Paul Hollywood has said that he is ‘devastated’ after old images of him wearing Nazi uniform fancy dress surfaced online over the weekend.
Word on the street is that the Nazis are similarly distraught. Mary Berry caught dressed to the nines in old SS gear? Now that would have been a triumph. Prue Leith throwing up salutes at the rally? Back in the game! Jesus, at this stage, they’d even have settled for Noel Fielding. But Paul? Paul Hollywood? Ol’ blue eyes? He’s hardly the face that’s going to save the brand. Expect a statement from Nazi HQ, in which they distance themselves from such a divisive, controversial figure.
All jokes aside, Hollywood, as a public figure, offers an interesting paradox. As an integral part of one of the UK’s most successful, best-loved television shows, he’s part of a collective package that brings weekly instalments of warmth, joy and happiness to people up and down the country. However, by himself, the case is a different one entirely. How do I say this, Paul? People don’t seem to like you, mate. I’ve heard them say it. They don’t trust you. I’m here to try and understand why.
When it was first announced that GBBO would be moving to Channel 4, Britain, as you well know, came together in outrage. When Mel, Sue and Mary of House Berry (first of her name, the unburnt, queen of the pastries and the first pies, khaleesi of the great baked Alaska, etc etc) added that they wouldn’t be following the show in its move across networks, the nation mourned. We were inconsolable. “But wait, everybody,” said Paul, doing his best consoling voice. “No need to worry, I’m still going to be there!”
The response, diplomatically speaking, wasn’t pretty. For many, to have Paul Hollywood as the only surviving member of the original lineup was a bit like watching your house burn to the ground in a terrible fire, only to have firefighter – removing his helmet to reveal himself as actual Paul Hollywood – tell you that he’s going to be part of Channel 4’s GBBO lineup. “We probably could have saved the place, were I an actual firefighter,” he adds, offering you a bit of carrot cake from his pocket. “I literally have no idea why I’m even here!”
Not since Pop Idol era Simon Cowell has a figure associated with such a positive cultural phenomenon faced such widespread distrust. Even when Cowell was at Peak Nasty, there was always the knowing that – deep, deep down – he was a bit of a softie. With Hollywood, however, it’s less of a knowing, more of a desperate, unfounded hope. Last night’s episode – Bread Week – did little to dispel any such fear; the Scouse Enforcer, all sharp and steely-eyed, was at his trademark cruelest. Sure, every competition needs its bad cop judge (Craig from Strictly, Jason from Dancing On Ice, our iron-fisted, totalitarian state in Big Brother) and next to Mary – and now Prue – Paul was only ever going to have one role. But, our dislike seems to transcend the realms of televised entertainment. If you saw Paul Hollywood in the street, would you greet him with a hug, or a good-natured slap on the back? No, you would not. Berry, on the other hand: you’d gobble her up with love.
And this is why I think we hate the Hollywood. In its weekly, one-hour instalments, The Great British Bake Off creates a temporary, utopian vision of our proud country, in which everything is lovely and nobody ever dies. Producers select competitors on the sole criteria that they’d be great to live next-door to, and it doesn’t matter when it rains because we all live in a tent. Everyone is Mary Berry’s grandchild and diabetes isn’t a thing, either. We go to GBBO not because we love baking, but because we hate everything else – and the show provides us with temporary respite from that. In Paul, we are reminded of what we’re trying so desperately to escape: the real world. In reality, Paul Hollywood is no worse than anyone you have met before. He’s probably not even in the top 10. He’s probably fucking sound. But in the Bake Off universe – that warm, idyllic republic – he is, relatively speaking, our sworn nemesis.
Paul’s issue is that he is far too real in a place that we treasure because it’s anything but. As we scurry down the Bake Off rabbit hole, Paul Hollywood reminds us of a world outside; one of franchise coffee, moderate centrism, sports day dads and BMW showrooms. We distrust Paul Hollywood, because when we look into those icy, blue eyes, we see ourselves staring back at us. Repeat after me: we are all Paul Hollywood. We. Are. All. Paul. Hollywood. There isn’t a thing that you, he or any ungodly amount of icing sugar can do about it. But we’ll keep on watching anyway – cos it’s all we’ve got.
Shame to see Flo go, wasn’t it?
Words by Niall Flynn