicaments are hilarious, the majority of the laughs come courtesy of Toast’s housemate Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst) whose entertaining an old friend. The friend in question is Kikini Bamalaam, the daughter of the Nigerian ambassador, who has had some really bad plastic surgery and now resembles a Generation Game-era Bruce Forsyth. I personally laughed every time Matt Berry mispronounced Forsyth, and if you did too then Toast of London is surely up your street. Co-written by Berry, along with Father Ted co-creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London plays to the comedian’s strengths as he over-emphasises every other word of the script. While the humour may be surreal, the strength of the performances alone elicited a fair few laughs and I for one chuckled at least five times during the comedy’s run time. Whether or not it can maintain this momentum throughout its run remains to be seen, but for now at least Toast of London is one of the funniest programmes I’ve seen this year.
For more of my views on TV please follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites