In “The Great British Baking Show” on PBS, 13 amateur bakers compete for the title of best amateur baker in a series of increasingly difficult baking challenges.
“The Great British Baking Show” is an import from the United Kingdom, where it airs on BBC One as “The Great British Bake Off” and has been a ratings phenomenon.
In the U.K., the show is in its sixth season. An American version was developed by CBS in 2013; hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, it was canceled after only a season. But PBS acquired the rights soon after and aired the show, in all its British glory, last year. In a bit of confusing programming — and a warning to spoiler-phobes — U.S. viewers are not watching the sixth season along with U.K. audiences. Rather, PBS is airing the fourth season of the show and calling it Season 2. It airs at 7 p.m. Sundays.
The show is shot in a big tent on the big lawn of a very big manor built in 1797 called Harptree Court in Somerset. Nearby are the Cheddar Caves and Gorge, the Jane Austen Centre, and Glastonbury, home to the legends of the Holy Grail and King Arthur.
In the show, 13 amateur bakers compete for the title of best amateur baker in a series of increasingly difficult baking challenges. Each episode is themed (cakes, bread, patisserie, etc.), with three tasks in each. These are the signature bake, where contestants bake their version of a standard; the technical bake, where contestants are given the bare bones of a recipe and must use their instincts and baking knowledge to fill in the blanks as they go; and the showstopper, where they bake and construct a grand masterpiece. The show is occasionally interspersed with interesting history bits related to the tasks at hand.
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The bakers are judged by the beloved Mary Berry, who has published 80 cookbooks in her 60-year career, and Paul Hollywood, a celebrity chef and professional baker. Moving things along are hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, both comedians. They provide amusing color commentary; offer emotional support; toss out puns that are sometimes fantastic, sometimes terrible; and make raunchy jokes about tarts with soggy bottoms. Imagine if Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, or Wanda Sykes, hosted a cooking contest.
At the end of each episode, one contestant is named the Star Baker and one is eliminated from the competition, and so on until there is just one winner, who is awarded the grand prize: an engraved cake plate.
Past contestants have become celebrities in their own right — they get cookbook deals or start their own shops — but in the universe of the competition itself, a job well done and being proud of doing the thing you love, is its own reward. Imagine that.
The show’s production values are high. The aesthetic, from the fonts to the equipment, is charmingly retro-vintage; the setting is beautifully pastoral; there are pretty shots of cakes. There also are no distracting ads, as the BBC has strict editorial rules against product placement (There was a fight a few years ago when the name of the fridge manufacturer was apparently displayed too prominently on the show).
While many television cooking competitions these days rely on chaos for drama, “The Great British Baking Show” is considerably, remarkably calmer. With the exception of the technical challenge, the bakers know in advance what they’ll be baking in each round, so the drama lies not in unexpected time constraints or surprise ingredients, but in the more pedestrian stress of whether dough has been laminated properly, say, or whether a sponge cake will rise.
Bakers don’t fight with each other — if someone runs into trouble, often a fellow competitor will lend a hand — they instead fight with their ovens, which they forgot to preheat, or with their doughs, which they didn’t proof long enough. All this makes, surprisingly, for thrilling television.
It helps, too, that the show allows the contestants — who range widely in age, ethnicity, profession and class — to be people rather than characters. And they are generally very likable people; you root for them; you want them all to succeed. As do the judges: Berry and Hollywood can be very critical, but they’re never mean. You get the sense that they’re just as bummed out as the contestant when a bake doesn’t work out as planned.
What you’re going to want to eat while you’re watching it: Tea and biscuits, of course.
What you’re going to want to make after you’ve finished watching it: Whatever the bakers made. And you won’t be alone in doing so. The show has so impacted U.K. audiences that the “Bake Off effect” has been credited with a spike in interest in baking, and an increase in sales of baking equipment.