It’s almost impossible to describe what makes The Great British Bake Off so incredible to someone who hasn’t seen it. The descriptors you’d choose (“Charming!” “Low-stakes!” “Just really, really nice!”) seem like the opposite of what makes reality television enthralling. Here in America, we like our cooking shows with nail-biting countdown clocks and tragic backstories, complete with competitive catchphrases (arms crossed: “I came to win!”), and plenty of public meltdowns.
“Last night I was watching Chopped and Iron Chef and it's so much more tense and scary!” former GGBO contestant Martha Collison tells me when we meet in the lobby of her New York City hotel. She was just 17 when she competed on The Great British Bake Off’s fifth season in the United Kingdom, and the first season available on Netflix in the United States (under the name The Great British Baking Show due to a copyright issue). She was the youngest contestant ever to be involved in the program, and is now launching her second cookbook, Twist, at just 20 years of age.
Unlike most Food Network competitions, The Great British Bake Off does not take place in a high-tech studio with chrome countertops made to look like a four-star restaurant onboard a spaceship. It takes place in a tent. In a field. The host duo, Mel and Sue, weave in-between benches to lend a hand or dip a finger for a taste of custard, offering cheeky sexual innuendo and encouragement in equal doses. The judges, Paul Hollywood and the iconic Mary Berry, act like stern parents: always encouraging, never mad, just disappointed. Mel, Sue, Paul, and Mary all give off the impression that they genuinely want the contestants to succeed and, at least according to Collison, they do.
“Mel and Sue are amazing,” she says. “They are so funny, and they really keep people grounded as well. They'll make sure you're okay, and if you're upset, they will try and shield you from the cameras, just a little bit.”
That “shielding” involves swearing, or dancing, or singing a copyrighted song — something that Mel and Sue know will mean the footage won’t be able to be aired. “They'll do something that doesn't really make sense at the time, because we don't really understand the cameras, you'll be crying and they'll do like a weird dance behind you, just because it's irrelevant, it doesn't look right so they wouldn't be able to explain it on camera, so they can't include it.”
Alternatively, in America it seems as though television shows operate with tears and wine-throwing as currency. The Lifetime show UnReal, which centers around a fictionalized Bachelor-like franchise, depicts producers egging on contestants until they break down in grief or rage. Drama, these shows presume, will keep viewers interested. But on GBBO, the hosts themselves are making sure the contestants aren’t too embarrassed on TV, a practice it would be hard to imagine Chris Harrison engaging in. Instead, a story about how someone’s grandmother loved making lemon shortbread suffices for tantalizing backstory on The Great British Bake Off. The show’s biggest scandal to date was a scenario in which one contestant, Deborah, accidentally used another contestant’s similar-looking custard from the fridge in her dessert. She was incredibly contrite. And no one was disqualified or penalized as a result — the judges tasted Deborah’s dessert, but made note that the custard belonged to Howard, and then judged her custard separately.
The diversity of the contestants, in terms of age and career, is another endearing quality of GBBO. Collison, a 17-year-old student studying for her AS Level exams, competed against people over three times her age. Her season included a builder, an engineer, an IT consultant, and a retired merchant navy radio operator. Varied as their backgrounds might be, the 12 contestants are united by the strange experience of competing in the tents.
“We became almost a family,” Collison says. “Because for 10 weeks you can't tell anyone else about what's going on, but you can talk to them about it. You all become really close. And we spent so much time together, because filming takes a long time, so we'd be together for three solid days each weekend, and by the end of the filming process, that's like a month of just them...We still meet up a lot.”
Everyone feels the pressure of the show, but at the same time, it’s obvious that these are real people who are just excited at the opportunity to be in the tent. And although The Great British Bake Off is obviously a competition, the competitive spirit always comes across as collaborative and not cutthroat.
“Everyone else feels horrible when someone else doesn't do well. Everyone gets really upset by it, and people jump in to help you if you're really struggling. Like, I couldn't get a tart out [of] a tin one week, and Kate and Chetna just jumped in and helped me get it out at the end because you bake the best you can, and you try to help other people as well. You want everyone to do well.” It’s a camaraderie that never comes through in “I Came To Win’-style American shows. (The lone exception might just be Masterchef Junior. It seems our national motto, “I didn’t come here to make friends,” is fully learned post-puberty.)
The Great British Bake Off really only takes on the flavor of a reality competition when the viewers become involved: the show is incredibly popular, and like winning Bachelor couples who have to keep their budding relationships off the grid until the show actually airs, contestants on The Great British Bake Off can’t let anyone outside a tiny circle of friends and family know that they were chosen for the show, let alone how they fared. “It's quite difficult — we had to keep it a massive secret. It's so popular in the UK — it's like a religion, and if anyone finds out that you're on it, then the press will jump onto it,” says Collison. “So you have to be really secretive, which is very hard when you're young. My parents knew, a very few of my friends knew, and my teachers at school knew because they had to know, but that was it…My teachers pretended I had glandular fever. They were like, ‘It's fine, go home and practice.’ So I got loads of messages like ‘Get well soon, Martha! Hope you're okay!’ and I was just home surrounded by doughnuts.”
Perhaps it needn’t even be said, but Collison is just as nice in person as she came across on the show. She won over viewers not only with her consistently flawless bakes which brought her to the top of the back, lasting eight weeks out of the possible ten, but also with a refreshingly honest sweetness and humility. “I can’t believe I’m picking perfect almonds,“ Collison said in the first episode, as she meticulously sorted through her roasted almond slices for ones with just the right color. “I don’t usually bake like this, but it’s Mary Berry!”
The Great British Bake Off doesn’t even have a prize at the end beyond the honor of winning. “People always say that!” Collison replies when I tell her how strange it seemed to an American to see a reality show with no dangling carrot at the end for contestants. “It never really occurred to me. You get foodie experience that you never would have had before. And there's always this pride, like I got to go on The British Bake Off! It's this amazing thing. I get recognized in the street. People love [the show], and that was enough of a prize.”
Sure, it’s a cliché to present television as an escape from the tumult and confusion of the real world. And it’s a mistake to characterize anything as apolitical — even The Great British Bake Off, for all of its bucolic pleasantry, might be criticized for playing into the narrative of idyllic English nationalism that’s been co-opted by those who advocated for Brexit; a fantasy of a peaceful, nostalgic world that never existed. And yet, at its heart, The Great British Bake Off is a reminder that there are students, and builders and engineers out there who are just kind, funny, helpful people who love to bake. I watch it like some people watch sports, shouting at the screen (“Nooo! You need to prove that bread for so much longer!”), building to the adrenaline rush of Paul Hollywood’s final verdict, always delivered after an artful pause and steely glare.
It’s a world in which nothing matters more than whether or not a sponge cake was over-baked. In this world, we’re entitled to things that are good and pure, and that includes The Great British Bake Off.