It’s 7:30 a.m. and I’m queuing up at the builders’ merchants, bacon roll in one hand, list of materials in the other. At the far end of the counter a big, red-faced guy with tattooed arms stares right at me and shouts, “Oi!” He heads toward me and I feel a bit tense, wondering whether I’ve upset him — as he looks like the sort of bloke you really wouldn’t want to upset.
He comes up a bit too close and says, “I know you, don’t I?”
“I don’t think so, mate,” I say.
“Yes I do. You’re that fella off the ‘Bake Off!’ My wife loves you. She was gutted you didn’t win. Do you think I could get a photo of you and me for her?”
In a nutshell, that is the effect of “The Great British Bake Off,” or “The Great British Baking Show” as it’s known in the United States. Of all the common languages we have in the UK, be it soccer, politics, music or the weather, “Bake Off” is the one that seems to span every walk of life.
If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a phenomenon; the most popular program on British television, attracting audiences of 15 million for last year’s finale. Seven of the 10 most watched programs in the UK in 2015 were “Bake Off” episodes and on an island of 64 million people, more people watch #GBBO (Twitter hashtag) than voted for the current government. Ten Wednesdays each year, the country stops for a collective cup of tea and a warm televisual hug in the form of this lovely show. The current season is already attracting more than 10 million viewers. Yet this will be the last time we get to enjoy “The Great British Bake Off” as it is.
On Monday this week the BBC, which airs the show on its flagship channel BBC1, announced it had failed to reach an agreement for the future of the show with the “Bake Off” program makers Love Productions. In a deal worth 75 million British pounds ($99.3 million), Love Productions will now be moving “The Great British Bake Off” format to Channel 4, a smaller British channel with a younger demographic funded by advertising revenue.
Within 24 hours of this announcement, the presenting duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins issued a statement saying that they would not be “following the dough” and were standing down after seven seasons. Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry have yet to confirm whether they will be joining Channel 4, but there is increasing speculation they will follow Mel and Sue’s example and quit.
This has been a difficult year for the UK. We’ve seen the deaths of cultural icons such as David Bowie, the shock of the Brexit vote, and now the nation’s most beloved program will never be the same again. It’s not an exaggeration to say this has deeply affected us Brits. It was the lead news item for two days, relegating David Cameron (the former prime minister) standing down from British politics to an also-ran story.
The way people feel about “Bake Off” is intrinsically linked to their feelings about the BBC, or “Auntie Beeb” as it’s sometimes affectionately known. As I write this, a petition to try to keep the show on the BBC has received 25,000 signatures.
There is huge warmth toward the British Broadcasting Corporation here. It is funded through the license fee. Everyone with a television in the UK (or even those who watch online) pays £145.50 (about $193) per year. When I was young, we had a license fee jar at home where we would save up all of our twopence pieces to pay it each year. In return, we get some of the best-quality television and radio in the world, advert-free. Other channels including Channel 4 are also free to watch, but come with advertisements in the programs and a very different vibe. Channel 4 has a great reputation for comedy programming, documentaries, news and also some fantastic food presenters, including two of Britain’s most famous chefs: Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey.
It has an edgier reputation than the BBC, but therein lies the problem.
The charm of “Bake Off” is in its gentleness and it is synonymous with the ethos of the BBC. No swearing, but lashings of cheeky innuendo — particularly thanks to Mel and Sue. None of the fierce competition of other food shows, but contestants mucking-in and helping each other — judged by an 81-year-old national treasure. A beautiful setting in the British countryside, bunting in a tent, watching the bakes grow through the oven doors.
It’s a quintessentially British formula that has proved equally popular with American audiences. On paper, baking in a tent shouldn’t work as a show, and the BBC took a risk on the format back in 2010. Now that “Bake Off” has become such a huge success, it’s a real shame the network’s original gamble and six years of support weren’t enough. Of course, Love Productions is a business, but the millions of fans of the show feel hugely disappointed and genuinely very sad.
I was lucky enough to be a finalist on the show in 2014 (in the United States on PBS in 2015) and now on Netflix. I’ve had fantastic opportunities as a result: writing a cookbook, “B.I.Y. Bake It Yourself” and a weekly blog, and dividing my time between building and baking. Best of all, I came away from the show with 11 wonderful friends — my fellow contestants. We never really felt in competition with each other during filming. We are paid an appearance fee of £1 (about $1) and compete to win a glass cake stand. There were stressful moments during filming but ultimately, we were making . . . cakes. It was silly, lighthearted and fun, particularly thanks to the warmth of the show’s presenters.
Channel 4 will work hard to make its investment pay off, no doubt. But here in the UK, there is strong loyalty toward BBC channels, and the show is likely to lose many millions of viewers. To date, the highest-rated entertainment programs on Channel 4 achieve around 4 million viewers and programming is pitched toward a younger audience. There are also likely to be a number of spinoffs to capitalize on the brand.
The BBC has used alternative presenters on “Bake Off” celebrity specials before, but the chemistry among the hosts is integral to the show’s magic and will not be replicated overnight. It will take years to build the “Bake Off” back up in a different guise — if that’s even possible.
This was a Bread-xit that the UK really wasn’t prepared for.
Burr, a fourth-generation builder who lives in London, won the title of Star Baker five out of nine times during his Series 5 (the first season aired on PBS) on “The Great British Bake Off.”