Saturday, 13 September 2014

Off on hols

As mentioned in my previous post, I'm off on holiday - to Norfolk, to be precise, with Colin. So - no blog this week, but hopefully lots of books read while I'm away.

I shan't be recapping GBBO this week, but Elaine (Random Jottings) has very kindly offered to step into my shoes, and I'll post her recap when I'm back.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: Episode Six

Hey everyone - are you ready for a week where maps of Europe are thrown out the window, Mary delivers her most difficult technical challenge to date, and Nancy steals my coveted spot for Best Moment of the Series?  I hope so...

Intro: Mel and Sue enter our screens, agree that an analogy has gone too far when it has reached only the foothills of their usual mountainous punnery, and the bakers stride across the lawn while the cameraman still lurks in the undergrowth. Plus ça change.

I don't know how much of the introduction will make sense to transatlantic viewers, but it's an absolute delight to people like me who avidly watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Quick run-down: every country around Europe (and several which have little-to-no claim to be part of Europe) send some singer given to costumes and histrionics off to a big tent in the middle of nowhere, where they caterwaul and strobe-light their way through a song consisting half of 'la-la-la' and half of vague encouragements towards world peace. It's glorious. It's my second favourite big-tent-in-the-middle-of-nowhere event of the year.

Equally glorious is the way Mel and Sue re-enact the infuriating time-lag and presenter-waffle of the voting section of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nancy leans against a fence and brags about all the holidays she's been on; Richard says he's aiming for mediocrity; Martha babbles about nerves. We're good to go. And the first challenge is... yeast cakes. I love bread and I love cake, but I can't help but feel that this combination is a terrible mistake. Still, the rest of Europe apparently live for the things, so let's see what happens. (Incidentally, this show - like almost everyone I know in the UK - uses the word 'Europe' to mean 'all of Europe except us'.)

Blazer-watch? Nothing exceptional here - but Mel and Sue should maybe have discussed shades of yellow before getting dressed this week.

Paul remains resolutely in line-dance mode.

Paul steals a march on History of Cake by telling us when baking powder was invented - in protest, I don't listen  - and uses the appetising sentence 'these cakes have been around an awfully long time, and they're all embedded right the way throughout Europe'. Mary nabs the first "Not too long or too short in the oven" of the episode, while seemingly perched on a bird table.

Luis isn't gilding any olives this week, but does have an amazing tin, which gives fancy ridges and the like. Chetna is making a 'mainly orange-flavoured' (mainly?) savarin which gets a very sweet Mary Berry Reaction Face:


Mel has a field day with pronouncing 'savarin' - rolling the r so much she could be mistaken for a rolling pin - and also with the tin looking like a piles cushion. Never having seen said object, I couldn't say.

I do, however, want this natty food mixer; it would match my toaster and kettle.

A shade that Argos lovingly describe as 'bubblegum blue'.

Nancy - who, in this episode, I think has become my favourite - tells us that she is making "what is called a sponge", which is either astonishingly patronising, or 'sponge' is different from what I think it is.

Richard is making a guglhupf (bless you) with lots of fruit and things, and (he emphasises) rum. He knows what Boozehound Bezza is after. But Paul is disgusted to hear that Richard is going to 'wing' his decoration; he rephrases to 'go with his heart', pointing somewhere in the region of his liver, but saves this when adding that his heart is in his stomach. Quick thinking, Richard. Nice work.

'Renegade baker, Nancy' (as she is introduced) is doing a Diana and entirely ignoring the theme of the challenge. Rather than make something from Europe, she's opted for something Caribbean. Apparently Bez is fine with that, so long as rum is involved.

Sadly those decorations are depicted all too accurately.
I can't bring myself to talk about the proving dilemmas again. Rise once? Rise twice? Who cares. But I do love Martha's reasoning for adding margarine to her recipe 'to make it a bit more cakey' and less like bread. That's definitely what I'd do. She's also in on the soak-it-in-booze tactic (almond liqueur) but with the difference that she can't actually buy it herself legally. (Maybe she gets her alcohol from... Martha's Vineyard. Now, where did I leave that klaxon...)

She also confesses to Kate (who appears to be taking a moment to microwave some popcorn) that she doesn't know what a savarin is.

You and me both, love. This link will tell all.

Kate cheerfully confesses that hers also isn't European - excellent work, guys! - and, moments after I say that Israel (the country that inspired her bake) is in the Eurovision Song Contest, she uses the same defence. (Azerbaijan Roll, anyone?) She also adds that, having lived in Israel, she didn't actually like their cakes. What a triumph this is turning out to be.

