16 October 2012
The BBC’s surprise TV hit of the summer, The Great British Bake Off, has rebirthed one of my favourite gay prototypes: The Evil Queen.
Like many amateur foodies in these soggy, sugar-addicted isles, I’ve been glued to BBC2’s TV series Great British Bake Off, which has eclipsed the popularity of every other food show to become the discerning cakelover’s event of the season. GBBO takes 12 amateur bakers and puts them in a makeshift kitchen in a tent in the middle of a field in rural Somerset. They’re then required to perform three baking challenges over the course of successive weekends, each week grouped under a different baking theme – bread, biscuits, pies, patisserie, and so on. Their output, whether crispy, soggy, underbaked or overblown, is assessed by two judges: Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (more on them in a moment), who award the best baker the title “Star Baker” and send the least successful one home, whittling down the numbers until only three bakers remain.
Now in its third series, GBBO has become a massive ratings and critical success. Its appeal appears to lie in its cunning combination of features critical to British national identity: a fatal attraction to sugar (which, if you believe historians like Niall Ferguson, was almost single-handedly responsible for Britain developing trade routes and becoming a world power); an equally addictive nostalgia for the good old days where everyone lived in the country, made their own bread and didn’t worry about cholesterol and dieting; and the very British habit of looking on amusedly from a safe distance as complete strangers undergo ritual humiliation in public for our entertainment.
What’s most encouraging about GBBO is its democratising approach to baking as an easy and accessible form of pleasure and sustainance. In its own quietly revolutionary way, GBBO defies the assumption that food shows must have celebrity chefs or gastroporn kitchen sets to work. Forget Nigella artfully flicking her raven tresses and cooing in a pre-orgasmic whisper as she pours salted caramel all over herself, or Gordon Ramsey screaming expletives at his underlings, or Nigel Slater droning on yet again about his organic butcher in Islington, or even Heston Blumenthal donning a gimp mask and blow-torching a crème brûlée with liquid nitrogen. What matters first and foremost in GBBO is the food, which with skill and a bit of luck, can be created by almost anyone. This seems to have been borne out by a nationwide resurgence in baking, with retailer John Lewis reporting a 30% increase in the sale of baking trays. Britain, it seems, is in love with baking.
As reality TV shows go, GBBO is a relatively defanged and uncombatative example of the species. Judge Mary Berry, a septugenarian food writer, is a sweet little old lady with a softly set silver-grey perm and the show’s “good cop”. Mary almost always finds something encouraging to say about each baker’s burnt offerings, only occasionally tut-tutting when a baker fails to use enough raising agent or produces pastry with “a soggy bottom”, the cardinal sin of all baking. The “bad cop” judge is Paul Hollywood, an amusingly old school macho Northern male – a difficult feat to achieve when you’re a pastry chef with an excessively brilliantined silver fox hairdo and your surname is “Hollywood”. Robust of frame, blue and twinkly of eye and billy-goat gruff of demeanour, he’s the more emotionally withholding and critical of the two. Unsurprisingly, this combination of vanity and brutality has made Mr Hollywood a Country Women’s Institute sex fantasy, and also something of a pin-up in the gay community, who seem always on the look out for a dominant daddy bear..
As we grease our baking trays in anticipation for tonight’s GBBO final, it’s been interesting to watch the ascent of two of the finalists, John and Brendan, who in their own radically different ways have put the G.A.Y. back into baking. John is a breezily camp law student from Manchester who dreams of being a Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef, with a propensity for wearing distressed denim jackets and t-shirts with plunging necklines. At the other end of the evolutionary scale, Brendan is a carefully spoken, conservatively dressed 63 year old “semi-retired recruitment consultant” with a Labradoodle and an alarmingly clean-looking house in which he plays the cello, does gardening and embarks on daunting projects to bake “Breads of the World”.
As is often the way with gays on TV, neither John nor Brendan were allowed to have a sexuality. Whereas the heterosexual contestants were described with chatty bios like “vicar’s wife Sarah-Jane” or “father-of-two Ryan”, Brendan and John were apparently single and wedding-ring free – at least to start. (To be fair, the Beeb didn’t quite know what to do with single, childless Victoria either, describing her in one excruciatingly patronising moment as “career driven”.) Cosy video vignettes showed the straight bakers cooking at home for their families or relatives – but again, not Brendan and John, who were suspiciously partnerless. Instead, Brendan was shown trotting next door to deliver a hideous looking Victoria sponge cake to a neighbour, while John gadded about town with two girlfriends, pressing his nose longingly against a patisserie window and cooing “Oooh, look at those, girls”.
