When The Great British Bake Off (sorry, Pillsbury) judge Paul Hollywood tasted Michael Chakraverty’s Keralan star-bread tear-and-share in the third episode of the current tenth season, he first described the bake’s finer attributes and then stuck out his beefy man-paw to shake Michael’s hand. All the other bakers in the tent burst into applause as Michael became weak in the knees and immediately started to tear up. “It’s official. I got the first handshake,” he said. “My mom’s gonna cry.”
The reaction wasn’t the same at home, or at least in my home, where I said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” as soon as I saw Paul getting a little limber in the right-elbow region. It has nothing to do with Michael’s achievement — a configuration of bread in Starburst colors that looked so inviting I wanted to reach through the TV, tear off a piece, and shove it into my drooling maw — but rather with Paul’s signature move. I hate it. It has changed from a cute gesture to something that’s threatening to ruin what is best about Bake Off.
Expertly mapped out last season by Scott Bryan on BuzzFeed, the phenomenon didn’t begin until the third season (or “series” as it’s called in the U.K.), when Paul gave out precisely one handshake. Season four also had only one, and season five had two. But, much like the judges’ waistlines after a season of eating cakes, biscuits, and gateaux, it has been slowly spreading since then. In season eight, there were seven handshakes, and in season nine, there were eight in just the first half of the season alone! There were three handshakes during the signature bake of the second episode, and later in the season, Paul gave out two during the same showstopper.
Even Paul seems aware that he has been giving out too many. He said last season that after being given out “all over the shop,” the handshakes would soon dry up. And last season’s winner, Sophie Faldo, thinks he’s being a bit more stingy with them this time around. But here we are in the third week, and he has already given out one. Yes, that’s a slower rate than last year but still pretty early in the competition. As Michael himself said, he received “the first” — there is an expectation that there will be more.
Like an invasive species of ivy, the Paul Hollywood handshake has spread to the point that it threatens to take over the entire enterprise. It’s so much a part of the show there were news articles about the one he delivered to Michael last week. At first it seemed as though Paul, a stern British gentleman who looks like Simon Cowell after he’s been washed with Woolite, was so moved by a great performance that he had to give a commendation. It was almost sweet. Now Paul seems aware that this is expected of him and that his approval carries a certain currency on the program.
Admittedly, part of what fuels my hatred is that the commendation is coming from Paul, the beautiful, blue-eyed physical embodiment of manspreading. It’s almost like his arm-pumping is mansplaining baking to us. As Anoosh Chakelian writes in the New Statesman, “you can just see the blokey pleasure twinkling in Hollywood’s eyes when he swings his right arm out. The smug smirk. The eyebrows raised in can you believe I’m praising you? mock-benevolence.”
But I think I really started hating the handshake because it represents an inflection point for the series, one where Paul was no longer balanced out by former co-judge Mary Berry. In the show’s first seven seasons, she was always the gently grinning yin to his scowling yang; the bakers wanted approval from the gentle granny just as much as they wanted the approval of the stern father figure. Mary Berry (always said with both names, the opposite of Cher) was going to be proud of the bakers no matter what, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t want her to give a sincere “good job.” With Mary Berry no longer around to temper his attitude, Paul has been increasingly free to run roughshod over everything, smearing the judging with his own puffed-chest bravado.
It’s notable that the rise in handshakes seems to directly coincide with GBBO’s move from its original home on publicly funded BBC to commercial network Channel 4 between seasons seven and eight. For those in the U.S., that is when we lost Mary Berry along with original hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc. The British public was furious with Paul for making the switch and not leaving the show in protest like his coworkers. At the time, he told Radio Times, “I became the most hated man in the country! It’s not fun for someone who doesn’t like being in the limelight,” which raises the possibility that he saw the handshake as a way to melt the chilled butter hearts of Her Majesty’s subjects. If he could be nicer to the bakers, maybe Twitter would be a little bit nicer to him?
But Paul already has a certain gravitas as the show’s only constant throughout its run, and having his personal trump card of the handshake just cements his dominance over the proceedings. Co-judge Prue Leith doesn’t have an equivalent gesture, which, in effect, makes Paul the head judge when their opinions are supposed to be equal. Yes, Prue might like your rosemary-and-butternut-squash scones, but because she can’t give you a handshake, her approval means nothing. Paul is the man you really need to win over.
It’s also curious that this season’s inaugural handshake comes during Bread Week, which Paul, as a bread master, has a weird ownership over. The bakers already want to impress him this week more than they do Prue. Now here he is, making even more of a spectacle out of “his” week, pissing all over it like a dog that doesn’t realize he already owns the entire territory.
If I were Prue, I would be out there trying to make happen any physical thing that might help balance out the handshake’s increasingly weighty significance — a pat on the head, say, or a friendly goose. Hell, I’d start calling exemplary works “fetch” if I thought it would catch on. Or maybe the show just needs to codify what the handshake means. Maybe it needs to become like the save on American Idol of old, where each judge gets only one. That way, both Paul and Prue get to point out one amazing dish each season, and that’s it.
Scratch that. That idea would never work, and it goes against the spirit of the show anyway. And in the end, that’s what I really hate about the Hollywood handshake: It’s counter to everything Bake Off stands for as a program. This is a show that doesn’t have a prize other than an engraved cake plate (and if you’re lucky and likable enough, a few thousand more Instagram followers). It is not about winning. A job well done and the admiration of your amateur peers is supposed to be a reward in and of itself. Unlike the contestants on every other reality program, the bakers are actually here to make friends, not to jockey among themselves for a begrudging tip of the hat from a man with a stance so wide you could drive one of his Maseratis through it. It’s not only undignified, it’s against the point entirely.