Now in its 4th series, The Great British Bake-off has been drawing over 6 million viewers per episode, around the same as permanent fixtures of British TV like Eastenders and Emmerdale, and around 3 times as many viewers as BBC2’s second place TV shows Dragons Den and University Challenge. It is a veritable television phenomenon.
For the uninitiated among you, the concept is simple: it is a contest to find Britain’s best amateur baker. Contestants are put through their paces each week by having to complete 3 challenges:
- the Signature Bake, where bakers can show off a tried and tested recipe of their own
- the Technical challenge, where contestants are all given the same ingredients and recipe by the judges
- the Showstopper, where contestants get a chance to make something to impress the judges
They are all judged by Mary Berry, a genuine British cookery legend (most of our family bookshelves will have been graced by a Berry book at some point), and Paul Hollywood, silver-haired professional baker and one-time ladies’ favourite (until the tabloids reported his affair he embarked on while working on the show in the US). The baking challenges are interspersed with short films about the origin of some of the British food specialities the contestants cook, and the reality TV staple, the contestant back-story. At the end of each week one contestant is crowned Star Baker and another eliminated, until one is crowned the winner.
So how did a show that takes unknown amateur bakers, sticks them in a tent in the countryside and makes them bake for 12 weeks become so popular? On paper it is hardly the stuff of TV viewers’ dreams, distinctly non-sexy and – whisper it- educational. No-one takes their clothes off, no-one gets shot and the stars of the show are cakes and pastries, not hot young actors or presenters. Indeed, when an American version of the show, The American Baking Competition, was aired it bombed and disappeared after just one season. Normally this is the kind of show you’d expect to see at 3pm on a weekday, sandwiched between shows about losing money on antiques and losing money on houses.
Why do British audiences love it so?
The presenters really are key to the success of the show. Without Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins gentle wit, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood’s serious critiques may well have fallen flat. The humour in the show appeals to a daft British sensibility, with Hollywood and Berry’s critique of “soggy bottoms” of pastries eliciting giggles up and down the country. Indeed double entendres abound, often delivered with straight faces while Mel and Sue giggle like school girls in the background, reflecting the audiences own thoughts and saving the show from becoming potentially pompous. Ultimately it is a show about making cakes, so Paul Hollywood’s harsh critiques of “dry crumbs” and “loose textures” really do need balancing with Sue’s fabulous Dad-jokes.
Viewing can also a great social experience, as once it is on air social media is ablaze with commentary of the various baked goods, Mary Berry’s put-downs and Mel and Sue’s arch punnery. Topics such as “Poor Howard” (in reference to contestant Howard’s bad luck in the 3rd September 2013 episode) making Twitter’s worldwide trending topics.
It is low-budget reality TV at it’s best, and has developed a hard-core fanbase of all ages and has even impacted on British culture, having been credited with an increase in baking in the UK. The Women’s Institute even credit the series with an increase in their membership of over 50,000 during the course of the first 2 series. It’s family-friendly, fun and manages to take the mundane and turn it into high drama. Where else could you be on the edge of your seat watching one man trying to lift a soggy pie out of a tin with only his shaky hands and a bendy spatula? Where else would a woman leaning on some pastry under a dishcloth elicit gasps of horror? Despite its seemingly inconsequential subject matter it is easy to get caught up in the drama.
Then there is the food. Oh lord, ALL THE FOOD. Breads, cakes, pastries, pies, desserts. So many delicious, tasty treats are paraded in front of the viewer, all with instructions on how to make them. These are normal people making amazing food, which gives everyone hope that they too can make a glamourous looking macaroon or a perfectly crumbed sourdough loaf. Of course the reality is that our Iles Flottantes will probably be more like the weeping meringues on slack custard that got lambasted by Mary Berry, but that just means we’re in good company.
In times when most of us can’t afford to buy fancy cakes from patisseries, learning how to bake has been a way of still having luxuries when times are tough. Recent studies have shown that baking can also help fight depression, so what better topic to have on TV in a time when the economy is at a low ebb?
The format has now been sold to 11 different countries, with Holland and Finland the latest to hop aboard the cakey-train. But is its success being replicated elsewhere, or is it remaining a peculiarly British phenomenon? It seems that it is, with the Swedish version of the show, All Sweden Bakes, enticing 27% of 12-59 year olds to watch it, and the French version also attracting 3.5 million people to watch the final. The key seems to be that each country where it has been successful has fully adapted it to their own audiences, and hasn’t just made a carbon copy of our fetes-and-bunting original.
The UK series has now spawned books, websites, apps, careers and myriad tie-ins, from food mixers to wall tiles, proving that we just can’t get enough of all things baked. Past winners are said to have earned in excess of £500,000 from their publishing deals and other tie-ins, and the BBC and the production company can’t be doing too badly from other countries buying the format.
All in all, not bad for a show about people making biscuits.