Incidentally, I'd have loved to see what Norman would do in this challenge. But at least he could have used the defence that the UK is in Europe, and flung a Viccie sponge on the table.

Chetna, as always, is kneeling on the ground and pressing furiously at a timer.

I'd argue that this could be done equally well standing.

There are lots of shots of people pulling out proving drawers, making sauces, and - inexplicably - gasping at nothing quite a lot. And then we turn to Richard talking us through some white gunk he might (but ultimately does not) put on top. I'm more interested in whatever curious activities are going on in the background. Are they casting some sort of spell on the dough?

In all likelihood, no.
I want to talk about how much I enjoyed Mel and Sue's accents throughout, but have no way of transcribing them. All I will say is that they're back on top form.

Luis continues to treat GBBO like his own baking show (actually giving good advice, while Nancy - presumably - falls off her stool in the background), Mel continues to utter dire voiceover warnings about baking-caused world disaster, and the cameraman continues to have a curious obsession with shots of footwear.

I guess he has to get his kicks somewhere.
Geddit, KICKS. It's funny because the word has two meanings.

Luis' money is on Nancy to win the whole series; "defo" he adds. (Don't forget that my money is on YOU, Luis. Adam's money is on Nancy, fans of my office's sweepstake will be pleased to learn.) Some lovely editing leads us straight to a shot of Nancy's cake looking rather a mess.


"Looks more like a Yorkshire pudding," she says, "It would probably do it a favour if I dropped it on the floor." If she'd said "throw it in the bin," she might have won my moment of the series. Still, she has the Cockney Barrowgirl's sense of perspective, and womanfully carries on - and by 'carries on' I, of course, mean 'douses in alcohol'. And... well, let's wait and see her decorations.

They all look pretty impressive (except for Chetna's, which is rather bland) but - although I can take or leave cooked apple - I have to say that Luis' steals the show, appearance-wise.

"When you chew it there's no chew to it at all" - this paradox from Paul is, apparently, a compliment.

Mary gets quite waspish over Nancy's decorations. Let's have a little look at them. "I don't think they add anything," says Mary.

Would that were true.

"Even as I put them on," says Nancy, "I thought they looked a bit naff." That presumably means that, in the shop, on the morning of the bake, and at every moment before she put them on, she was under the impression that green tinsel and a fake flamingo would spell 'classy' to the casual observer.

Cake: As Time Goes By is just an excuse for Sue to gorge at the Danish Embassy.

"Scandinavia is very popular at the moment," says Mel, "with ABBA and The Killing." As Sue points out, ABBA's heyday is rather behind us - but, more importantly, this sounds like either a tawdry tabloid headline or the title to a lost Enid Blyton mystery.

The technical bake is a Swedish 'princess cake'. It sounds bizarrely, and deliciously, complicated - creme pat, cream, sponge, jam, marzipan, etc. 26 separate ingredients, apparently. Like the alphabet. "I've never heard of it, never seen it, never eaten it," says Martha - the last of these probably didn't need saying, unless she's given to eating anonymous food, blindfolded.

The sample that Mary and Paul have laid out before them doesn't have the DEFINED LAYERS that they so ardently (and arbitrarily) demand, but it does look delish.

Those layers couldn't be less defined if they were a word yet to be added to the dictionary.
Paul giggles like a supervillain.

Nancy, taking inspiration from Norman, becomes the jam expert of the tent, and talks about how she makes 'tons of jam'.

"I make SO MUCH JAM."
How green should marzipan be? That question, and others, covered in a baking montage.

And Chetters - gasp - decides to start again, because her sponge hasn't risen enough. From this moment until the end of the challenge she looks frantic and terrified, several stages behind everyone else.

[Note to self: insert swannee-whistle sound effect]

Martha, in a moment unlikely to still any qualms her parents might have about her maths A level results, is entirely stumped at dividing 5 by 3. She then seems uncertain what shape a circle might be.

Nancy: "I didn't know if I was Arthur or Martha, first thing."

If you thought that was good, wait for what comes next...

"What did the male judge say?"

They play it like she's avoiding Paul's name out of crossness at his critique, but... she clearly had just forgotten it for a bit. I love how unbothered she is by it all. It's so wonderful.

Also wonderful is:

Wonderful but unsanitary.

Everything is looking pretty impressive all round, until they start piping their chocolate - at which point almost everybody seems to lose any sense of style or precision. And... Chetters finished hers! She does this across the tent to Sue, and it's adorable.

