Why ‘The Great British Baking Show’ is too good for this cruel, cruel world
Proving that everything good and pure in this world will one day be snatched from us, the news broke this week that Mary Berry, the improbably named, immaculately coiffed cookbook author who has served as a judge on “The Great British Baking Show” since its inception in 2010, will be leaving the series.
Her decision follows the announcement that the series known as “The Great British Bake Off” in the U.K., would be moving from the BBC to Channel 4, a commercial broadcaster. (In the U.S., the show airs on PBS.) With deeper pockets than the publicly funded BBC, Channel 4 was able to bid a reported £25 million (roughly $32 million) for the rights to the hugely popular series.
“My decision to stay with the BBC is out of loyalty to them, as they have nurtured me, and the show, that was a unique and brilliant format from day one,” said Berry in a statement released by the BBC. “I am just sad for the audience who may not be ready for change, I hope they understand my decision.”
Making matters even more devastating, Berry’s exit follows that of cheeky co-hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, who also chose to remain loyal to the Beeb. This leaves celebrity chef Paul Hollywood, the show’s other improbably named judge, as the last man standing.
A niche favorite of Anglophiles and foodies here in the United States, it is a certified national obsession across the pond. The Season 6 finale, which aired on the BBC in October, was the most-watched TV event in the U.K. last year, attracting about 15 million viewers. That’s roughly the same number of Britons who watched the World Cup finale in 2014, and more than twice as many who tuned into the series finale of “Downton Abbey.”
To put the defections into perspective, imagine if the season after Carrie Underwood won “American Idol,” Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson announced they were all leaving, meaning that only Ryan Seacrest would remain. Oh, and the show was going to a new network bound to tamper with the proven format.
It’s little wonder that the news of Berry’s departure sent a tidal wave of grief across social media Thursday. Just 48 hours after the demise of Brangelina, it seemed almost too much to bear — at least to those who understand the exquisite escapism of “The Great British Baking Show.”
For the uninitiated, allow me to explain: The series follows 12 amateur contestants through a series of highly technical, labor-intensive baking challenges. It feels almost like an insult to describe “The Great British Baking Show” as a reality show since it defies so many conventions of the genre.
Contestants never say things like “I didn’t come here to make friends.” There are no irritating product placements and — perhaps most incomprehensibly to American audiences — no material riches to be won. That’s right: The winner of “The Great British Baking Show” wins a title and an engraved cake stand, and that’s it.
Like a souffle, “The Great British Baking Show” relies on the very precise chemistry between its personalities. The firm but kind Berry, often clad in flowered jackets and pearls, is the undisputed heart and soul of the show. An expert in frothy, ornate desserts one could imagine on Marie Antoinette’s dinner table, she provides genteel counterbalance to the swaggering Hollywood, a master bread baker with stiffly gelled hair and a goatee. Though he clearly sees himself as the show’s “bad cop,” Hollywood is not quite as tough as he initially seems, and Berry’s criticism can be just as withering in that “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed in you” kind of way.
Meanwhile, Perkins and Giedroyc are the show’s zany but sharp-witted everywomen, providing frazzled contestants with much-needed moral support while making lots of bawdy puns about frosted buns.
Filmed in a countryside tent decorated in soothing pastels, the show presents a sunny and perhaps not entirely accurate version of “Brexit”-era Britain, where it rarely seems to rain and people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the glossiness of their Italian meringues.
The contestants range from precocious teens to eccentric pensioners, from firefighters to fashion designers. Though we see almost nothing of the contestants’ lives outside the tent, their personalities nevertheless shine through. It turns out you can tell a lot from the way a person bakes. When contestants are eliminated, it is often sad, but almost never unjust.
Perhaps no contestant better captures the appeal of “The Great British Baking Show” than Season 6 winner Nadiya Hussain. A stay-at-home mother of three from Leeds, she also happens to be a hijab-wearing Muslim whose parents emigrated from Bangladesh.
Initially insecure about her baking skills, Hussain blossomed over the course of the season, winning over the judges with whimsical creations including a chocolate peacock and soda-flavored cheesecakes. Audiences loved her epic eye rolls and self-deprecating sense of humor. After one particularly stressful bake, she joked, “I’d sooner have another baby,” and has said that she adopted the hijab to cover up her bad hair.
Hussain eked out a win over two equally lovely finalists. Her tearful victory speech, which aired last month on PBS, was one of the most moving moments on television this year -- Olympics included. “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again,” said the self-taught baker. “I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say ‘maybe.’ I’m never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.” (The Guardian even put it on a list of best speeches ever, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai)
Hussain has become a full-fledged star in the U.K., with multiple book deals and hosting gigs lined up. This summer, she was commissioned by Buckingham Palace to bake a cake for Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. She’s also become a role model, speaking about the anti-Islamic discrimination that is a part of her everyday life.
Amid grim headlines about the refugee crisis in Europe, the bitter U.S. presidential campaign and terrorist attacks around the globe, the show presents a version of the world as we wish it could be: a picturesque meritocracy where no one worries about their refined sugar intake. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before financial interests spoiled this televised utopia.
“The Great British Baking Show” will endure with or without Mary, Mel, Sue and the BBC — who are rumored to be hatching a rival series — and, who knows, maybe there are more Nadiyas yet to emerge in future seasons. But lacking so many essential ingredients, the new version of the show is bound to feel a bit like a gluten-free cupcake.
Follow me @MeredithBlake
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