Cakes and Ale: Is Paul Hollywood Sexy?

Last weekend was all about cheese and cake. What could be better than that? The local cheese festival coincided with celebrating my birthday. This could only lead in one direction: birthday cake followed by a great deal of cheese and a Sunday night of blue cheese-induced nightmares. Picture a Dorset field full of white tents, each of these packed with cheese vendors handing out samples of their wares. Other tents harbour local cider, real ales, pasties, and all sorts of other foodie treats. This bizarre rural scene has become an annual family outing, which sees even the most dignified among us lolling about on straw bales whilst over-indulging in dairy and cider. To add to this mountain of Stilton, Cheddar and Brie (that would make Ossa a wart) I was also looking forward to a good birthday cake. My Great British Bake Off addiction had put me into flights of fancy about what I might find when I’d blown out the candles and cut into the cake. Would it be a Swedish Princess Cake? Or perhaps even an apple and cinnamon kugelhopf? My birthday cake turned out to be a red velvet cake topped with a GBBO inspired 3D biscuit scene commemorating my recent hillside humiliation – family eh!

In anticipation of this weekend of excess I, being the wild party animal that I am, looked up occurrences of “cheese” and “cake” in the plays of William Shakespeare. Cheese crops up a lot in the Henriad and The Merry Wives of Windsor, in scenes surrounding Falstaff and his friends who are preoccupied with satisfying the desires of their bellies. Well there’s a surprise. While in these instances, cheese can sometimes represent frugality (although he may also be punning on another type physical desire, Nym complains “I love not the humour of bread and cheese” in The Merry Wives of Windsor II.I), my favourite cake reference in Shakespeare is all about the enjoyment of life. Sir Toby Belch challenges Malvolio “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (Twelfth Night II.III). Sir Toby defends his life of pleasure against Malvolio’s criticism. However, Sir Toby’s phrasing implies more than a defence of his own behaviour, but a defence of tradition. Cakes and ale were traditionally part of church festivals which Puritans eschewed (later in the scene Sir Toby refers to Malvolio as a “Puritan”). Both Sir Toby and that beloved and roguish Knight from the Henriad, Falstaff, are often connected with the enjoyment of food and drink. For many, the two are the most popular characters in Shakespeare’s work, as their love of life is reflected in their love of food. Criticism suggests that each represents the spirit of the carnival in his own play, and many a student of Shakespeare’s work has enjoyed sniggering at their refreshing appearances into the sometimes parched world of a GCSE English Literature class.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when we look closely at characters created for an early modern audience, there are less palatable aspects to these knightly bon viveurs. Sir Toby’s attack on Malvolio goes beyond religious conservatism. Sir Toby, a knight, although impoverished, and a relation to the Countess Olivia, wishes to put Malvolio back in his place: “Art any more than a steward?” (II.III). The whole comic subplot of the play is concerned with punishing a lower class figure for his aspirations to transcend his social class. Malvolio’s desire for social mobility, and for reward for his diligent service to Olivia, and his belief that his merits might raise him above the situation of his birth, are cruelly punished by Sir Toby and his gang.  Not only do they publicly humiliate Malvolio, they also torture him; he is locked in a dark cell and hazed by various characters. The bon viveur is placed in opposition to the underdog who wishes to break free of the class system. Cakes and ale, when connected to this social conservatism and vicious enforcement of the status quo, look a whole lot less attractive.

My thoughts then turned to another round-bellied figure, associated with cakes, and beloved of the general public: Paul Hollywood. Since the birth of The Great British Bake Off my love for it has grown like a yeast-leavened cake. It can only be a positive thing, in a nation with growing rates of obesity, that we become more interested in what actually goes into our food. Yet, despite this, I can’t quite dismiss the niggling feeling that there might be something perniciously socially conservative about this nostalgia fest of gingham tablecloths and retro, eggshell blue food mixers. Firstly the retro aesthetic makes me uncomfortable. The Bake Off tent is located in the lush grounds of country house (say “hiyse”) reminding us, like an episode of Dowton Abbey, of the old days of decorum and order. You know, the days when only old Etonians got into power…. Oh hang on, we’re still there. Although the Bake Off features and appeals to both men and women, the imagery it cultivates is evocative of a time when a woman’s place was in the kitchen. It doesn’t seem such a huge step from the chintzy decorations in the Bake Off tent to those incredibly popular cards featuring images from the 50s and 60s of tiny-waisted women in pin curls and washing up gloves. My anxiety about the connotations of this aesthetic reached its peak when a friend handed me a cup of tea in her “new favourite mug”. The mug in question featured one of these wasp-wasted pin-ups being taken over the knee and spanked by her husband. The slogan was something about what happens when she forgets to bring her husband a cup of tea. Apparently it’s ironic, but do little girls growing up in a world full of pretty, polkadot images of women being demeaned understand that it’s supposed to be ironic? The image of the spanking husband brings me on to my second bug bear: why do people fancy Paul Hollywood? Why would 21st century women, who are still fighting for equal pay, find the paternalistic judge-figure so attractive? Why do women want a disciplining father-figure who will tell them what to do? Explain to me why this is sexy? I won’t suggest that The Great British Bake Off is like a gingham tablecloth of retro we are hiding under, in order to avoid thinking about recession, the Middle East, and the frankly apocalyptic events going on all over the world, because exactly the same could be said of a blog about cheese, cake, and Shakespeare.

But before I talk myself into being unable to watch one of my favourite TV programmes, let’s get a bit of perspective. A retro aesthetic doesn’t necessarily equal social conservatism, and The Great British Bake Off is careful to balance out the potential connotations of its nostalgic, village fete format. The female compères of the show, Mel and Sue, are popular for their witty wordplay, where other female presenters on TV are all too often the pretty foil for their witty male counterparts. In all cases, baking is presented as a gender neutral activity, and I believe Paul Hollywood may even think he looks macho dough-in-hand. For me, though, the saviour of The Bake Off is the magnificent Mary Berry. While she may look like a rather conservative grandmother, with her pearls and her Joules florals, don’t be fooled. Mary Berry, a woman who returned to work after having children at a time when that just wasn’t the done thing, is an icon and a bit of a pioneer! We can hardly forget that not too long ago, the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing sacked Arlene Philips (an older woman with a great deal of expertise and experience to bring to bear in her role as judge) and replaced her with the a very young and beautiful pop star who had no qualifications for the role. Mary Berry is an older woman on TV who is there for her skill and knowledge. This shouldn't go uncelebrated. While the show may be escapist, and its sets may be haunted by the trappings of conservatism, and they may just have got rid of my favourite contestant, The Great British Bake Off isn’t so bad. What a relief: next week is advanced dough week!


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