Mary is fixated on the dome shape and the distinct layers, neither of which would bother me at all. Paul thinks the piped cream around the cakes looks awful on almost all of them, which I can't see. They're quite critical considering how difficult the challenge was. Kate comes last, and Nancy comes first. Chetna comes second, even with her rushed effort. How do you think she would react?

Artist's impression.

Richard's pencil has SWAPPED EARS. This is NOT a drill. Repeat, this is NOT a drill.

Mel cheerfully enquires whether there is, or is not, a curse for the Star Baker. Paul responds by pointing out that Star Bakers have done quite badly the week after they win - which is obviously what Mel was saying already. Avoiding the question, hmm? Just what a CURSE MASTER might do.

Is it just me, or is the effort to British-theme the table rather cursory?

The showstopper this week is 'a contemporary version of the Hungarian dobos torte' - i.e. a cake with more than one tier and an emphasis on sugarwork. I loves me some caramel, and I'm basically salivating throughout the rest of the programme.

Luis is making a structure based on a local landmark - one, I note, that he carefully avoids naming, presumably so that nobody can question the resemblance.

He's taken the same approach to British-theming, it seems.

Being a graphic designer he has, of course, drawn up plans on paper. Mary Berry Reaction Face says she's pretty impressed.


And, moments later, she's stunned by Richard saying he's going to make 20 layers.

Either that or she's trying to catch one of Chetna's grapes in her mouth.
And who could have thrown it?


I hear the words 'salted caramel' too often, seeing as I don't have any in front of me. No fair. Everything sounds entirely amazing.

Mathematician of the Year Martha announces that 24 is 'a lot'.

Sue feels like nobody has mentioned that Richard is a builder for quite a while, and takes it upon herself. He doesn't help himself by bringing in modelling clay.

Alex/Kate is making a three-tier cake "because I think two-tier cakes look like hats". Oh right, she's mad. (But still great.) As my friend Andrew pointed out, while we were watching it, it looks like Kerplunk.

And, now I look closely, a hat with a cake on top of it.
Mel is her usual helpful self:

Oh good lord, Kate is wearing a sheriff badge. Amazing.

Should those layers be clearly defined? Yes, they should. Who'd have guessed?

Nancy continues her streak of being entirely unflappable by saying that, although her chocolate has gone grainy and wrong, she'll 'scrape it off and start again'. During this pronouncement Chetna has been wandering into shot, and it ends with her giving a wonderfully shocked look in our Nance's direction. She is the Starting Again Queen this week, so it should come as no great surprise.

Also - doesn't Chetna have her own sink?
Sue makes a 'more tiers than an English penalty shoot-out' joke. Topical.

Luis' caramel skillz are crazy good. I don't understand how he's built this and kept everything the same colour - did he make lots of batches of caramel, or build it super quickly, or what? He's even finished before everyone else. While Chetters is still dipping grapes in sugar (sure, why not?) he starts cleaning up the workspace, cleaning spray and all. What a man.

And... time is up! I want to eat all of them. But first, the bakers must stare at their creations while the cameraman pans around them.

Here are my favourite (and it was the pick of an incredible bunch):

  • Nancy gets a good critique in general, and calls Paul 'lovely'.
  • Richard's is 'a bit sad', but he has got a lot of caramel elements.
  • Luis' is praised for appearance, and Mary tries her hand at a pun ("monumental!") and adds, in Miranda's-Mum-mode "It's what I call a showstopper" - but the flavour is lacking.
  • Kate's is criticised for not having enough caramel - which is apparently a worse crime than pretending that Israel borders France.
  • Chetna's grape construction is praised. To my mind it looks a bit mad, but each to their own. Mary says that 'everybody will be copying that at home', showing a sweet. albeit misplaced, optimism.
  • Martha's is disappointingly messy considering it was a great idea. Would it have been so hard to flatten out the surfaces? And - shock! horror! - she used a bought mould for her chess pieces. Where was the modelling clay?
The judges and presenters have their repetitive recap backstage. It comes down to taste vs. challenge-adherence... Richard vs. Kate? Only a superfluous and, frankly, extraordinary clip of mooing cows separates us from the announcement of the Star Baker. It's...

Chetna! Who saw that coming? Nothing in the episode up to this point seemed to be heading this way, but she's a sweetie, so I'm happy.

