Let’s build tents, not walls: soggy bottoms and physalis

Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, the judges of the Great British Bake Off, are the revered monarchs of the show and in many ways define the it as the unique creation that it is. It is only right that the core values of the show – good baking, British humour, and the slightly clichéd everyone-is-welcome atmosphere – stem from the centres of the show themselves, and are demonstrated time and again through the simple medium of language. The wholesome inclusivity reflects what is truly ‘great’ about Britain.

Paul starting working at his father’s bakery as a young man after dropping out of education. Mary, on the other hand, was born to the Mayor of Bath, and after college went on to study at Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world’s most prestigious cooking schools. This disparity in upbringing is not only made evident in their speech, but harnessed for comic effect: when Paul dunks his jaffa cake in his tea, Mary looks at him disparagingly and says, ‘We don’t do that in the south, you know.’ Their differing flavours complement one another well – when discussing meringue-making, Mary uses eloquent language and elaborate sentence structures: ‘The thing that I’m not too happy about is they’re nearly all using blowtorches, and to me, meringue topping is best put in the oven to get a crunchiness…’ Paul, in contrast, summarises his working-man’s meringue-based requirements with ‘I want that slight crack – you just drop your fork in there – ah, its delicious.’ Mary smoothly links together multiple clauses constructed in perfect Queen’s English, whereas Paul drops short, disconnected phrases that have a more savoury appeal to contrast with Mary’s sweetness.

Slang phrases like ‘smashed that out the park,’ ‘samey,’ and ‘mate’ reflect Paul’s working-class Liverpudlian background. Mary’s Southern, middle-class education is revealed each time she uses the words ‘scrumptious’, ‘piquancy,’ and ‘a beautiful marriage’ (the latter to describe a particularly delectable flavour combination). What enables the two so diverse linguistic styles to work together so well is their shared acknowledgement of their differences. When Mary uses Paul’s slang it comes across as an act of endearment: addressing herself to him, she describes a firm pastry crust as ‘holding its own, as you would say.’ Likewise, when criticizing Anne’s horrendously messy cake, he tells her ‘it looks too – in Mary’s words – ‘informal.’’ He suggests that the topic of informality, and thus, by association, formality, is one that resides in Mary’s domain; an acknowledgment of her privileged upbringing. The highlighting of one another’s varied dialects conveys a ironic message about the meaningless nature of class barriers through mutual affection and humour.

Mel and Sue’s sharp wit provides an excellent side-dish to Mary and Paul’s partnership, in its comically fast-paced, pun-based give-and-take. When Selasi stumbles over his words and admits to nearly saying ‘syphilis’ rather than ‘physalis’, Mel helps Mary expertly lift the discourse back to the pre-watershed tone of the programme: ‘What do you call it, Bez?’ ‘Cake gooseberries.’ Mary retains her blue-eyed innocence, while Mel throws a bone over her shoulder to the innuendo-loving audience with ‘Don’t give too many sharp edge kisses ‘cause you will get physalis’, the kisses referencing Selasi’s spin on meringue piping. The half-rhyme between ‘kisses’ and ‘physalis’ maintains the family-friendly, upbeat mood yet adds humour through the strong contrast between a nursery-rhyme rhythm, and an STI-based pun. The scientific inaccuracy only adds to the slightly nonsensical charm.

Mary’s personal staple pun is ‘soggy bottoms’, a phrase she uses to describe the soft underneath of an underbaked cake or pastry treat. While not quite as advanced as Mel and Sue’s quick wordplay, it’s affection-winning incorruptibility is irresistible to the underbaked humour of the average Brit. Paul praises Mary’s model bakewell tart: ‘Yours looks amazing; beautiful icing, great frangipane…’ ‘No soggy bottom.’ ‘No soggy bottom there Mary.’ This euphemism plays only upon the faint hint at bodily functions, revealing the simplistic – perhaps, some might argue, immature – nature of the show’s humour. It is palatable to the British public, modest in its delivery and not seeking too much clarification in its slightly unpleasant implications. It is, in fact, entirely its ambiguity that achieves the humourous effect.
The show’s deliciously simple and polite BBC tone delivers light humour and easy viewing with undertones of innuendo and tense competition. Its success lies within its supreme simplicity and innocence, over which Paul and Mary reign supreme. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.