When The Great British Bake Off began on BBC Two in August 2010, it attracted no more attention than the average TV cookery contest. Mary Berry had yet to be declared a 'national treasure', Paul Hollywood was nobody's unlikely crush, and Mel and Sue were still best known for their '90s chat show Light Lunch. But by September 2016, when it was announced that Channel 4 had outbid the BBC by a rumoured £10m for the next series, Bake Off had become the biggest thing on British TV – some 16 million of us watched the last series finale. Thanks to Brexit, Trump and all those celebrity deaths, 2016 felt like a horror show, but Bake Off proved to be a real tonic. There was something comforting about watching a tent full of people fret about how to make a Dampfnudel (your guess is as good as mine) while Mel and Sue readied their next dad joke about baps or soggy bottoms.
Because Bake Off is so beloved, and the Channel 4 move seemed motivated purely by a production company's profit margins, people have been feeling pretty suspicious about the new series. The first picture of the show's new presenting team was unveiled in April and the reaction on Twitter wasn't exactly rapturous. "Looks like a sketch show parody of the real Bake Off," one fan wrote after seeing Paul Hollywood stood next to new judge Prue Leith and incongruous-looking presenting duo Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding. Others simply shared GIFs of classic Mary Berry reaction shots: she may have been pursing her lips after sampling some poor contestant's stodgy biscotti but her regretful, unimpressed facial expression captured the way many of us were feeling inside.
But if you're a Bake Off fan, prepare to be shook, because the new series actually gets off to a great start. I was lucky enough to watch the first episode at Channel 4's press launch yesterday and it all felt reassuringly familiar. The competition takes place in the same tent in the grounds of Welford Park in Berkshire, and follows the same basic format: a signature bake, followed by a technical challenge, then the more ostentatious showstopper. Yes, the dough-based drama is now broken up by ad breaks, but Channel 4 has resisted the temptation to make Bake Off too crass or commercialised. There's no dodgy production placement – "Tell me baker, what is the temperature setting of that super desirable Smeg oven?" – and no attempt to shoehorn in X Factor-style sob stories. And if you get an illicit thrill from watching someone reluctantly shove a substandard sponge in the bin, you won't be disappointed.
Meanwhile, the show's new presenting team seems to work. Prue Leith, a hugely experienced cookery writer, restaurateur and TV chef, is a warm but straight-talking judging partner to Paul Hollywood, who's still slightly hammy in a way he just about gets away with. "This is not a pretty sight," Leith says matter-of-factly when confronted with one contestant’s plate of sloppy-looking chocolate mini-rolls. Actually, she looks a bit like your school's cool older art teacher, and offers the same blend of fuss-free encouragement and firm but fair verdicts.
After a pretty cringe opening skit in which they 'fly over' the Bake Off tent in a terrible CGI hot-air balloon, Fielding and Toksvig settle into their presenting roles effortlessly. Fielding's bird-print blouse clashes a bit with Toksvig's statement bomber but actually, this kind of adds to their odd-couple chemistry. He's more scampishly playful, popping a marigold into his mouth just for lolz, and dropping a couple of double entendres Mel and Sue might have thought too risqué. I won't spoil them, but let's say he makes good use of the word 'moist'. She's more grown-up and sharp as a bread knife. When a contestant tells Toskvig you won't get far in life by joking about, she doesn't miss a beat: "Well, thanks."
And as ever, the show's amateur bakers have been cleverly cast. Let's not forget this is the show that gave us Nadiya Hussain, the series six champion who's become a fantastic ambassador for the British Muslim community and a TV star in her own right. This year's contestants are a lively and diverse group spanning the generations: two of the early standouts are a talented Hackney teenager and a Liverpool grandmother who can't help flirting with Paul Hollywood. The standard of baking is scarily impressive. Personally, I have no desire to try recreating any of these amazing creations at home – if you asked me to gild a pear with flakes of gold leaf, as one contestant does here, I'd tell you to sod off. But it's all supremely entertaining and strangely soothing to watch. So welcome back, Bake Off – all is forgiven.
The Great British Bake Off begins next Tuesday 29th August at 8pm on Channel 4.