Who will go home out of Rich and Kate? Mary and Paul waffle on for hours, recapping the whole episode for anybody who tuned in a little early for the next programme (including Paul saying to Alex/Kate "you never did enough caramel" - a life-indictment), and eventually (eventually) tell us that... neither of them are going home! Absolutely nobody is surprised by this point, but it's still lovely to keep them both for another week.

Kate takes it in her stride.


I'm afraid there probably won't be a recap next week, as I'll be away - so I'll see you when I see you!

Hope you've enjoyed European week. Au revoir! (And, Helen... which is the ODO update word?)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Desert Island Discs

I expect you all know about Desert Island Discs - it's a series that has been running on Radio 4 since 1942 (and, astonishingly, has only had four presenters in that time) where a well-known figure picks the eight pieces of music or songs that they would take with them to a desert island. They are also allowed one (chuh! one!) book and one luxury item. These choices are also, of course, a chance for the interviewee (or 'castaway') to give the story of their life.

I've listened to it on and off all my life. It was only recently that archive recordings were made available online, so I listened to a few older ones - but I hadn't realised that they could also be downloaded from iTunes, and thus make their way to my iPod. (The 'download' link on the website doesn't seem to work, so iTunes is the way forward... although the website is a good place to narrow down the possibilities.)

Anyway, this is a roundabout way to saying what a delight it has been, over the past few days, to spend my journeys to and from work listening to Desert Island Discs. There are hundreds of recordings available, from many decades. I assume these are available internationally. So far I have enjoyed listening to...

Jenny Agutter
Joan Plowright
Judi Dench
Mary Berry
Dawn French
Penelope Keith
Gemma Jones
Maureen Lipman

You can tell me interest in theatrical actresses, can't you? I do love to hear or read about the theatre, and another version of Simon would have loved to be on the stage.

But perhaps the best was Sybil Marshall, a novelist whose first novel came out when she was 80. She spoke about what a charmed and lucky life she'd had - and, considering she also spoke about having a stillborn baby and cancer, just goes to show how much is about attitude.

If you've somehow missed these (like me) then - there are many, many hours of enjoyment! As for what I'd take myself... I'm afraid I'd have to eschew music and take audiobooks. I like music, but it doesn't hold a candle to literature in terms of its effect on me.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain - A.C. Ward

Back in April I read A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain (1943) by A.C. Ward, very kindly given to me by the always wonderful Karen/Kaggsy, but I have only just got around to reading it. I can't remember where this first came up (maybe in person; before her lovely review anyway) but I was extremely happy to be presented with a copy. What a fascinating little book it is, and so perfect for somebody with an interest in the early 20th century.

A.C. Ward has a special place in my heart because of his book The Nineteen-Twenties (published, I think, in 1930 - so a very immediate retrospective). I was reading it at the beginning of my DPhil, just to get a sense of how somebody contemporary might have characterised the period. Lo and behold, he had a chapter on 'The Refuge of Form and Fantasy', where he discussed the vogue for the fantastic in the period. Since I'd already decided to write my thesis on this, it was wonderful confirmation that it had been significant in the 1920s - as well as providing an invaluable quotation from a talk by Sylvia Townsend Warner that doesn't appear to have been quoted anywhere else. Research mad skillz.

Anyway, in A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain Ward does exactly that, whether figuratively or not - he takes the reader on a journey through Britain, showing the literary sites that have been saved from bombing, or those that have been irrevocably changed by war. I can only imagine how poignant and moving this would have been in 1943; it is certainly moving enough now.

Plenty of his narration takes place in London, unsurprisingly - it was undoubtedly the area of Britain most physically affected by war - and in between commemorating Keats in Hampstead and Dickens in Doughty Street, he turns his attention to pre-war Bloomsbury (in a passage, incidentally, which would have been very useful in my first chapter):
After the last war 'Bloomsbury' became a synonym for intellectualist inbreeding and highbrow snobbery. But it is as difficult to define (or even to find) the pure 'Bloomsbury' type as it is to define or isolate 'Victorianism.' There is an old Punch joke, '"You can always tell a Kensington girl." "Yes; but you can't tell her much."' his, if given an intellectualist twist, might be applied to Bloomsbury in the nineteen-twenties. The authors who wrote and/or published their books in Bloomsbury then were not susceptible to instruction. They instructed. The hallmark of 'Bloomsbury' was a tart intellectual arrogance; and in their literary style Bloomsbury writers affected a dryness which was intended to have the vitrue of dry champagne, yet the product was, often, sandy on the palate. The Mother Superior of 'Bloomsbury' was Virginia Woolf, but, beside her, the rest were mostly novices lacking a vocation. Her one vice was preciosity; her virtues were legion.
I don't think I've ever read a more incisive and concise depiction of the Bloomsbury group.

