It's no secret that I loved the BBC's The Great British Bake Off - indeed, I've loved it since the first episode of series one - and my irreverent recaps proved surprisingly popular here last year. I was a little more dubious about The Great British Sewing Bee, but I decided to give it a whirl... and got hooked.
It's already three episodes into a four episode series, so there's not much time to get on board - but those of you in the UK can catch up on BBC iPlayer. I won't be doing proper recaps of the episodes, but I felt that it warranted at least one post.
So, why was I dubious? Well, for a start I don't know the first thing about sewing. I can sew on a button, but that's it. With baking, I know my croquemboche from my croque monsieur, and my Bakewell from my baking beans. The finer points of French stitching, however, are a total mystery. Would I find it interesting to watch people do something I couldn't objectively assess, and had no interest in doing myself?
Turns out, yes. Because any reality competition of this sort stands or falls based on the people, not the activity. And the people, of course, fall into three categories: the presenter, the judges, and the contestants.
Claudia Winkleman is the heavily-fringed presenter - she has spent more than a decade bobbing around the lesser-watched BBC shows and second-channel spin-offs (what a lot of hyphens for one sentence) and more or less copies the presenting style of Mel & Sue from the Great British Bake Off - which is fair enough, since almost every other element, from the title to the opening titles, are shamelessly copied too. Claudia is shunned and giggled with in equal measures, again much like Mel & Sue - but manages to hold her own rather well.
The judges buck the usual trend of gruff man and lovable woman, by having a woman (May Martin) who looks like a sullen Delia Smith and is apparently the 'country's best sewing teacher', although I don't remember being polled, and Savile Row's Patrick Grant, who is quite sweet (although his beard makes him look as though he's been hurried into a witness protection programme). Both are rather unduly critical, and don't have close to the same chemistry that Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have, and May Martin is ruthlessly unhumorous, but perhaps they'll improve if this gets another series. They have potential.
Before I get onto the contestants, I should explain what they do. The first challenge is always creating something from a pattern (a child's dress; an A-line skirt), the second is adorning or transforming a plain high street item (blue shapeless dress; white blouse), and the third is creating something more complicated for a specific model, rather than a mannequin.
What's quite curious is that they are never judged on their taste, or the success of their design - just their sewing ability. Yes, that's what it should be about primarily - but The Great British Bake Off is always about the choice of flavours and the appearance of the product too, rather than simply baking skills. So Sandra's madly dated designs do ok, because she is an adept seamstress, whereas Michelle (say) gets little credit for having stylish ideas.
Yes, the contestants. There's a few who are clearly there as characters - and, let's not forget, having a regional accent is enough for a BBC reality show to consider you a wacky character. So we have Lauren, who would fall into the Danny-school-of-boring if she weren't lucky enough to be Scottish; Sandra, with a broad Brummie accent, lots of laughter, and the general appearance and personality of everyone's favourite dinner lady. She's great fun. Michelle and Jane rather blend into the background (I don't even remember who Jane is, actually) and Tilly thinks she lives in the 1940s, but with a bit of a temper. Oh, and Mark is the token men-with-piercings-can-do-domestic-things-too man. Except his sewing is all for historical reenactments and Steampunk days, which has little bearing on the creation of an A-line skirt. As he points out, the eighteenth-century didn't have zips.
So that leaves my two favourite contestants (or 'sewers' as they're called on the show - a word which doesn't work so well when written.) Stuart is a giggly man who was born to give witty soundbites on reality shows. He burbles nonsense about being nervous or having cut his fabric the wrong way, but will wrap it up with an intonation which sounds as though he's made a helpful and pertinent summation of the situation. He's a step away from Brendon on Coach Trip, and the expert flounce from camera.
Which leads, head and shoulders above the rest (in my affections), the wonderful Ann. I have such a fondness for old women with spirit - and Ann provides. She's in her 80s, ridiculously pleased to be there, and very affectionate towards everyone. The show seems to think she's been alive for centuries - I half expect her to lean over and advise Stuart on what people really wore in 1807 - and she cheerfully gets on with it while Claudia and the judges mumble about her Life Experience in the corner. She's a wonder.
So, has that sold the show to you? They hope to get the nation sewing - well, I'm not a stitch nearer sewing than I was before I started watching, but I'm certainly entertained.