There's a new BBC show called The Big Family Cooking Showdown next week. It must be a new BBC Bake Off copycat, right? At first glance you might be convinced. There are three rounds of challenges, just like in Bake Off. The people who appear in this show appear to be nice and supportive to one another, just like in Bake Off. Then there are the slight differences. It's not about individual competitors, it's about families! It's in not filmed in a tent, it's filmed in a barn! The title of one features the words "Great British". The other? "Cooking Showdown"!
And then there's the fact that Nadiya Hussain, the winner of Bake Off in 2015, is one of the presenters of Cooking Showdown. After Bake Off sensationally left the BBC and moved to Channel 4 under a three-year deal, and the BBC signed an exclusive deal to keep Hussain on its channels, it felt like some sort of rival Bake Off programme from the BBC was going to be inevitable. So it was only natural that when Cooking Showdown was announced in March with Hussain's name attached, the tabloids had a field day. This was The Sun's front page:
Well, I went to visit the set of Cooking Showdown and saw one of its cookery challenges take place. Three families were set the challenge of impressing the judges with a meal. Despite the nine people cooking in the room, and more than twice as many people filming them doing so, it was eerily quiet. The only long conversations were from Zoe Ball and Hussain in one corner to camera, while judges Rosemary Shrager and Giorgio Locatelli observed the action in another.
After the challenge ended (and before I helped myself to some of the leftovers), I asked the presenters about calling this a new Bake Off. "We think that the new Bake Off is the new Bake Off, because there is a new Bake Off," said Ball. "And obviously they are going to draw comparisons, and Nadiya is doing the show."
Hussain said: "I think there is so much room in television for new shows and a show like this. It’s not single contestants competing against each other, which even though it can be quite a friendly show, that competitive nature can be quite scary to watch. These are families. It is three people in a team, and these are people who have known each other their whole lives. It’s not just about the individual contestants, it’s about their stories and the love and warmth that they bring. That makes it all a different show altogether."
So why family teams? "There is something about the uniqueness of homecooked food," said Sanjay Singhal, Cooking Showdown's executive producer. "It’s not often celebrated in competitive formats because for some reason it doesn’t feel like it is enough of a stretch." There's a wide variety of families from different backgrounds: "We’ve got a mum cooking for her two daughters that she brought up on her own, you’ve got a grandma – who is absolutely one of the most inspirational women I have ever met, cooking with her grandson," said Ball. "You might have a family with an Italian mum and an Irish father and they’ll cook Vietnamese."
Having watched an episode of the new series, I can say this family dynamic style of competition makes the show feel unique. The way the contestants talk to each other is much more candid than other shows, because they've obviously known each other their whole lives (families don't mess about). Then there's the support you see when they win or lose. "When you are doing really well everyone celebrates together," said Singhal. "When you’ve done badly there’s consolation in the fact that there’s two pairs of arms around you and everyone is saying, 'Don’t worry we’ll do better next time, you did your best and we’re all in it together.' Ultimately that is what it is about – your family is always there for you through thick and thin."
The show's entire tone is different to Bake Off's too. While Bake Off is known for its entertainment and innuendo, not forgetting Selasi giving you eye sex, Cooking Showdown takes us down a much more informative and educational route. There is more chat about recipes and techniques. And the challenges, such as The £10 Challenge, where each of the families have to make something that costs no more than a tenner, cover issues that Bake Off hasn't seemed bothered about. "Those are sort of the challenges based on real-world dilemmas that families have," said Singhal. "How do you produce food quickly? How do you produce good food on a budget?"
Then there's the fact that for a third of the show, the barn is abandoned altogether and a challenge is filmed within the confines of the families' homes. You see each family frantically running around to produce a main course and dessert before judges Shrager and Locatelli knock on the front door. If anything, it comes across like a scene from an exceptionally posh episode of Come Dine With Me.
That's one thing you see during the home visit challenge, the closeness between the presenters and the families. "There are 16 families, and Zoe visited eight and I visited eight, and naturally, you steer yourself towards a certain family because you’ve been in their homes, you’ve used their downstairs loo, you’ve looked through their photos and they’ve made you dinner," said Hussain. It also makes any of the cooking going wrong painful, especially for Hussain. "The more that Zoe and I have worked together, she knows that the second something happens, my face is going to go all blank because sometimes I’m far too close to it to remove myself from it. You see them fall apart and drop things and you go ‘oh god’, and I think back to my time, two years ago, when I was on Bake Off.
"It all floods back when you see somebody else under pressure."
Both Bake Off and Cooking Showdown are warm, comforting television shows full of people meaning to do each other well, trying to inspire people at home. But this feeling of warmth is also applicable to other shows. It makes you wonder if Bake Off had never left the BBC, anyone would have seen it as a rival. Cooking Showdown was commissioned before Bake Off even went to Channel 4, the BBC says.
"I think people will understand when they see it that it is a completely different show, but there’s only so much you can do until you put the programme out – people will jump to conclusions," said Singhal. "When the programme goes out hopefully they’ll see for themselves why we say it’s very different."
So if this show isn't the BBC's new version of Bake Off, then how about the cooking show that was just announced starring ex-Bake Off judge Mary Berry, which was announced just last week?
It's too early to tell on that one. We'll just have to wait and see.