Along with the text (and I should re-emphasise that he does sweep through other counties, and not just southern ones either) there are two types of illustration - pencil sketches and photographs. The photos are amazing. We see Westminster Abbey with rubble, Milton's statue knocked off a plinth, Canterbury ruins, etc. A trove of poignant (yes, that word again) images which bring to life a period that even the greatest description inevitably keeps at some distance.

Thanks, Karen, for sending this my way! A unique perspective on wartime Britain that I will really treasure.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you've all had a great weekend! There's still a bit of it left, so there is time for a book, a blog post, and a link... and, you never know, I might even manage to review some books this week. I'm back in the position of reading lots at once, including some chunksters (Sarah Waters, anyone?) so I'll have to dive into the backlog of unreviewed books. And I will reply to comments soon too, promise...

1.) The link - if you live near Oxford and want to abseil down a church on October 4th in support of Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre, then this link will tell you how. If you either don't live near Oxford or (like me) could never be brought to abseil for anything, the same link will give more info anyway, if you would like to support. Thanks to my friend Sophie for sharing the link.

2.) The blog post - I adored Dodie Smith's Look Back With Love, the first volume of her four-part autobiography, and bought a couple of the others immediately. I still hadn't read any more, but Barb at Leaves and Pages has written lovely and glowing reviews of them. All got 10/10. And now I'm knee-deep in Look Back With Mixed Feelings.

3.) The book - I have heard much of Una Silberrad at middlebrow conferences, but not read anything by her yet - so was delighted to receive a copy of The Good Comrade from Victorian Secrets, and will report back in due course. Find out more here...

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: Episode Five

Well, the drama kept coming last week, didn't it? I had endless conversations in the office about the rights and wrongs of bingate, and whether or not we thought Iain would be reinducted in this episode (spoiler: he didn't). I also got the closest I'm likely to get to Bake Off fame, when Howard quoted me (eeek!) on An Extra Slice. Not by name, sadly, but he mentioned my Alan Bennett comparison and later confirmed on Twitter that I was the reference. Exciting times. (Extra Slice people, if you're reading, I would definitely come on the show. Just saying. Any time. I'm ready.) (Any time.)

But enough about me - let's go on to the Bake Off - which I watched at my friend Adam's house. His Mum made Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood scarecrows for her village, which shows his excellent credentials as a GBBO host. I'm still waiting for the photos ADAM, but hopefully they'll appear next week.

"All drama; zero gimmicks" say Mel and Sue in their increasingly contentless introduction to the show - and that's a fair assessment of the show, I think. Even the in-jokes aren't really gimmicks. I would have preferred it if they'd said "No gimmicks; all gimlet eyes" and panned to Paul's piercing blues, but we do not live in a utopia. I'm also very intrigued by that 'private' sign that seems to be facing the wrong direction, so that people see it as they leave the grounds. Are they trapped?

Stuck in a Book: asking the questions that matter

In this line, the news that Diana has been taken ill and won't be returning to the competition is delivered in the least sensational manner possible, even if the pan of the bakers arriving is performed, once more, in the midst of some foliage. It's voyeuristic and unsettling, cameraman. Stop it.

A few of the bakers talk about how they're going to miss her, and Martha says that Diana is 'her grandma in the tent'. What about Universal Grandmother Mary Berry??

The judges and presenters line up to announce the first challenge - custard tarts, gladdening the heart of Lionel Hardcastle - and Blazer Watch has never felt more necessary. Mary and Mel have both gone neon,while Sue appears to be recycling last week's blazer. C'mon, Sue. Give a recapper something to work with. Paul not only continues to forego a suit jacket, he's also gone cuff crazy this week. As always, he looks ready for a line-dance.

Is Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen well-known enough
internationally to make for a successful reference?
The first reaction to the challenge is, as usual, Chetna being very nervous, and apologising to the cameraman for no obvious reason. Chetters, you'll be fine, don't worry!

Paul and Mary waffle about pastry textures in the garden ("If they make holes, the custard will leak out" - do feel free to grab a notebook if you want to jot down these insights) and we see lots of bakers playing with flour and butter. Frankly, it's not a difficult challenge. But I look forward to seeing them dramatise.

