America, back off! We Brits kept our lips sealed (no mean feat given that stiff upper one) when your hapless remakes brought shame to our classic TV shows like “Prime Suspect,” “Fawlty Towers” and “Edge of Darkness.” We stayed quiet when you stole some of our top talent — John Oliver, James Corden and even kids like Millie Bobby Brown — and put them to work on your shows. We even tried to understand when you started attacking our current national treasure, “Dame” Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for being white, privileged and to the manor born (we get it, you just don’t do posh).
Now, though, in slamming “The Great British Baking Show” (aka “The Great British Bake Off” in the United Kingdom), you have gone too far. Way too far. A line has been crossed and offense (nay, offence) has been taken.
Yes, the country whose greatest contribution to the pastry menu is the cronut is daring to criticize the best thing out of England since Battenberg cake. The land that found lemon meringue pie a little too sophisticated so gave us Key lime pie instead is picking on the only national institution we Brits have left that actually works.
Look at some of the U.S. reviews for the show’s current 10th season and you will find it’s not only in the Oval Office where treasonable words are being uttered. “The terrible new season of ‘The Great British Baking Show’ has chosen style over substance” wrote USA Today earlier this month, while The Atlantic said the show has “a major flaw.”
Let’s get this straight: they are hopelessly, but forgivably, wrong. Quite reasonably, American audiences are probably watching “TGBBS” thinking it is a cooking show. But they could only be more wrong if they put a croissant together with a doughnut on the island of Dr. Moreau and tried to market its offspring to the world.
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For us Brits, “TGBBS” has become a weekly therapy session. It is a last remnant of sanity in an increasingly crazy country; an oasis of niceness in a desert of vileness. Seeing the contestants revel in their peers’ successes and support them through their failures is to be reminded of a better time, one of civility, decency and where England’s cricketers are always 375 for 2 with tea about to be taken. A time before social media, in other words.
(By the way, if you think “TGBBS” is the most middle-class show on British television, you have clearly never seen “Grand Designs,” in which well-to-do couples invite host Kevin McCloud to watch them build their idiosyncratic dream home. During this process he will initially dismiss their design as being worse than the Ford Edsel; they will fall behind on the build and then run out of money, only to miraculously find more after asking their rich parents for it; and a shocked McCloud will proclaim the final building a marvel for the ages. It’s irresistible, and a few seasons are now available on Netflix.)
“TGBBS” is now the ultimate comfort viewing. I turn to it whenever I need to feel a warm glow inside and I’ve run out of Amaretto. I turn to it whenever I’ve wasted an hour or three of my life on Twitter and am thoroughly depressed by what is happening in my homeland. Thankfully, the only debate about “leave” or “remain” in “TGBBS” concerns what to do with cakes in the oven.
Given the way it has become my emotional support animal (a lot easier to take on a flight than a small horse, too), I understand I may not be the best judge of “TGBBS” for international audiences. Also, I should point out that although I have spent a lifetime being passionately interested in cake, it is the eating of it rather than the baking of it that consumes me. In fact, I would rather roast my own toes on an open fire than watch most cooking shows, with their overlit kitchens, over-the-top “sexy” food shots and overbearing chefs. (I did watch a few episodes of Netflix’s “Sugar Rush” with my kids this summer, which is fine if you want an empty-calorie, American version of a baking show — just don’t watch such a hyperkinetic food show on a full stomach.)
In addition, I must confess that I actively boycotted seasons 8 and 9 of “TGBBS” when they aired in 2017 and 2018, after three of the original stars (hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and judge Mary Berry) quit when it defected from the BBC to commercial television. Luckily, like an errant egg yolk, I have returned to the fold — which may also help explain my enthusiasm for season 10. (I am also currently working my way through the two seasons I stupidly decided to boycott, so can definitely vouch for the show’s timelessness.)
The replacement hosts, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding, are every bit as engaging, silly and innuendo-spouting as Mel and Sue were, while new judge Prue Leith provides the type of buttoned-up, sensible Britishness that once used to be the preserve of our politicians.
Two things never change, though: perma-tanned host Paul Hollywood, whose taciturn demeanor shows less sign of cracking than many of the contestants’ bakes; and the contestants themselves, who just seem to radiate graciousness as they stroll through that country house garden into the white tent (the most genteel gladiatorial arena the world has ever seen).
Whether it’s the geography teacher, veterinary surgeon or truck driver, you spend an hour with these people and come out feeling that all might be well with the world. I can only assume the tent is situated on a ley line that releases positive energy. Fun fact: “Big Brother” homes, by contrast, are all constructed on ancient Indian burial grounds.
Despite those transatlantic quibbles from U.S. scribes, the “TGBBS” format has never really deviated over 10 years: A group of amiable, talented amateur bakers compete for nothing more than a Paul Hollywood handshake (the series’ overall winner receives, no joke, a bunch of flowers and a cake stand) and the chance to parade their culinary skills in front of an appreciative nation. Seriously, there are people still raving about the lion bread sculpture from season 6, in 2015. And yes, I am one of them.
Each year, one modest talent emerges who can do things with marzipan you wouldn’t believe. Most famously it was Nadiya Hussain, the unassuming mom of three who won in 2015 and is now a mainstay on British television. This year, it could well be Steph Blackwell, a 28-year-old shop assistant with the best fringe outside of the Edinburgh Festival. She appears to be the only person in the tent who recognizes quite how talented she is. Her celebratory calls home to her sweary mother (“Bloody hell, Steph!”) whenever she wins “star baker” have brought tears to my eyes that I can only ascribe to onions being chopped somewhere in the world at that precise moment.
Some of the American critics have been upset that the current season of “TGBBS” has asked the contestants to create obscure European delicacies that no one in the United States (or Britain, for that matter) has ever heard of. I can only assume this trend is some kind of Brexit-infused joke on behalf of the show’s producers, celebrating the cultural richness of the Continent’s cuisine before we crash out of the European Union.
Mark my words, U.S. critics. You will be pining for the delicacies of season 10 after Brexit, when the most exotic flavoring available in the United Kingdom will be salt and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will pass a law decreeing that only British cakes can be made on the show (“local cakes for local people”). Anyone for a slice of Victoria sponge?