Television Graeme Blundell praises The Ex-PM
Bake Off is one cooking show that contains all the right ingredients for feelgood television
Iam on location in Sydney’s inner west at Yaralla Estate, and secreted away from the joggers and dog walkers is a huge marquee dressed in an industrial outback style — looking rather like a shearing shed — surrounded by large gas bottles. There’s tension in the air as another judging round begins in the new series of The Great Australian Bake Off. It’s a new, slightly reimagined version of the British parent show, initially rejected by programmers but now in its sixth season. It’s the BBC’s third most popular television format abroad, sold to almost 200 territories.
The local version is judged by the Barossa’s legendary cook Maggie Beer and the hardnosed entrepreneurial chef Matt Moran with zany comedians Claire Hooper and Mel Buttle providing the culinary gags, saucy sayings and wince-making culinary double entrendres. (Expect many jokes about burnt bottoms, scone’s throws, bread that is half-baked, extremely kneady, soggy ladies’ fingers, and warnings to “watch your jugs”.)
It’s really little different from the British show: amateur contestants competing against each other in a variety of challenges, testing their discipline, strategy, time management, emotions and, ultimately, cooking skills — and, of course, revealing those sometimes emotional backstories. As always, it’s great fun to tune in to find out who has been vanquished as the series proceeds, who is left, which of them is seemingly being set for finals (lots of red herrings, of course) and who the cameras love.
Beer loves the concept. “Baking was our life growing up; you went to your grandparents and there were sponge cakes and afternoon teas,” she says. “I’ve never had a sweet tooth but these days if you give me a pavlova I can’t leave it alone.” But she emphasises she always goes into the tasting sessions hungry, to do justice to the contestants and their baked items so lovingly produced. Then she laughs guiltily: “I have had so much sugar in the past six weeks.”
Moran, convivial and evaluative, thinks we all resonate so much with baking because bickies were one of the first things many of us learned to cook as kids. “Everyone can do it and we all have some affinity with it,” he says.
As Beer suggests, it’s a rather jolly, gentle show, no bitching, backbiting or vindictiveness, unlike so many reality series. This is feel-good TV, where the hosts are kind and the contestants, who have varied and interesting biographies, are treated with respect by the producers. Some reality cooking shows — My Kitchen Rules comes to mind — are really excruciating comedies of social embarrassment, what Ricky Gervais once called “wheeling out the bewildered to be sniggered at”. There’s none of that here, and the use of reality TV conventions never strangles spontaneity, unlike, say, MasterChef, where every moment is too contrived to suggest actuality.
Beer says it’s all impromptu and unrehearsed. “The producers remind us if we forget something, push us a little if we need to be more succinct, but they never put words into our mouths.” Moran, never short of a forthright opinion, says more adamantly, “I don’t want to be produced; I’ve always spoken honestly and will continue to do so.”
It really is a superb piece of simply presented TV, though not exactly inexpensive given the number of cameras used — at least seven on the day I visit. Their proliferation (most TV drama directors are extremely lucky to be given two) provide all sorts of intimate coverage of the contestants and what they cook, and enables fast, often complex editing, the images cut to a cinematic-style soundtrack.
It’s all rather cutely interwoven with bucolic shots of magpies, kookaburras and pelicans. It’s sounds a bit twee but this is a format with a lot of heart, an agreeable and convivial way to spend an hour. As Bake Off’s BBC commissioning editor, Clare Paterson, suggests, the reason for its success is probably that it represents a safe haven in an often harsh world, distilling the huge complexity of human experience and identity into simple displays of measuring, sifting and mixing.
Here, the temperate exploitation of the way people’s domestic daydreams collide with cold, harsh reality when the sponges collapse and the dough doesn’t rise makes for entertaining television.
Ever aware of the zeitgeist, the irrepressible Shaun Micallef returns this week in The Ex-PM, his new six-part half-hour series, and it’s as droll and engaging as you may expect. The comic’s central performances are streamlined and knowing, delivered with that familiar understated facetiousness.
He’s the rather svelte Andrew Dugdale, our third longest serving prime minister, a man who once mattered, changing the lives of millions of his fellow Australians. Now he is reluctantly retired, with time to ponder his legacy.
He was meant to have written his memoirs but, having spent his publisher’s advance, is forced to welcome his young ghostwriter, Ellen LeBlanc (Lucy Honigman), into his dysfunc- tional household. His political philosophy may well have been best expressed by Groucho Marx: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
Not that he really articulates much at all, as the first day does not go well — what with a missing grandchild, a randy wife (played with lascivious energy by Nicky Wendt), a stolen security system, a vandalised Comcar vehicle and a dead goose.
Micallef’s tone — he not only stars but wrote the series — is polite and mildly mocking, as per usual, and never abrasive. The first thing you always notice with this comic is that smile. Sure, there’s the sardonic edge but there’s also a goodness, a lack of disapproval, a refusal to judge or be judged. For all his cleverness, he lacks intellectual arrogance, malice and destructiveness.
He’s also uncomfortable being more than two seconds away from a joke or a funny walk, often recycling the Groucho crouching stride first employed to such comic effect in Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation. It was said of Graham Kennedy that he was impossible to imitate be- cause his humour paradoxically, while so singular, was created around so many influences. And Micallef, too, is impossible to imitate or parody. Part of the fun of watching him is looking for the influences and references.
He remains the most intellectual of comics, a kind of pickpocket of the mind: a hybrid of Jack Benny and Bob Hope, Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Stephen Fry, with moments of Tony Hancock and Jackie Gleason, and a touch of Kennedy’s disorderliness. Like Kennedy, too, a cornerstone of his humour is the way he appears to give voice to the thought that is really on everyone’s mind but not yet voiced.
He does it constantly to his perplexed biographer, bamboozling her with constant offers of coffee that always take him away from her presence. His trump card is the fast tempo at which he delivers his material.
The old comics used to say, “seven laughs a minute and you are motoring”, each laugh accumulating and running into the next in what’s known as a “crescendo effect”; the audience becomes so distracted they laugh before the punchline appears, with little notion of what is being said.
The show loses out slightly when Micallef is absent — which happily is rare — from the screen (though watch out for a brief appearance by the consummate John Clarke, who plays Dugdale’s agent, confined to his palatial house on home detention since his convictions for tax fraud).
And the first episode works best as a kind of extended monologue broken by the dry questioning of his biographer and the moments of “bad sitcom”, as one of the characters calls it, that surround the Micallef comic posturing.
The Great Australian Bake Off, Tuesday, 8.30pm, LifeStyle Food. The Ex-PM, Wednesday, 9pm, ABC.
INQUIRER: Shaun Micallef shares his advice for Abbott, Turnbull and Shorten with Troy Bramston.
Main picture, from left, Claire Hooper, Maggie Beer, Mel Buttle and Matt Moran in The Great Australian Bake Off; below, Shaun Micallef and Lucy Honigman in new six-part comedy series The Ex-PM