First off we come to Norman, who is making a tarte au citron. He's obviously of the opinion that making something foreign - and saying actual foreign words - is plenty fancy enough, and he won't be wanting to show his face in the Aberdeenshire Working Men's Club for a month of Sundays, thanking you kindly. "I first tried it in France twenty years ago, and had never had anything as exotic as that at home," he actually says. Is he trolling us? It's pastry and lemon, Norm. Mary Berry Reaction Face:

It's so simple that Mel actually includes 'dusted with icing sugar' in her voiceover description of it.

"...and served on a plate."

He says that he'll be stretching himself tomorrow, and so he's keeping it simple today. Paul seems ok with that ("if you're stretching, you need to warm up, and this is your warm up") but his hesitant face says different. Just you wait and see, Paul... #becarefulwhatyouwishfor

Martha isn't sure about the challenge. She doesn't like making pastry. "It's one of those things that you make if you're a bit older. People like Nancy make pastry a lot." She could so easily be given the bitch edit, so I admire the BBC for being kind to her - and I still think she's fab. Having said that, we get a good reaction face from Nancy (which was probably filmed long afterwards):

Watch yourself.

In justice to Martha, we almost immediately hear Nancy saying how much she likes making pastry. And hers sounds amazing, combining three of my favourite flavours - chocolate, coconut, and passion fruit. I might steal this recipe if poss. Some pastry purists don't like the chocolate version, but I do a mean choc pastry myself, so I'm all for it. And it gives BBC Colouring Pencils Man a chance to break out a different colour. His pastry colour must be running down.

May contain Minotaur.

Montage time, and the same levels of dramatic music that were given to the #bincident are accorded to Luis pulling clingfilm, Norman advising people to chill pastry, and Martha (perhaps eavesdropping) putting her pastry in the fridge. She takes a leaf out of Voice of Doom Mel's book and says that she could ruin her tart if she chills the pastry for too long or too little time, which is nonsense. These are the low level stakes we know and love from GBBO.

Alex/Kate is making almond and rosemary pastry for her rhubarb and custard tart, which sounds a bit much to me, but M and P are all over it (and she claims it's 'simple'). She, wonderfully, continues to treat every moment as an opportunity for am dram. In this image, you might think, she has just dropped her tart, or had her home repossessed. No, she is simply talking about rhubarb.

"And... scene."

Luis is making a 'Tropical Manchester Tart', presumably named by somebody with the good fortune never to have gone to Manchester (bad Simon). My friend Hannah, with whom I watched, is a card-carrying Northerner, and was Not Happy about the tart being messed with. (Incidentally, my friend Malie also watched, having never seen it before. The appeal took some explaining beforehand, but I think she enjoyed it.)

Richard is poaching figs (I suggested at this juncture that nobody liked figs, but was shouted down by my companions). More importantly - where is the pencil?  It's in the shot before this, and the shot after, but not here. Guys, what's happening? We have lost the only consistent element of the known universe.

Is this a Dumbo/feather situ?

More on the pencil later, building stationery fans.

I'm super jealous of everybody's pastry, and the way they are able to pick it up and line the tins. Lest we forget, here is an early stage of the quiche my friend Lorna and I made last year:

Nailed it.

It is tarts week, of course, and you might have thought that Mel & Sue - five series in - would have exhausted the comic potential of saying 'tart' and winking at the camera. How little you know this programme. But this year's is rather special. Mel and Nancy have a brilliant conversation about looking like tarts, and having tarts' hairstyles. I love both Mel and Sue, but Mel is the best at forming galpal friendships in the tent.

Also, Nancy's top has handbags all over it.
Presumably she'll do you a good price for them.
Martha talks again about not liking making pastry, which fills us with nerves about her security in the competition. Then we see lots of bakers trim their tarts, while Mel intones about the importance of keeping it neat. Any voiceover about neatness and perfectionism can only end in one place - a swannee-whistle and a shot of Norm.

"That'll do" is something a life mantra, isn't it?

"A steady hand is vital for pouring the custard," warns Mel. It really isn't. It's quite a large target, isn't it? And gravity, despite being Iain's nemesis, lends a helping hand here. And cue montage of pouring. Mel looms over Richard while he carries his tart, making the whole thing more difficult. And then, this:

You can see why he's grown to be one of my faves, can't you? At least he didn't dunk a biccie in it.

Kate does some extremely impressive swirling, while Norm looks at her bewildered by all the fanciness, and then she collapses over the desk - because of course she does. You can just see a glimpse of Norman, and it looks a bit like she's unsuccessfully trying to hide from him.

"If I can't see you, you can't see me."
But, bless her, she gives Martha a helping hand getting her tart (which closely resembles a tomato quiche) out of its tin.

