In The Great British Baking Show, there are standards. If it looks a mess, the judges will say so, and the bakers swallow hard and acknowledge their failures. If the flavors are bland, Paul and Prue will remark that the rose water simply doesn’t come through. If the flavors are too much, they will acidly observe that the rose water overwhelms everything else. If the bakers have overproofed or underbaked, kneaded too much or refrigerated too little, they will learn about it in no uncertain terms. The vaguely obscene puns—which never seem to grow tired—about flabby buns and the dreaded “soggy bottom” allow no sympathy for the vagaries of fate. Results, not good intentions or effort, are what matter.
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And yet, the show is animated by the warmth of humanity. The bakers are (carefully curated, no doubt) representatives of the British nation. There are college students and grandmothers; carpenters and lawyers; soldiers, sailors, and personal trainers; immigrants (or their descendants) of varying hue from Hong Kong and Jamaica and Mumbai. They are remarkably nice to one another.
When one of the bakers is having a crisis—a cake separating in the middle, a collapsing gluten-enhanced edifice, cracked biscuits—the others rush to help out. Yes, there is an occasional gleam of competitive delight when one of the stars seems to stumble, and unambiguous relief when a downcast baker at the tail end of the distributional curve sees someone else receive the implacable sentence of exile from the tent, but on the whole, they cheer one another on and sympathize with one another’s troubles. They even hold hands, some of them, in that agonizing wait as the sidekicks menacingly intone, “The bakers now await the judgment of Prue and Paul.” In the face of a really serious meltdown, even Hollywood can be heard to murmur, “It’s just a bake, mate.”
To watch The Great British Baking Show is to believe that the average guy and gal can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. It is to believe that spectacular creativity can actually be scrumptious. In some ways, the world of the Tent is far from the Britain of Trollope or Winston Churchill—Hollywood’s shirt tails are always hanging out, for example, which would have given Tunes of Glory’s Colonel Barrow fits—but it is recognizably the imaginary, comfortable Britain for which many Americans have a particular fondness. To watch it is to know that, Brexit or no Brexit, and despite royal scandals, political cock-ups, and the occasional omnishambles, there will always be an England. And that is a comforting if possibly delusional thought.
In short, as the Brits would say, The Great British Baking Show is brilliant, thoroughly joined up, and fit for purpose. To watch it is to feel refreshed, inspired, and confident, ready to return to work with a strong heart and a clean conscience, knowing that somewhere in rural Wiltshire or Somerset, Noel and Matt will say every week in voices of varying and unmodulated creepiness, “Bakers! On your marks, get set, bake!”