Dear Food Network,
Loving the new baking show — on PBS. Even those of us who would rather pluck a bucketful of fresh thyme leaves than watch competitive cooking on television are, in a word, enchanted. We are eating up every episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” nee “The Great British Bake Off,” whose last-season finale drew more than 13 million U.K. viewers, a 50 percent audience share.
Want to know why? Here’s hoping you do. It’s partly about culinary education, but mostly about authenticity.
As in, contestants are allowed to be real, not presented as archetypes. Everybody’s civil, respectful, even — judges and funny hosts, too. We get the impression they’re all mates who like to share a pint at the pub. In fact, the amateur bakers did just that, each week, before the cameras began rolling.
“We don’t like editing people to look mean,” says British food writer and former BBC producer Diana Henry.
Contrast that with American reality TV. Here, said PBS chief programming executive Beth Hoppe, “we cast for LOUD” (with the exception of PBS).
The show tests the skills of 12 home bakers over the course of 10 weeks, as they all perform in a specially outfitted tent on the grounds of a manor house in county Berkshire; we see black lambs gamboling between action shots. Men and women, teens and sexagenarians, shire-born and immigrants are vying for the title of top baker. They have regular lives and jobs. They practice at home during the week, based on a list of broad categories provided by the show, and spend 10-hour weekend days on the set. Each episode comprises three types of “bakes,” and a star baker is crowned.
The competition doesn’t lack for drama. It’s writ small, though, like in a home kitchen (with the exception of Iain Watters’s BakedAlaskaGate). Cakes crack, fillings ooze. Thanks to a spot-on production crew, we get to see those moments, plus the kind of second-guessing and oven anxiety we’re prone to ourselves. When contestants are chuffed, we surrender to Anglophilia. When an effort falls short, judgment is delivered with kindness and understanding.
Sometimes judges Mary Berry, something of a national culinary institution, and celebrity baker Paul Hollywood throw a spanner into the works, but the challenge is reasonable: The baking time or oven temperature might be omitted from the directions, and the bakers manage based on their experience. The lesson to be gleaned from crafting a “Chopped” main course from, say, fish heads, peanut brittle and lime gelatin seems less significant, in comparison.
Lincolnshire grandmother Nancy Birtwhistle has a homespun contraption to aerate her fennel and rye crackers. Must try that. North London builder Richard Burr’s chocolate fondants are perfectly proportioned and executed, prompting Berry to pipe up, “Now that’s what I call a sauced pudding!” Enwezor Nzegwu, a business consultant from Portsmouth, alas, is gone too soon. But there will be no clawing his way back into the competition through cutthroat capers.
And now we know from sauced puds, Victoria sponges, Swiss rolls. To U.K. viewers and expats, it’s the stuff of memory and tradition. For America, it’s a window on the world of the baked goods Brits hold dear. “When I grew up, you were supposed to be able to be good at an eggy sponge, a light cake,” says food writer Henry. “It’s in the DNA here.”
The production crew seems to capture the technique involved in every step along the way, for each baker. Those comparisons offers much insight, really, into how home bakers perform similar feats and achieve different results.
We have long looked to public television for helpful cooking instruction. (Cue “The French Chef” theme music.) “GBBO,” as the Twitter hashtaggers call it, proves that the format can offer genuine entertainment as well. Hoppe says she tried to acquire the British series a couple of years ago but was outbid by CBS, which effectively took “GBBO” off the table so it could develop and air 2013’s “The American Baking Competition.” (That judge-host combo didn’t work so well, and poor ratings canceled the show.)
When “GBBO” became available again, “it had gone bonkers in the U.K., along the magnitude of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Hoppe says. So she brought it to PBS and promises we’ll see the next season as well. U.S. viewership thus far stands at 2.5 million, for a network whose prime-time average is about 1 million viewers.
Yeah, Food Network, your ratings are up around that number on Sunday nights. But some of us have been turning the sound down for years.
And what does the last baker left standing on “GBBO” get? Neither prize money nor a Ford truck nor his or her own show that will wind up in a desperate time slot. The winner receives an engraved cake plate.
What fame brings ’round afterward has gotten formulaic, even in Great Britain. Media coverage of contestants’ home kitchens and cookbook deals are common; Richard Burr this week is putting the finishing touches on his collection of 78 recipes, a project that took him away from work for two months. He has 30K Twitter followers.
“Third of February, I’m fitting kitchens again,” Burr says. “But it’s been nice getting messages from a lot of men who bake. It makes me happy for fellas to go and make a mess in the kitchen.”
P.S., Food Network: Can you forward this to your buddies at Bravo?
“The Great British Baking Show” continues to air Sundays at 8 p.m. on WETA, with repeat airings during the week. Burr will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.