We see Luis with a stencil, Nancy doing intricate piping, and Norman... dumping a bag of icing sugar on top of his tarte au citron.

Dusted with icing sugar? Really?

During the judging, Paul says Norman's looks a mess (sad face), and he takes it stoically. Nancy's looks as amazing as I'd hoped. Chetna is told "I think you could have cooked your rice a bit longer," which doesn't strike me as something anybody should say during a custard challenge.

"It's custard" is one of the helpful comments Paul makes, to Alex/Kate.

Richard describes himself as "a clumsy blad", and I can't work out if he's using some sort of gangland slang, or reverting to 'lad' after starting with a naughty word. Or perhaps he's referring to himself as a promotional flyer or mockup for a product? Either way, Mary gets her flirt on, talking about his steady hand.

"If I were sixty years younger..."

Martha gets her first criticism of the series, really, and - bless her - she's upset. One of Paul's criticisms is that "it's quite tart" which, given his propensity to mix up parts of speech, could be exactly what they should have been doing. "It's very bread," and "Not quite cake enough" are, I feel certain, things he has said in the past.

The bakers repeat all the things Paul said, but standing in the garden.

Bride cake was apparently once a thing, and was to be broken over the bride's head. In case those words mean nothing to you, we have a two-second reconstruction:

And thereby two Equity cards were earned.
The less said about the rest of the Pies Through The Ages the better. We're back to the tent, and they're making... mini-pear pies. Poached pears in pastry. C'mon, GBBO. This isn't a thing. Go home, GBBO, you're drunk. It started with the proving drawer and it's getting out of hand. (Was this challenge chosen just so we can hear Norman say 'poached pears' a lot? It's great in a Scottish accent.)

Btw, I live for pastry, but I can take or leave pears, so I can't get excited about this challenge.

The soundtrack at this point appears to be performed by a double bass and a pair of maracas.

"Something scientific probably happens to it," says Nancy, of the pastry. Oh, guys, I love everybody in this tent. It's a really fab group of people, isn't it?

My boy Luis (win me that £15, Luis!) keeps explaining how things actually work, and why certain actions are being performed, giving Mel and/or Sue very little to do in the voiceovers - other than, of course, warning that slight adjustments in temperature or pear placement will inevitably result in the tent burning to the ground.

1. Does anybody ever sit on those outdoor chairs?
2. It looks like the freezer has a very intricate handle

Richard and Chetna have a discussion about whose pears are on which shelves of the fridge. We can but learn from the mistakes of others, so well done guys.

Norman is no fan of the poaching wine. "Too sweet for me," he says, with the exact same expression that he had when saying how delicious his dessert was last week.


Chetna tests the maxim that watched pears never poach.

Lovely Martha, as usual, is anxious about what everybody else is doing - and revealingly says "I'm doing what isn't allowed, and looking at other people's." Has there been a rule against this all along, brazenly ignored by absolutely everyone?

Including, in fact, Martha in this next shot - while Mel makes a 'nice pear' joke that Luis completely ignores. Good for you, Luis. Mel's better than that.

(She really, really isn't.)

She does make a very good 'cutting it fine' joke at this point, which is only slightly ruined by that blue bandage.

Now we have a montage of people wrapping pears in pastry ("It's like I'm mummifying a pear," notes Martha, stealing joke potential from me). This is up there with stuffing a mushroom in the life's-too-short stakes, surely, and the ultimate reward is so small. And it's not going well for our Rich.

I'm pretty sure this is what that London 2012 sculpture looks like.

No, sorry, THIS is what the London 2012 sculpture looks like.

They are all presented. Mezza Bezza and Paul aren't very impressed, on the whole. Richard's is a hot mess, and obviously comes last (he is very witty about it in the post-challenge interview, suggesting that he'd have done better if he'd set the tent on fire.) Martha redeems herself by coming top of the rankings.

We come to the final challenge, and it's raining. Everybody has an umbrella, seemingly, except for Luis. Questions must be asked.

The steps continue to be an inadequate substitute for The Bridge.

They're making tiered pies. This, again, isn't a thing. Have they run out of baked goods that actually exist? It does give me an opportunity, though, of crowning the winner in my Facebook Pun Competition:

Well done, Adam. Proud day for you.

Paul is obsessed with stating the obvious this week: 'this is a pie challenge'. At which point we immediately cut away to someone stuffing a chicken. And it's not even Nancy and her penchant for East End greasy spoons!

