An Ode to ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ TV’s Greatest Cooking Competition
The final episode of the British import reality series with its original hosts aired Friday night. In memoriam, we remember what made this series so surprisingly wonderful.
Life, really, is just a series of soggy bottoms and good bakes. There’s often no rhyme or reason for the scrumptiously stiff meringue this time or the dry sponge that one, but it’s nice that you tried to make it anyway. Even imperfections can be delicious.
That’s basically all The Great British Baking Show tries to tell us. And, at least in the iteration that we know and love, it told us for the last time Friday night.
It’s preposterous that this show is this wonderful. In the U.K., where it’s called The Great British Bake-Off, this gorgeous seventh season finale aired a full year ago, and trailers are being released for some horror film funhouse mirror version of a new season that only brings back the worst element of the show’s original run: smugness incarnate Paul Hollywood, a man who is improbably a successful baker and not, as his name suggests, a gay porn star.
That the show is returning without judge Mary Berry and hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc is a kind of blasphemy that nearly started a British revolt, with the scandal rattling fans of, literally, the most watched television program in Britain.
Last year, nine of the 10 most watched episodes of U.K. television were of The Great British Bake-Off. More than 16 million people watched the season finale. To put it into perspective, that’s more people than watched the season finale of The Big Bang Theory, the most watched show in the U.S.; more than five times the people who watched the highest-rated episode of Mad Men, and in a country with only 20 percent the population of the U.S.
Here, the series quietly airs on PBS on Friday nights and enjoys a polite word-of-mouth obsession from stateside fans—hardly the phenomenon it is in the U.K. That’s fine. It makes me feel more like I’ve discovered a precious jewel. The panic now is akin to the feeling when you really lose such a treasure.
On The Great British Baking Show, amateur bakers from all across the U.K. are selected to compete in a tournament that films every weekend in a glorious white tent perched on the lawn of one of those countryside English manor houses that ladies in corsets flit about in Jane Austen novels.
These people are the best reality television contestants this side of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but for completely different reasons.
This season’s bakers included Val, a 66-year-old substitute school teacher from near Yeovil who, as the show informs us, “in her spare time loves to exercise and can often be found doing aerobics in her kitchen whilst she waits for her jam to boil or her bread to prove.” Lee is a 67-year-old pastor. Mathematically inclined Andrew, one of Friday’s three finalists, is a 25-year-old aerospace engineer from Northern Ireland.
There’s no prize money or record contract or even, really, promise of celebrity being offered to these bakers. They keep their normal jobs throughout the week, when they practice their bakes during any free time they can find. On weekends, they come to the tent. They whip up some pastries. If they’re lucky, next week they get to do the same.
There’s no craven desire for fame or screen time that pollutes so many other reality shows. It sounds condescending to call these people “real,” and, because of that, “adorable.” But, dammit, they’re just real, adorable people. Of course, they’re great TV, too. They’ve all got that crack British sense of humor, steeped in self-deprecation. They care deeply about doing well, partly because they want to win the series and partly because they want to prove to themselves and their loved ones what they’re capable of.
I cry at least once an episode.
When Val was kicked off, I needed a moment to collect myself as the credits rolled. “When I bake something I stir love into it, I knead love into it,” she said, choked up herself. “That’s what makes it special.” I am crying again just typing this.
These contestants have bad teeth and nervous ticks, and stutter because they aren’t camera-polished and wear unflattering shades of lipstick because they’re not styled. Their warmth radiates out of that tent and through the TV, making watching the series as cozy a filling as we’d imagine eating their baked goods would be.
That fabric of The Great British Baking Show, hopefully, will never change. But everyone knows baking is chemistry. The combination of ingredients has to be exact in order for it to work. With Mary, Mel, Sue, and, OK, we’ll admit, even the ghastly Paul Hollywood, they had a perfect bake.
Mary Berry, if you don’t know (and why would you?), is essentially the Julia Child of Britain, a prolific cookbook and television writer.
