"The Great British Baking Show" (PBS); Mary Berry interview on "Larry King Now" (Ora/Hulu). Things have been so crazy lately that it was only yesterday that I learned we are in the middle of PBS' broadcast of the current season of "The Great British Baking Show," the loveliest of all cooking competitions. (The sweetest, despite the cakes and pastries this show generates is, of course, "MasterChef Junior," which has been absent from my life for far too long). What hours of pleasure I have missed from this ignorance!
Look at the picture at the top of this post. Look at these charming judges and hosts with their tea cups. They shoot this thing in an open-air pavilion on the lawn of a country house. There are insects and animals about.
I have yet to catch up with the current season, which runs through Aug. 12, and so can offer no insights let alone descriptions as to the current crop of competitors. But if history is to judge, they are a charming collection of mutually supportive amateurs of many ages and cultures who bring individual visions and abilities to the crafting of sweet and savory things made with dough. And so I will quote a large chunk of my previous critical-picking of the series:
I might say that I hate reality television — I'm not sure I've ever actually said it, but I might say it — but really, it's just standardized American reality television that I hate, with its manufactured crises and encouraged antagonisms, its restless camera and flash cuts and loud noises.
"The Great British Baking Show," called "The Great British Bake Off" in Great Britain, is the polar opposite — meditative, observant, loath to impose a narrative where none is needed. It shows you only what it wants to, of course, but it doesn't tell you what to think or feel — I do a lot of feeling in the course of an episode — and it doesn't continually jump out of the action to comment on the action, instead staying happily in the moment.
Hosted by comedians Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc and judged by bakers Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood — names not created for the show — it's filmed in an open-air pavilion on the lawn of some big estate the people who live there probably call a country house. The photography has a creamy look, and the show is very beautiful to watch — not prettified so much as attentive.
The bakers come in a refreshingly wide array of ages, and you get to know their faces well. When the camera cuts away from the action — which is generally slow and careful and involves a lot of looking through oven windows to see if the biscuits are burning — it is to shots of sheep and ducks and horses and dandelions; there is bird song on the soundtrack. There is weather.
The contestants are tasked with preparing various sweet and savory baked goods, many of which seem exotic from this side of the Atlantic, where "pie" and "biscuit" mean something else. And with three challenges per episode, there is a lot of actual cookery and food talk going on. The drama is in the prep, the process and the result, not in the competition or spun back story. You basically root for everyone, which means that at the end of every episode, you'll be both relieved and sad.
Fans of the show, or those who might want to begin the show via an online interview with one of its hosts, may enjoy Larry King's November 2015 "Larry King Now" chat with Berry. "You get the granny, you get the family and you get the children all sitting together," says Berry of the show's family appeal.
"What does the winner get?" asks King.
"The winner gets a great accolade," Berry replies..
(Mary McCartney, the photographer daughter of Paul and Linda, also appears on this Larry King episode, and she's worth sticking around for.)