Pie, schmie.

Several of the bakers are making hot water crust pastry (I don't know which of those words should be joined together, so I've spread them all apart) including Richard. "You could build a house out of it, probably!" he says, in an amazingly shoe-horned-in manner, for which I can only admire him. Truth be told, they've mentioned the building profesh less than I thought they would.
(This is famous last words, isn't it?)
(Ah... yes. Moments later, he's making 'posh builder's pies'.)
(Are these posh pies for builders or pies for posh builders? Enquiring minds must know.)

Kate (who is using prunes and rhubarb - good grief, why?) warns us that the pastry mustn't be too hot or too cold. It's just dawned on me that all five series of GBBO - with all their dire pronouncements "not too long in the oven, or too little time", "not too much kneaded, or too little", "not left to prove for too long, or too briefly" etc. - have essentially been a longwinded retelling of Goldilocks.

On a similar theme, Martha is making a 'Three Little Pigs' trio. My friend Malie wondered if she was going to make one tier out of straw, one out of wood, and one out of bricks - gosh, can you imagine the triumphant display Frances from Series 4 would have produced? - but instead she has gone the macabre route of adding insult to injury and mocking dead pigs by subverting a story in which they figure as (well-meaning, if stupid) heroes, as well as eating them. Martha, you big bad wolf.

You can tell I'm a vegetarian, can't you?

So what is Norman making? Three steak and kidney pies, you'd assume, if that doesn't sound too exotic. But - no! He really is pulling out all the stops. By which I mean that he is putting every single flavour he's ever heard of into this creation - haggis, duck, venison, spinach, haddock, cheese, raspberry, passion fruit, and lavender. Seriously. This is what we call going from one extreme to another. Brilliantly, he calls it his Pieffel Tower.

For Nancy, they just reuse footage from bread week, as far as I can tell.

"I call it Lots of Meat in Carbs."

Paul reminds Chetna of her flavouring mishaps in the Signature Challenge, and she appears to dither back and forth over whether or not to stab Paul through the heart.

Mel calls Norman 'Normski', and he quotes Robert Burns. There's no way I can improve on that.

Richard: "I'm just knocking up the final pie... I mean lovingly crafting the final pie!" He cracks me up. But all the wit and self-awareness in the tent is making it difficult to write recaps, guys. And then comes my favourite moment of the episode, and one which entirely brings me around to Richard's Ways. Nancy is on the hunt for a pencil. Guess who has one to hand? Or, should I say, to ear?

And the tent hosts the smallest ever relay race.
Bless them. I have accepted the pencil.

Dramatic musical instruments now - tuba and xylophone?

Pies are coming out of ovens everywhere - I'm starting to realise how much Paul and Mary are going to eat. Things aren't looking good for Norm, as there is the first ever instance of Sue stealing a baker's food and not liking it... in this case, lavender meringue.

"...but why?"

Martha's pie has sprung a leak! Wasn't she listening to those wise words about holes in pastry letting things go through them? CATASTrop... no, wait, apparently it's fine.

Luis has a spirit level, thus treading all over Richard's schtick.

I'm enjoying the different ways the bakers are incorporating tiers. We have plastic, wooden, and cardboard tiers - and then some (Chetna and Martha) are just dumping their pies on top of one another in a big PIEle. Pie. Pile. Geddit? (Leave me alone... it's better than Sue's 'surpies!' which means nothing in or out of context.)

Somewhere Frances is watching and she's ANGRY.

My friend Hannah shrieked at this point, which was terrifying, but Luis' pie is resilient and he just shoves it back on top. And... time is up!

Here are my two favourites:

Quite a lot of compliments, but not for poor old Norman. The lesson here, to quote The Simpsons, is: never try. Richard's is burnt, Martha's needs three people to carry, Kate's is a festival of floral eccentricity, and Chetna is recrowned Flavour Queen.

The judges and presenters repeat everything they've already said, backstage, and bring up the idea that Diana's absence might mean nobody goes home. Mary is firm in refusing to reveal anything, and also says perhaps her harshest criticism yet: "I've never had lavender in meringue before, and I don't think I want it again." Ouch.

So, who is star baker? It's Brighton's finest ("I am as southern as they get"):

And going home? With a catch in my throat...

He needs an umbrella for my tears.

And, like that, the Great British Beige Off ended, losing both its contestants in one week. And, uncharacteristically, in a whirl of lavender-flavoured egg. Oh, Norman, it's not going to be the same without you! You are already a national treasure.

See you all next week!