The Great British Primetime Stitch-Up
Turning baking into light entertainment was a surprise hit for the Beeb... but competitive needlework?
When my various social-media feeds erupted with invitations to take part in the Great British Class test this week, I did wonder whether the BBC had started taken its reality TV formats to a daring new level. Perhaps, following on from the success of hit cooking shows Great British Menu and Great British Bake Off, they had decided to cut out the middleman and pit British society against itself in a dog-eat-dog battle of lifestyle choices judged by an expert panel of Stacey Dooley, Duncan Bannatyne and that funny sounding one off Strictly, all presided over by Clare Balding and Trevor Nelson.
Alas, it would appear the ‘class test’ was a sociological survey of dubious insight, although don’t rule out seeing that line-up of BBC starlets on Question Time sometime soon. Yet it did seem a plausible possibility this week as the BBC, no doubt after months of strained creative soul-searching and spirit walks with the mystics in a quest for inspiration, unveiled the latest words put after the words The Great British to make a new programme.
In all fairness, The Great British Sewing Bee was a savvy way of snaffling viewers across the generations with crafts, just like baking before it, a growing hobby amongst fashionable ‘young fogey’ hipsters as well as a more typical older demographic. Following on in a similar spirit from the likes of Gareth Malone’s The Choir, the show features a winsome cast of nice normal people engaged in gentle self-improvement activities and embracing hidden talents, helped along by nice experts who sometimes have to be cruel to be kind, but ultimately want the best for you.
For a beleaguered public-service broadcaster, these kinds of shows are like going to the aromatherapy room of your mental safe place. Not even the militant fluorescent-marker tendency of the green-ink brigade can accuse of you taking part in a socialist, neo-liberal, atheistic latte-sipping gay conspiracy when you’re putting on shows about nice Doreen from down the road learning how to make a suitably spongy roulade.
This same simplistic inoffensiveness also has the added bonus of making them largely critic-proof. A show about training waiters, such as Michel Roux’s Service, may strike you as startlingly banal as a form of even mildly aspirational light entertainment, but trying pointing it out without sounding like a snob (and ensuring a steady stream of sputum in your next slap-up meal out). As such, this kind of safety-first television has the perverse effect of affording a surprisingly amount of room for tinkering and experimentation, as the makers search for whatever formula which will attract the viewers.
With Great British Menu and the 57 varieties of MasterChef having largely exhausted the market for variations on the cooking theme, The Great British Bake Off was something of a surprise hit, tapping into a growing interest in home baking. Hosted by experienced light-entertainment presenters Mel & Sue (formerly of Nineties cult hit, Light Lunch), featuring veteran food writer Mary Berry and interspersing the baking of delicious treats with small dashes of social history, it had all the ingredients for early-evening comfort viewing across the ages.
The Great British Sewing Bee is an obvious attempt to repeat the trick, building on a niche cultural trend and being spiritually close to another entertainment staple: fashion. It’s certainly all very charming: based in east London’s hipster-heartland Hackney and with its judges including a sharp-suited Savile Row tailor, it certainly has a sense of style. The contestants include traditional Women’s Institute types, a flamboyant gay fitness instructor, a blokey mechanic and a smattering of pretty young fashionistas.
The makers have been careful to reflect the diversity of the modern crafts crowd, emphasising the DIY ethos of creativity (the mechanic, for example, sews his own costumes for steampunk events). Yet while it possesses a certain curiosity value, you suspect this won’t have the same durability as The Great British Bake Off. Cooking shows flourish in a mass consumerist society where modern conveniences have removed much of the necessity of cooking, liberating itself from the world of work into one of leisure.
Gazing at the (mostly female) contestants of The Great British Sewing Bee shivering away in a warehouse, frantically hunched over sewing machines as they race against the clock to finish off a garment doesn’t feel terribly like liberation. It seems to smack a little bit too much of domestic drudgery and hard, painstaking work to pass as diverting entertainment. Perhaps they should have taken the hint that, in setting this celebration among the deserted warehouses and factories of east London’s former rag trade that there might be a less-fun side to clothes manufacturing and a culture of ‘make do and mend’.
Forty years ago there was nothing unusual about us making our own clothes’, opined presenter Claudia Winkelman at the beginning of the programme before lamenting that we had lost interest in this traditional skill. That’s true, Claudia, but then again 40 years ago there was nothing unusual about having to pop outside to a freezing outhouse in the middle of the night in order to go to the lavatory and I’m not sure we miss that in the modern age. Sewing may well be a fun hobby and enjoyable activity, but one middle-class fad does not a collective national experience make.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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