R.I.P. The Great British Bake-Off, The First and Last Great Cooking Competition
It’s official: the BBC’s Great British Bake-Off, as we know it, is gone. Well, that is unless you know it as The Great British Baking Show on PBS, in which case it will be gone in a few seasons once America catches up. In a shocking move, GBBO producer Love Productions has walked away from negotiations with BBC One (the show’s second home after it was upgraded from BBC Two due to it’s meteoric popularity). After staring down an offer of £15M for another round of broadcast rights, the folksy reality series has found a new home on commercial competitor Channel 4 for an undisclosed sum.
For Americans curious as to why this matters, it's the difference between a network that serves the viewers (like the BBC or its closest, albeit not quite the same, American counterpart PBS) and a network that is reliant on advertisers, often making viewer-attractive content they can air commericials around. It's high aspiration versus lowest common denominator. To worsen the blow, hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc have announced they won’t be making the move to the new network following they show’s current (and their final) seventh season. Coupled with rumors that judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry may also make an exit, it’s perhaps presumptive but relatively safe to assume that The Great British Bake-Off is dead. Long live the GBBO.
The Great British Bake-Off was the simultaneously mature and whimsical best case scenario of reality TV food competitions. In its humble way, the program took stands on issues as weighty as immigration and Islamophobia purely by allowing the best amateur bakers in Britain to rise to the top. The English are known the world over for their love of sweets, and this show illustrates what those English look like including immigrants, racial minorities and Muslims. Such is the case with London native and series 6 winner Nadiya Hussain who has herself been the victim of racism and religious bigotry since earning the title, but has also been credited with being a role model. Seeing marginalized Britons baking up traditional jaffa cakes with rest of the cast while also infusing classic recipes with their own cultural flavors is cathartically progressive. In a post-Brexit UK, those kinds of statements ring louder than ever.
Yet while doing all of that, GBBO managed to remain as light and fluffy as a meringue in its approach to competition. There was no monetary prize, only honor and title of Star Baker. There was no drama between contestants, it all occurred within the act of baking itself, with wanting to do right by one’s scones. There were no tearful testimonials about being away from family, nor fights or flings back at the house because there was no house. Contestants went to their own home after every round and even had a chance to practice the next week's signature bake challenge. They weren't set up to fail, they were set up to succeed so any failure was met with a sigh rather than a cringeworthy meltdown.
An air of humor and humility was maintained by the hosts and judges of the series, with Mary Berry as the no-nonsense yet ever so kind grandmotherly figure who could dole out words of criticism that were so deftly delivered you might confuse them for encouragement. Then there’s silver fox Paul Hollywood, who was worth every penny for the drama his incredible steely-eyed poker face offered every episode. Co-hosts Sue and Mel were like a two-person Ellen Degeneres, at once charming and non-threatening while never seeming like they were putting on a veneer of cheeriness. And it’s all those elements the show stands to lose as it makes its way into the realm of commercial Channel 4, known for edgier content (hello Big Brother UK) and the need for appeasing advertisers. The BBC was not only the incubator that allowed GBBO to flourish into an international sensation, it was also a preserve where the show could be safe from the kinds of influences that can make reality television so tawdry.
At its heart the show wasn’t just about baking, it was what baking is all about. People with passion and knowledge pushing themselves to make something special for others to take pleasure in. In one rerun I recently caught, an otherwise unremarkable sponge cake stood caused Mary Berry to exclaim “it’s a joy to eat.” Nothing more aptly wraps up GBBO than that. It was a joy to eat.
Update: Paul Hollywood is officially staying with GBBO, while Mary Berry will depart when the program moves to Channel 4. Looks like the British baking show has found itself in an "American Idol without Simon" situation.