A Viewer’s Guide to ‘The Great British Baking Show’
You may be feeling depressed by the news cycle lately, or by life in these United States of America in general. Even TV has been getting darker and darker, it seems. Fortunately, our allies (at least at the time of writing) across the pond have come to our aid this week with another season of the powerful antidepressant known as “The Great British Baking Show,” which begins Friday on PBS.Posted — Updated
You may be feeling depressed by the news cycle lately, or by life in these United States of America in general. Even TV has been getting darker and darker, it seems. Fortunately, our allies (at least at the time of writing) across the pond have come to our aid this week with another season of the powerful antidepressant known as “The Great British Baking Show,” which begins Friday on PBS.
The show follows a group of amateur bakers as they compete for the hono(u)r of being named the best baker of the year — the prize is this glory, rather than cash or a job, although winners have gone on to write cookbooks and host their own cooking shows. Each competition takes place in a large, bunting-draped tent nestled in the grounds of some historical building during a British summer, which often involves sweltering, custard-melting heat and torrential rain.
This coming season, its fifth stateside, is not technically new because it aired in Britain in 2012 — the third of seven seasons that ran on BBC before the show was sold to Channel 4, at which point the original hosts and one of the judges quit. If you have never watched, there really is no better time to start than now. Worried about diving in mid-series? Don’t be. Although each season brings its own surprises and gentle tension, a lot of the show’s quirks endure, season after season. From this hopelessly addicted “Baking Show” viewer, here’s a guide to what to look out for in the frosted cupcake of television shows. Cheers!
We Americans tend not to be completely ignorant of British cuisine — you may have heard of trifle, sticky toffee pudding, perhaps even Bakewell tarts. But, what is a Jaffa cake? (Spoiler: It is not a cake.) What is a Battenburg cake? An Eton Mess? A Sacher torte? Much of the great fun of the show is in the finding out.
It’s even more fun when the bakers are challenged to make rare or ancient confections that even they have never heard of. Some turn out to be rather straightforward recipes with foreign names like kouign-amann, mokatines or flaounes. Some are extravagantly fussy concoctions: a marzipan-draped cake created for some long-dead Swedish princess; a Victorian cake shaped like a tennis court; and, most memorably, the Charlotte Royale, a gelatin-shellacked assemblage of swiss-roll slices, whipped cream and strawberry mousse that looks like an elephant’s brain after an LSD microdose. Vol-au-vents, entremets, savarins, dampfnudeln ... after a couple of episodes you may feel as if you’ve been given an LSD microdose yourself. And it will not be entirely unpleasant!
Stodgy is bad, scrummy is good, gutted is bad. Cling film is plastic wrap, caster sugar is superfine sugar, icing sugar is powdered sugar, corn flour is cornstarch. Pudding is dessert, custard is pudding, proving is proofing, plaiting is braiding — but it is pronounced “PLATT-ing.” Biscuits are cookies. Scones are biscuits, but they are pronounced “skonns.” Baps are bread rolls, but also breasts. Sultanas are raisins. Bake is a noun. Soon you will have picked up a whole new language, mate.
Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, an established British comedy duo, cannot resist making truly terrible puns, the worst of which they punctuate with actual winks to the camera. Sexual innuendoes abound — “Time to reveal your cracks!” “Stand away from your hot baps!” “You have got two hours to pop Mary's cherry ... in the oven!”
They giggle over buns, balls and soggy bottoms, and it’s best for the pun-sensitive to leave the kitchen any time a confection comes in the shape of a horn. These cheeky double-entendres caused some viewers in Britain to complain to the BBC. But the BBC chose to embrace the raunch, going so far as to institute a Bake-Off Innuendo of the Week on Twitter, starting in 2014.
There is always at least one actual grandmother in the competition from whom no one seems to expect much and who quietly gets on with her baking before delivering beast after refined, delicious beast. Most people’s grandmothers are the best bakers they know. Why is everyone surprised when an actual grandmother excels in the competition, and even wins? Shouldn’t baking be one field in which they are expected to dominate? Patriarchy hurts everyone.
Most of the bakers huff and puff behind their stations, their practical clothes streaked with flour and chocolate, their steamy, stringy bangs dripping into their eyes. But there is always one stylish woman who remains unruffled throughout. Candice’s flawless statement lipstick, Kate’s casually tucked curls, Chetna’s mixed prints and bold accessories, Lucy’s flawlessly crafted bed head: These goddesses manage to look constantly, seemingly effortlessly perfect, however tense it gets in the tent.
The alpha male judge Paul Hollywood gets his kicks on the show by withholding approval. His rare compliments are preceded by suspenseful, inscrutable glares, and his highest praise is a silent handshake. His impeccable and universally beloved co-judge, the baking legend Mary Berry, softens his insults with smiles and faint praise, while Mel and Sue are on hand to offer the bakers comforting words and hugs. (Sue is, hands-down, the best at this. I would marry her in a minute.) Are these women being compensated for this emotional labor? It seems unlikely.
Mel and Sue are funny, charming, extremely attractive women who choose to dress themselves in strange outfits that do not seem to fit them. Sue’s untucked shirts hang lower than the hems of her too-small blazers, her jeans are very baggy at all times and the narrow collars of her shirts tend to be buttoned up very tightly. And Mel is partial to an electric yellow blazer that has caused me permanent retinal damage, and to a limited but impactful repertoire of junior-prom updos.
Because they are on a BBC budget and probably wearing their own clothes, the looks are repeated ad infinitum. The fact that this went on for seven seasons in Britain without intervention is stunning to me, an American who is used to seeing TV presenters in tight dresses and heels, topped off with perfect waves.
Mel and Sue also roam the tent like Roomba-riding golden retriever puppies, frequently destroying whatever is within paw’s reach. Both constantly eat the ingredients off the bakers’ stations without consent. They lean on rising bread dough and dent it. They accidentally demolish painstakingly-constructed biscuit towers. They are utterly charming, and it is a delight to watch. Were I one of the bakers, however, I would build an electric border fence around my station.
Mary loves booze. When the bakers add booze to their confections, Mary likes them. Everyone giggles. Everyone loves Mary. Mary loves booze.
All of the aforementioned delights are punctuated by cuts to cute animals frolicking in the tent-adjacent fields. Sheep! Goats! Bunnies! Ducks! Don’t you feel a serotonin rush just reading about them? Short of a resurrected Prince performing the soundtrack live, this show really gives the human heart everything it wants and needs.
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