Yes, I will admit it. I am addicted to the “GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF” program on PBS. It doesn’t matter which season, or which episode, or which challenge, I will stop what I am doing and watch every action-packed moment.
But why? What makes this cooking program any different from the slew of other cooking programs … on all the many cooking channels … at any time of the day or night? I’m not really sure. Could it be that the two judges are actually professional bakers, and not actors or tv personalities whose careers have waned and they have no other place to go? Could it be the lack of insulting comments from the chef judges to the contestants? Master Chef, you know who you are! Or perhaps the lack of having to utilize the obvious ‘placement’ products from their sponsors to create the ‘challenge’ that week? Sound familiar, Top Chef? Maybe its the gimmick-free way in which the program is presented … name most of the shows on the Food Network these days!
The format is very basic – three baking challenges over two days – starting with 12 bakers, eliminating one each week and selecting a “star” baker, until the final three bakers face off to select the winner. The winner of the GBBO does not get $250,000.00 in cash, or their own cooking program, or a feature in Food & Wine magazine. They get “bragging rights”. Yup! That’s it!
Fashion icons they are not, but the show hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, are masterful in their handling of each week’s challenges and contestants. They have very little camera time but when they do, their quips are quick, slick, and quite funny.
I became familiar with Sue Perkins, the bespectacled brunette, from a BBC program called THE SUPERSIZERS, in which she and her co-host had to live in selected British periods of time and experience the life styles and, more-importantly, the foods from those eras. It was historically accurate and hysterically funny. Each episode focused on one historical period and for one week they lived in that time period … from clothing and lack of conveniences to tasty repasts sometimes consisting of sow’s udder paté, bovine pudding or duck tongue.
Mel Giedroyc, the perky blonde with the quick wit, has co-hosted with Sue before. Apparently they worked together on a daytime British program called LIGHT LUNCH or was it LATE LUNCH. Either way, I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it was quite entertaining. Together Mel and Sue have a great comraderie, and always empathize with each contestant’s near disasters.
The judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, somehow work beautifully together … a bit like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Paul, with his piercing blue eyes, would intimidate even the most seasoned baker. It just takes one look for you to know you’re doomed, but Mary (30 years Paul’s senior) finds some good in every bake, regardless of how awful it may look or taste. Both Paul and Mary are hugely successful professional bakers, cookbook authors, and television personalities, each with their own cooking shows; but there are no signs of egos here. Each week they bring interesting and quite difficult challenges to the contestants, after which they focus on the ‘bake’, nothing more. How refreshing!
The show is filmed in tents on the grounds of many different British country houses from Welford Park in Newbury, to Harptree Court in Bristol, to Valentines Mansion in Redbridge. Did I say, in tents? Yup! Where else could you showcase Britain in all of its glory but on perfectly manicured lawns of magnificent country houses with a background of lush green gardens and, of course, the completely unpredictable British weather! The location for each of the season’s filming is kept quite secretive … not wanting stampeding fans showing up, I guess.
The baking “challenges” are divided into three categories. First , there is the Signature Bake, to test the contestants’ creativity and baking ability. Next is the Technical Bake, where the bakers receive a recipe from Mary or Paul with minimal instruction. Finally, it’s the Showstopper Bake, which is designed to display the bakers’ skill and talent. Many of these “challenges” are classic British baked items, some are from French patisseries … most of which I have never ever heard of (actually some of the contestants have never heard of them either). Yes, the contestants are given recipes in the Technical Bake, and, yes, they have advance knowledge of what the next challenge is going to be so that they can practice at home. What they don’t have to do is try to utilize canned chicken, root beer, squash blossoms and dill pickles to make a frozen dessert. This is a true baking show, remember. Gimmick free!
This cooking/baking program may not be for everyone, but it certainly is a hit for many. Not only can you buy the cookbooks, you can, of course, download any of the episodes, and now you can buy the intriguing background music composed by Tom Howe.
We’re into Season 6 right now … but in Great Britain Season 7 is viewing and competing with the Olympics. For some reason, PBS didn’t start airing GBBO until Season 3 and are calling this season “Season 3” …! Confused? So am I. Perhaps PBS wanted to see if the show was going to gain in popularity before airing it, as they do with so many other British television programs. Well, it has! Over 13 million viewers in Great Britain alone. And what it has done to the baking industry is unbelievable. Sales of flour, baking powder, baking chocolate have all risen (no pun intended). Home bakers are being challenged to try their hand at scones, bread and cake. Yes, it has even inspired me.
So if you haven’t seen an episode of the GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF, I challenge you to watch it, and tell me you don’t hunger for one of those “Show Stoppers“!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References: Great British Bake Off, GBBO Music, The Guardian