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'I've got a great idea for a new show....'

12:00am | & News

Who could have imagined that a TV show about a group of amateur bakers making bread and cakes in a tent would become such a massive hit, dominating not only the TV ratings but making national headlines too?

Yet even someone who has never seen a single episode cannot fail to be aware of the phenomenal success of the Great British Bake Off. Starting out in August 2010 as a low-key addition to BBC2's midweek schedule, it ran for six episodes, each filmed in a different location, and pulled in a modest average of 2.77 million viewers.

Reviews were mixed at best, yet there was something about this gently paced, lovingly filmed and charmingly comfortable new programme that began to catch viewers' attention. While the amateur bakers were keen to do their best, they also helped each other out, seemed genuinely upset when things didn't go well for a fellow baker and genuinely pleased when they did.

Essentially, they seemed to realise that, when all's said and done, they were baking bread and cakes. Stunning, mouth-wateringly delicious bread and cakes, but still just bread and cakes. There was no million pound prize, no lucrative recording deal, no chance to bake for the Queen, just the honour of being crowned best amateur baker.

It was all a far cry from the fast-paced, hard-edged, highly-competitive "reality TV" of the 1990s, where unbelievably ego-driven competitors would trample each other in the shameless scramble for the big prize or to avoid the on-screen humiliation of having a multi-millionaire tycoon yell "You're fired!" in their face.

For series two, beginning in August 2011, "Bake Off" switched to a single location, a specially-constructed marquee in the grounds of a 17th century mansion on the outskirt of London. Presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were into their stride, their time-served comedy partnership giving them a genuine on-screen affinity combined with the essential ingredient of not taking anything too seriously. They had grasped the peculiarly British absurdity of competitive baking.

The judges too had settled in nicely; Mary Berry the elegant and undisputed doyen of British baking ably assisted by the twinkly-eyed Paul Hollywood, apparently the flour-dusted George Clooney of bread making.

Ratings rose as quickly as the cakes, to an average of four million for the extended eight-episode series two and five million for the extended-again 10-episode series three. When 2013's series four hit an average of 7.35 million viewers per episode it was far and away BBC2's biggest hit, topping Top Gear and prompting a switch to BBC1 for 2014's series five. The location also changed, the marquee now pitched at Welford Park, in Berkshire, where it has remained ever since.

By now Bake Off was spawning charity and celebrity specials and spin-off shows, as well as cookery books and other Bake Off-branded merchandise. The show has been credited with sparking a revival in home baking, prompting a surge in sales of baking books, kitchen equipment and even ovens marketed as perfect for home bakers.

Now on the BBC's main channel and making press and TV headlines, Bake Off's rise continued, topping 10 million viewers for series five and hitting an average of 12.5 million for series six, which made a popular star of its winner Nadiya Hussain.

Series seven started on August 24th this year, its opening episode attracting 13.58 million viewers. In fact, the latest available TV ratings show that the first five episodes of the current series were the five most-watched programmes of 2016 so far, beating Britain's Got Talent by more than a million and even the Euro 2016 football final.

Who knows how many will tune in for the Bake Off final on October 26th, because as well as deciding the winner, it will also be the very last Bake Off as we know it. From next year the show will switch to Channel 4, with only Paul Hollywood of the presenting and judging team going with it.

The independent production company which makes Bake Off wanted more money for the format than the BBC could justifiably spend. Apparently its best bid fell £10M short of the £25M reportedly wanted by Love Productions, which has also sold the successful format to broadcasters around the world.

The headline-hitting saga has given rise to accusations of betraying the BBC, which nurtured and grew the show from a modest midweek curio to a ratings-dominating worldbeater. But business is business, even when the business is baking cakes. Will Bake Off survive its relocation to Channel 4 or will it fall as flat as an underdone Victoria sponge? Only time will tell.

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