For gay audiences, silence on these matters often speaks louder than words. For anyone who’s spent any time in the closet, or made any attempt to conceal their sexuality or the gender of their partner to family members, workmates or strangers, it’s fairly easy to spot the signs of a discreetly closeted queen. From the get-go, my gaydar was alerted to Brendan and John’s fey, ambiguous presence. Through weekly episodes and the occasional catch-up screening on BBC iPlayer, I squinted my beady eyes carefully, looking for clues of a gay sensibility – some aside, some flourish, some reference that would reveal Brendan and John’s true natures. And since this was a show about baking, I didn’t have to wait long.
John, like all good Northern lads, has a voice like Lily Savage and an endearing if somewhat scatty nature. He’s been the most inconsistent baker of the series – and hence the most entertaining – with moments of gastronomic brilliance offset by spectacularly dramatic blunders that only a budding queen of the dessert could make. Flapping like a dowager wielding a fan, he lined his rum baba tins with salt instead of sugar, produced a torte described by Paul as looking like “a chocolate breeze block” and left a stray madeleine wasting away in his baking tin. His fantastically trashy Topman meets Canal Street wardrobe, when worn under a voluminous baker’s apron, often made him look like he was naked, adding to his growing popularity as a pin-up for the readers of Heat magazine. Throw in the drag queen voice, a few just-for-fun tattoos and a peekaboo nose piercing, and we all knew that the game was on.
Things became even more intriguing in Week 7 when a ring appeared on the wedding finger of his left hand. Could he have been a summer bride in a mid-GBBO shotgun gay wedding? Or had the almost loss of his finger encouraged him to be bold? Then finally in Week 8, he revealed that his “brilliant partner Paul”, a graphic designer, had helped him come up with the designs for his impressive gingerbread Colosseum. Voilà quoi! The magnificence of his gingerbread structure pushed him into the finals, but his declaration of partnerdom made him a man and not a scatty little queen.
By contrast, Brendan played his cards close to his chest, giving away very little about himself, other than his humble Irish origins and a love of Gloria Gaynor. (Ahem.) Though neither Brendan or the voiceover commentary made any statement about his sexuality or relationship status, a clue was dropped in Week 6 with a brief video clip of Brendan and another man wearing a identically-tied scarf walking the Labradoodle, with no explanatory voiceover. The same man appeared again in a later clip showing Brendan officiating over an afternoon tea in his living room. By this time, though, the suggestion that Brendan had a partner was a little beside the point. His true colours had, in fact, been revealed right from the start. Though I’m slightly ashamed to say this, and trade yet again in politically incorrect clichés, it must be said, since the BBC won’t.
Brendan is an Evil Queen.
The Evil Queen was once a staple of popular entertainment, especially popular in Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Usually a supporting player and scene-stealer, the Evil Queen was always immaculately dressed (often with a well-waxed moustache), noticeably unattached, fiendishly clever and morally perverse. He would deliver withering put-downs delivered in a cutglass accent, and concoct evil plans to conquer and dominate the stupid and less deserving good folk around them. George Sanders in All About Eve, Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, Clifton Webb in Laura and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes were all notable and wonderful examples of the Evil Queen, their sexual ambiguity only adding to their air of moral corruption.
Since those happy days, the Evil Queen fell out of favour, until, strangely enough, the birth of reality TV shows, where Evil Queens could show the world just what they were capable of. The most (in)famous Evil Queen of recent times is still undoubtedly Richard Hatch, winner of the first American Survivor series in 2000, who was the subject of a bitchily funny tongue-in-cheek tribute by Hank Stuever in a Washington Post article, “Hard to Beat, Impossible To Avoid; In Richard, ‘Survivor’ Shows Us an Archetype”. (Sadly the article is no longer available free, but can be purchased from the Post‘s website, or just sourced through me). Apologising in advance to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Stuever praised the ambition and resilience of Evil Queens, even as he quaked in terror at their evil powers:
How many neighborhood associations have voted Bob – a nice older bachelor who lives down the street and has such a pretty yard and bakes tasty brownies – into the chapter presidency, only to find themselves living in a totalitarian state that forbids driveway basketball hoops? The gated community is now ruled by Bob, who has morphed into the Evil Queen!
