It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every reality show needs a bad guy. The Hills had Spencer Pratt, The Apprentice had Omarosa Manigault, and American Idol had Simon Cowell—arguably the prototypical reality television bad guy.
The case of The Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off in the UK, typically stylized as GBBO) is a strange one. Unlike other reality shows, GBBO is not defined by knock-down, drag-out interpersonal conflict, but by the tension inherent in the bakes themselves—will the cake rise, or won’t it? Will a risky spice curry favor with the judges, or will it be deemed a misstep? Will the dreaded soggy bottom occur? Where American reality competitions pit contestants against one another in contentious dead heats, the cozy pleasure of GBBO is that its contestants are compelled only to outdo their personal bests. That spirit of loving camaraderie creates a space where no one is out to vanquish anyone else—in fact, we often see the contestants lend one another a hand at the eleventh hour. It’s into this wholesome mix that judge Paul Hollywood is dispatched to deliver hypercritical comments and withering stares, chipping away at the bakers’ self-confidence rather than turning them against one another. Hollywood habitually poses taunting questions, such as, “Are you really going to bake it at that temperature?,” gleefully sowing seeds of self-doubt as if hoping that the bakers will fail. He’s clearly earmarked as the show’s bad guy, but does he have to be such a bad guy?
Let me explain. The best reality show bad guys know that they’re the bad guy, like Simon Cowell. When Cowell criticized American Idol contestants to a vociferous chorus of audience boos, he wasn’t fazed—rather, he welcomed it. Cowell knew his place as the show’s villain, and he crafted a signature “cruel to be kind” catchphrase to cement it: “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” The ire of the audience only made Cowell stronger—in fact, it’s that “love to hate him” mystique that landed him in the reality television pantheon. Juxtaposed against the affable Mary Berry and the stern but sensible Prue Leith, Hollywood is clearly the heavy, yet he doesn’t embrace the role as Cowell did. Instead, Hollywood is irascible when criticized, self-important to a fault, and most notably of all, tragically lame. In short, he’s so busy trying and failing to be the cool guy that he can’t embrace his rightful place as the bad guy.
For the better part of a decade, the British tabloids have been consistently rife with misdeeds about Hollywood’s personal life. This all came to a head in 2016 when Hollywood claimed to have become “the most hated man in the country.” When GBBO was acquired by Channel Four, a rival network, Hollywood opted to stay aboard on the new network, while Mary Berry and the show’s hosts (Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc) opted to take a principled stand by parting ways with the show. Some fans viewed Hollywood as an opportunistic turncoat, particularly in light of his comments suggesting money as a motivating factor: “If you could double your wages by going across the road to a rival, would you?” Hollywood decried the negative coverage, bemoaning it as “out of control,” and he stated, “I think the Yorkshire Ripper got less press than me.” In 2017, British tabloids unearthed a 2003 image of Hollywood dressed in a Nazi uniform, which he claims was a character from the British sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo! for a “comedy shows”-themed costume party. He gave a pretty classic non-apology: “I am absolutely devastated if this caused offense to anyone.”
Within the scope of the show itself, Hollywood has found himself in a number of dust-ups, many of them related to his own misdeeds. When fans accused him of giving preferential treatment to 21-year-old contestant Ruby Tandoh, he denied the accusations in a truly Trumpian fashion, stating, “Ruby’s not my type,” and arguing that he much preferred Tandoh’s fellow contestant Kimberley Wilson, whom he found “far prettier” at an age-appropriate 47 years old.
Hollywood has also been accused of favoritism in later seasons. Rahul Mandal was crowned the winner of the 2018 season, owing to week after week of blatant favoritism from Hollywood. Throughout the duration of the season, Hollywood couldn’t stop waxing poetic about Mandal, mentioning his “intensity” and his “magic,” as well as calling him a “little genius.” Controversy exploded after the semi-final, when Mandal remained at his workstation after the challenge concluded and continued to add finishing touches to his torta, even going so far as to add extra chocolate shavings while walking to the gingham altar. The most glaring instance of favoritism occurred when a storage jar at Mandal’s workstation exploded due to its proximity to the hot stovetop, only for the judges to allow him an unprecedented extra fifteen minutes to complete the challenge. When has this show ever afforded special treatment to contestants during challenges gone awry? When Kate Lyon sliced open her finger and almost fainted during a pizza-making challenge, she wasn’t granted extra time. Lovable as the hosts may be, they’ve had a hand in a number of mishaps, toppling biscuit towers and squishing tarts, only for the contestants to soldier on without special treatment.
And how could we forget #BinGate, a fiasco that lives on in GBBO infamy, which saw Diana Beard take fellow contestant Iain Watters’ baked Alaska out of the freezer, only for it to melt on the countertop, which led a furious Watters to throw his bake in the trash bin. Even though Watters had no part in the dessert’s melted state, he was not given a second chance or extra time for his bake. Of course Hollywood isn’t the sole puppeteer behind these decisions, yet given the weeks he spent rhapsodizing about Mandal, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t firmly in the camp of making an exception, just this once.
Even Mary Berry has sounded off on Hollywood’s style of judging, saying after she departed the show, “He was a bit harsh, and I was trying to encourage people.” She went on to say that, when contestants bungle a bake, “they don’t need to be told off about it; they need to know how to have success next time.” For a genteel British grandmother, I’d say that’s a pretty sick burn.
This all leads us to The Hollywood Handshake™, the gimmicky grail of latter-day GBBO. The Hollywood Handshake™ is Hollywood’s attempt at a catchphrase of sorts, yet where Cowell’s “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” played into the villainous persona he was chasing, The Hollywood Handshake™ plays against the truth of Hollywood’s role on the show. Hollywood bestows the handshake on bakers when they’ve achieved something truly excellent; it confers begrudging respect and safety from elimination. The Hollywood Handshake™ is Hollywood’s effort to appear kind, yet it’s a hollow gesture, as he enjoys the pomp and circumstance far too much. His narcissistic glee at the handshake’s edification is evident, which makes it painfully clear that there’s nothing kind about it—Hollywood is relishing the institution, not the kindness. When Hollywood’s respect and kindness come, they should be a rare, earned, genuine gift—not a gimmicky, branded gesture.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not looking for Hollywood to be ousted from the show. I’m only asking that he be a bit less odious, less smarmy, less reactionary when criticized. I could do with fewer tabloid shenanigans, but when fans and tabloids inevitably sound off, I want Hollywood to relish the boos, as Simon Cowell did. Someone’s got to be the bad guy, and it’s sure not going to be Sandy. Lean into the bad guy persona, Paul. Don’t make such a fuss. Let us hate you, and learn to love the delicious warmth of it, because it’s better than no one giving a damn. If you’re going to be “the most hated man in the country,” you might as well embrace the honor. After all, being a villain isn’t so bad. It sure looks fun for the Darth Vaders of the world.
Come to the dark side, Paul. We have cookies.