Imagine the weary sigh from the producers of The Great British Bake Off as they discovered that, for the second time in a year, they’d be replacing one of the show’s hosts.
In January, Sandi Toksvig d’éclair-ed (sorry) that she’d be stepping down from the show and producers faced the uphill struggle to find someone who could complement Noel Fielding’s absurd, warm presence.
His partner needed to straddle the line between mischievous teasing and empathy for the bakers under the onslaught of the tent’s pressure.
Producers eventually landed on Matt Lucas – who’d been suggested by Noel himself – and after a roaring opener to the 2020 series that saw Matt mock Boris Johnson’s chaotic conferences, he settled into the role well. The strong bond between both presenters was evident, with Noel and Matt clearly loving working together. It was a perfect match.
Alas, Noel welcomed his second child with partner Lliana Bird in October and promptly set off on paternity leave (well-deserved after a marathon block of filming for the 2020 series).
For the Christmas Special, which had not yet been filmed, this left producers back at square one.
Thankfully, Tom Allen – comedian, writer and host of both Bake Off: The Professionals and spin-off series The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice – was later announced to be stepping in to cover Noel’s role, joining Matt as a presenter.
He announced it with his classic flippancy: ‘Finally, bald gay men are getting their chance on television.’
If his interactions with the poor unassuming public on An Extra Slice are anything to go by, Tom will be the perfect host for the show. He has the uncanny ability to be both sympathetic and hilariously horrible to the studio’s audience as he reviews the bakes they bring from home – all with a genuine and endearing sense of self-deprecation.
Armed with a kitchen whisk, he good-naturedly berates the studio audience for their kitchen mishaps or delves deep into their relationships following their throwaway comments.
This summer, we were treated to a farcical socially-distant version of this segment where Tom force-fed audience members their own cakes, soliciting reviews from them while brandishing the longest whisk I’ve ever seen (two meters, naturally).
Tom’s tirades cleverly subvert the trolling we see online during the show. By taking things so seriously, he pokes fun at the absurdity of comments that demonise people for slightly sagging sponges, or puddles of ice cream. His judgement of the audience is based on the open understanding that he has no baking expertise whatsoever, meaning that whatever is said cannot be taken to heart.
It’s this willingness to be the butt of the joke that stands him in such good stead as a presenter on Bake Off – where the hosts are actively encouraged to know as little as possible about baking.
This lends a lovely levelling to interactions between the ‘normal’ bakers and the celebrity presenters, allowing for back-and-forth teasing between the two – typically when the baker has little time for the unannounced visit and is desperately trying to get rid of the presenter in the politest way possible.
As we’ve seen on Bake Off: The Professionals, Tom playfully forges connections with contestants – his quick questions provoking conversations that range from puddings to holidays, relationships to maths.
He is able to match the energy of those he speaks to – where they are struggling, he’s able to provide warm optimistic empathy, or when they’re in a state of panic he punctures the bubble with the pithy observation that their fine patisserie looks a bit like a bottom.
Crucially, he is always on the contestant’s side – gently rinsing the judges for taking things so seriously. When, for example, The Professionals judge Cherish Finden criticises bakes for not being placed in a perfectly straight line, he rolls his eyes.
When challenges are described as exciting, he replies: ‘yes – if you like crying into your gateau and being terrified all the time’. When a baker triumphs, he celebrates with a genuine sense of joy.
While the main series has often been criticised for being too serious – with complex technical challenges and controversial decisions – the festive specials are a chance for Bake Off to decompress a little. The stakes couldn’t be lower: nobody is going home, meaning that even if there’s a disaster, there’s a lot of room to laugh about it.
Out goes the competitive edge, with the show instead celebrating the simple pleasure of baking – along with a generous helping of innuendo, of course. Are there any other seasons where you are actively encouraged to toast your nuts on an open fire?
Tom will be a perfect fit for this festive, playful episode. As a self-confessed Bake Off super-fan, I can only imagine he’ll be running amok in the tent like, well, a child at Christmas – and I can’t wait to see how he gets on with Matt.
The proof will, of course, be in the figgy pudding – but from the looks of things, Tom’s likely to be a smash hit.
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