There’s a niceness that wafts out of the Bake-Off tent, and it starts with Mary and her earnest dissection of whether the citrus “comes through” in a pastry, not to mention her jolly bolstering of contestants. She’s Mary Poppins with a mixing bowl, and exudes that specific brand of British refined fabulousness. A few seasons ago, when Berry was on the cusp of turning 80, a stylish bomber jacket she wore on the show sold out in an hour at Marks & Spencer. Legends only.
Then there’s Sue and Mel, a modern Abbott and Costello with a corny and endearing talent for baking puns. That they host the most successful reality competition in their country’s history would be impossible to imagine in America’s showbiz industry: they are two middle-aged, not particularly stylish women, one of whom is gay.
They are flippant, compassionate, mischievous, and joyous. If the instinct is to wonder how a show in which people literally wait for things to cook could possibly be compelling, much of the answer is because of Sue and Mel. The breeziness of their partnership and their rapport with the contestants is a gift few reality hosts possess (So You Think You Can Dance’s Cat Deeley might be the next best example—and, wouldn’t you know, she’s British).
Their excitement helps make baking thrilling, not contrived energy or manufactured showmanship that plagues trying-too-hard competitions like Cupcake Wars and the like. There is a soothing structure and sameness to each episode. There are three challenges. The contestants never leave enough time to complete them. Rinse, repeat.
Rarely does something truly outlandish happen, as in The Great Baked Alaska Incident of 2014. But there’s always a bright, sunny pleasure to be had watching it, even when it’s a torrential downpour outside the tent.
What is it about all this that is so wonderful? Lord knows watching a P.E. teacher fret over her roulade isn’t what one might call “exciting.” (And, truthfully, most of the food they cook, especially in the savory challenges, sound positively revolting—a cross between stereotypes about British food and Rachel’s “beef sautéed with peas” trifle mishap on Friends come to life.)
A Gordon Ramsay cooking series, surely, boasts all the bombast that our genteel bakers could only dream of, but Linda Holmes at NPR makes the comparison the best: “There are days in which you find yourself more in the mood for a relaxing evening having drinks with low-key, charming friends than for an hour spent watching a skunk and a rat fight over who gets to drag a rotten potato into a hole in the ground.”
This isn’t to exalt British pop culture, which may even top the U.S. in the arms race for trashiest reality TV show, but it’s remarkable that Baking Show resists every trope that makes so many people scoff at the genre.
There’s not an iota of mean-spiritedness. There’s a collegiality and camaraderie that isn’t just endearing, but inspiring. There are no cloying, overly sentimental backstories meant to emotionally manipulate the audience. A British grandma being damn proud of her good bake is, amazingly, emotional enough—something you’d forget, for all the bells and whistles and incessant flashiness that are the hallmarks of reality TV today.
Mary and Paul aren’t afraid to admit when they’re wrong. Their critiques are intelligent, and rarely cut-and-dried; things fall on a spectrum of good, and are never plain bad. The suspense is in the hope that things came out all right. Until the knife goes through the cake, no one really knows. And until then, Mel and Sue are the greatest cheerleaders television could ask for.
Mary, Mel, and Sue’s exuberant crowning of Candice, the Posh Spice of the kitchen—and winner of season seven—marks the last time they’ll be a part of the show. It was announced earlier in the year that the program will move from BBC to Britain’s Channel 4. The trio didn’t want to move networks with it. (Paul Hollywood is making the jump. Of course he is.)
It’s sad when a great television series leaves us. The Great British Baking Show is marching on, but what made it so splendid and so rare will be missing. All parties involved have already announced exciting new projects, though, truthfully, it’s unlikely for those to make an impression on this side of the Atlantic the way Baking Show did.
Still, as always, there’s something unexpectedly poignant to be learned from this show. Sometimes you get a soggy bottom. You’ve got to shrug it off, and move on. It’s just cake—though this might be the soggiest bottom of them all.