Stuever’s description might just as well apply to Brendan. Beneath the sweet old uncle exterior beats the heart of a steely power player, with his eyes on the prize to win the competition, and from there, move on to world domination. With excellent technique, a thoroughly rehearsed repertoire of recipes, an eye for detail bordering on the obsessive, and a militaristic precision in his work – pieces of fruit are inevitably made to line up like North Korean soldiers on top of his cakes – he soon became known as the Bake-enator, intimidating his competitors into silent open-mouthed stares as he pumped out perfect crisp breads, aced the petit fours challenge, and reigned victorious with his giant sweet dough Christmas loaf. Brendan was on fire, if not flaming, and not just because of his fondness for adding kirsch to his recipes.
Slowly but surely, Brendan’s style became apparent: he would win on the basis of dedication and the relentless pursuit of perfection, his work making up in consistency and precision what it lacked in spontaneity or easy fun. Unfortunately for Brendan, or perhaps more unfortunately for the viewers, his attempts at humour and frequent distractions into camp – miniature swan petit-fours, giant bundt cakes decorated with candles and pine cones, piped meringue with everything – made him slightly frightening rather than charming. Everything was too ordered, too structured, too prissy, and too nakedly seeking of approval, to be delightful. But this meant nothing to Brendan, who explained with polite but steely precision each week that his sole aim was to get into the final. As Stuever explains, this is what the Evil Queen does best:
In the hands of an Evil Queen no task is unsurmountable: the stockholders’ meeting, the final legal details of a mega-merger, the choreography for the Super Bowl halftime show.
An integral part of the Evil Queen’s modus operandi is to scope out the competition, something Brendan has done with the ease and precision of a Las Vegas poker king. From the beginning, he had his eye on Cathryn as a possible challenger: “Don’t under-estimate this lady,” he purred evilly to an unsuspecting Ryan. “She keeps on saying how nervous she is, but actually she’s very determined.” Unfortunately for Cathryn, the Evil Queen was more determined. While Cathryn was good, Brendan was better: another pretender to the throne vanquished. Mwah ha ha.
That being said, Brendan had his wobbly moments. After a disappointing tarte tatin, he declared “I want to regain my ranking and my position. I will today design a tart that will look stunning,” and so he did, wowing Mary Berry who declared his crème anglais “perfect”. As competition increased throughout the weeks, Brendan disclosed that “there’s certainly two or three that I’m keeping an eye on. It’s now all about knowledge and technique, and I’ve been around the track a few more times than most of them.” And so he did, seeing off competitors week after week with just the hint of a twinkle in his eyes. Crowned Star Baker twice, he clutched his hands to his chest like Miss World at her pageant coronation; left out of first place, he was inevitably stoney-faced and clench-jawed. He may not have been the most gracious loser, but by God it made for great TV.
Brendan’s quest for gastronomic domination became clear in Week 6, when to the horror of the others he rolled up his sleeves and oiled his arms with the proficiency of a sadist in a Vauxhall sex club, explaining to the cameras that this was the best way to stretch out the pastry to the required paper-thin quality. Just when we thought he was butch-ing up, he then reverted to type, laying his flayed pastry on a pretty floral tablecloth he’d brought from home, to Paul’s silent bemusement.
Then came Week 8, where Brendan produced a “cute Walt Disney inspired” gingerbread bird house with marzipan birds (“I’ve painted some mascara onto the female bird’s eyes”, he explained), the most terrifying edifice seen on the screen since the Bates Motel in Psycho. Watching Brendan beaming in front of his evil creation, I was reminded of the witch in Hansel & Gretyl who built a house of gingerbread to tempt the children inside, whereupon she planned to eat them.
