It’s rather astonishing that in six years of a reality competition show, only one major meltdown has occurred on “The Great British Bake Off.”
By American reality TV standards, it’s unheard of. Which is perfect because “The Great British Bake Off” is nothing like what you’ll see on American reality TV.
“The show is sort of the opposite of everything that television is meant to be,” executive producer Richard McKerrow told Business Insider. “There’s a basic, real kind, goodhearted nature which is at the center of the show.”
“I think unfortunately, a lot of television, whether it’s in America or Britain, has a poor notion of the audience,” he said. “They think they know what the audience wants. Let’s spoonfeed them reality shlock, and it’s just sort of the lowest common denominator and in a way that’s why a lot of television is struggling.”
“The Great British Bake Off” certainly isn’t struggling. In fact, it’s thriving – so much so that its fifth season finale beat the 2014 World Cup final match in ratings by 1.4 million viewers.
How could a baking competition beat one of the biggest matches of the year? Let’s break it down.
- PBS PressRoom
First, you might be confused about the name. On BBC, the show is called “The Great British Bake Off,” but on PBS, it’s called “The Great British Baking Show.” McKerrow had a simple explanation:
“It’s because Pillsbury has the trademark,” he confirmed.
There have been a total of six seasons of “The Great British Bake Off,” but only the last three have aired on PBS as the first three seasons of “The Great British Baking Show.” That’s the complex stuff, but now it gets simple.
Hilarious and innuendo-loving British comedy duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins host the 10-week competition between 12 amateur bakers who are competing for nothing other than the glory of triumph and a fancy cake stand. There aren’t any prizes hidden in the big white tent that the competition is held in on various grand British estates. They also vie to be each week’s Star Baker, a title that means you were the best for the one week but doesn’t necessarily guarantee you are safe the next.
Although, if you are Star Baker, you get a nice little toy sheriff’s star to wear for the weekend. The badge almost goes entirely unnoticed.
Judges Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, and Mary Berry, a beloved cookery writer, assess the bakers’ skills after three challenges:
- The signature bake: The contestants are given a specific bread, cake, pudding, etc. to bake, but they are allowed to design and complete the recipe on their own accord and with their own flavor choices. The technical bake: The judges assign a more difficult recipe for the bakers to follow, though certain aspects are left out, such as the oven temperature or desired texture of the batter. The showstopper: The bakers go all out in attempting to impress the judges with their creative and technical skills. Consider this when amateurs try to be a little like Buddy Valastro of “Cake Boss” or Duff Goldman of “Ace of Cakes.”
Probably the most raved about showstopper came from “Bake Off’s” sixth season, when contestant Paul baked a fabulous “Bread Lion,” seen below.
Even when nothing is technically at stake, the show is profoundly dramatic and entertaining – more so than cooking, McKerrow said.
It might be puzzling to think that baking can be dramatic, but watch an episode and you’ll be on the edge of your couch waiting to see if the pattern turned out right or if the Swiss roll has enough layers. It’s somehow very intense.
One key component of the drama is the way “Bake Off” is filmed. McKerrow described his team’s style as “documentary sensibility.”
“The frame of the program is artificial but what we’re about is it being completely real, not fake,” he said. “It’s almost set up and plays out as proper reality rather than contrived reality. … Then in the edit, you’re really treating it like a drama.”
That’s where McKerrow’s “crumb cam,” the close-up on the dishes, and that lovely string quartet comes into play. Are there any other reality programs that sound like a ballet or classical orchestra concert? Didn’t think so.
“I sometimes watch it and it’s like endless foreplay,” he said laughing. “I think great television has to be simple but then within that, all the complications can play out.”
“Bake Off” also receives high marks for how, well, pleasant it is. The judges aren’t like Gordon Ramsay, who screams and curses at his contestants on “Hell’s Kitchen.” Instead, they’re more like teachers. They carefully explain that a certain pastry needs to have a golden crust or that the dough must be kneaded in a certain way to turn out properly.
They still honestly say if something is dry or has an infamous “soggy bottom,” but they do so in a uncruel manner.
“Paul and Mary, they’re delighted in the first place that people are baking, and they want to encourage them and make them better and help them develop their baking skills,” McKerrow said. “You know if a teacher is cruel and strict and shouts at your students, it’s not the best way to learn and to improve.”
But the education isn’t solely learned by the contestants. Viewers too pick up on some tricks of the trade and come to understand how a proper macaron should look.
“We’re time poor so I’m only going to watch something if I learn from it and yet I also want to be entertained, so it’s trying to get that balance between programs which have real content where you feel like that was an hour well spent … [and] feeling like you’re entertained,” McKerrow noted.
The hour is also splendidly spent because no baker is trying to tear down a fellow contestant, unlike the common antics on “Cutthroat Kitchen” or just about any other American reality TV show with the “I’m not here to make friends” model.
The grandmas, photographers, doctors, single dads, young students (and even one body builder) aren’t the typical competitors seen on TV.
“We took a decision early on that the bakers, they don’t leave their job for four weeks to come and shoot this series. They stay in their real life and their jobs,” McKerrow said. “We shoot it every weekend because we figured then we’d just be getting people who want to be on television, and we’re not interested in people who want to be on television. We’re interested in people who want to bake. So again, it’s about making it much more real.”
If McKerrow had to describe the show with one pastry, he chose a “proper” British Victoria sandwich: “creamy, fruity, [and] a family pleasing classic that seems straightforward but actually with the slightest error, can break your heart.”
It also happened to be the first technical challenge from the show.