The Disney-animals-in-crisis motif continued through to Week 9 with his cygnet-shaped petit fours. There was a wonderful moment where celebrity lesbian presenter Sue Perkins offered to help insert a cygnet into its choux pastry body, only to be hissed at by Brendan that she wasn’t doing it perfectly. “One is never quite sure if enslaved children or winged monkeys are busy toiling in the Evil Queen’s lair”, Stuever explains in his article, and equally one wonders what might be lurking in Brendan’s compost heap. From that day, Sue, and all of us, learned a valuable lesson: never get between an Evil Queen and his evil baking creation, for fear of being eaten.
Brendan’s style, while impressive, has occasionally set the judges on edge. Of the two, Paul seems most keenly attuned to Brendan’s Evil Queenery, and enjoys teasing Brendan about his Achilles heel – his love of 70s style kitschy over-decoration and his tendency to go over-the-top with his Santa’s Grotto presentation. How I longed for Paul to go all alpha male and seize Brendan’s hideous birdhouse, crush it in his large manly dough-kneading hands and hurl the pieces across the tent, whereupon Sue would no doubt reconstruct the scraps into some shelving and Mel, her co-presenter, would eat the scraps off the floor. Alas, the Old Silverback restrained himself to a relatively polite “It’s a bit much for me”. At that moment, Brendan and Paul’s rivalry was sealed forever.
“I suppose that suggests I’ve got some perfectionist tendencies, and I do,” Brendan mused after a difficult two days of patisserie baking in Week 9. “It can make me difficult to live with, as I won’t compromise in that regard.” And compromise he hasn’t, not even on the kirsch. With the final in sight, Brendan has fulfilled his aim of making it to the finals, and in doing so, has made Evil Queens and their acolytes everywhere proud.
Stuever explains that Evil Queenery, far from being an outdated stereotype, is in fact doing the gay community a favour:
The straight world is conditioned to think of homosexuality as a handicap, a weakness, a fey stereotype. The gay rights movement tries to present a warm, united front and yet somehow amplifies the notion that gay men and lesbians are marginal, lacking in power…. In his twisted way…Richard [Hatch] has done more for gays than a thousand Wills, with their attendant Graces, could ever do. He has proven what the military and Boy Scouts must on some level have always dreaded, and it is this: The power of one determined gay guy – the archetypal Evil Queen – could collapse a nation.
I’m with Stuever. In their entertaining, scatty and occasionally irritating way, John and Brendan have added to the complexity and colour of gay representation on our screens. They’re certainly much more interesting than the Permatanned poofs currently doing the rounds on British television: Gok Wan, as sexless as a eunuch in the Imperial Chinese court; Louis Walsh, scarily orange, camp, lisping and utterly ridiculous; and even Alan Carr, once a wonderfully sabre-tongued stand-up comedian who’s been defanged and made-over and is now the gay Cilla Black, a harmless toothy speccy homo with his own cosy talk show. If there are going to be gays on the telly, I want them to be well-accessorised train wrecks like John, or ambitious and calculating Evil Queens like Brendan.
Ultimately, what makes Brendan such an appealingly loveable pantomime villain is his sheer familiarity. As Stuever concludes, like it or not, the Evil Queen is an ingrained part of our culture, and for most of us, a grim glimpse into our future:
Gay men have all either dated an Evil Queen, or befriended one. They have been on the receiving end of his wrath, and finally, each must admit to himself, “I could be an Evil Queen.”
Tonight, there will only be one winner, and, as James said, unwittingly, “It’s not very nice to be bottom”. (I disagree with him completely, but that’s another discussion for another time). It’s too early to call the competition at this stage, though it’s likely to be a showdown between Evil Brendan’s precise engineering and James’ freewheeling experimentation, with John as a punk rock bridesmaid, crying into his distressed denim coat sleeves.
Post-GBBO, the future is uncertain. James, as the more interesting and experimental baker – and with the prettiest face and most telegenic personality – will be the best bet for a cookbook or possibly a television series. John will win the Mancunian clubgoing gay man’s dream and get a centrefold in Attitude magazine’s next Naked Issue.
Brendan’s star will burn less brightly, due to his age and his lack of immediately marketable charisma. He may do the rounds of the Nana-friendly talk shows – Loose Women, that dreadful programme with Alan Titchmarsh – and will almost certainly be invited to judge the pie bake-off at his local village fête. But being an Evil Queen, he will take over the world, mark my words – one gingerbread house and cygnet-shaped petit four at a time Beware, beware, y’all, of the Evil Queen!