The Great British Baking Show and the Meaning of Life

In these fraught times, I like to seek refuge in the idyllic England of my dreams—one that still exists in The Great British Baking Show.

The hosts and judges of "The Great British Baking Show" examine a cake.

National politics is unutterably depressing. International politics fills me with foreboding. Being a dean brings one challenge after another, reminding me that life was a lot simpler as a professor. For my physical health, there is a rowing machine, but for my peace of mind, I have learned this past year, nothing beats old episodes of The Great British Baking Show, which one can binge-watch to satiety on Netflix.

This trick of seeking temporary refuge from the realities of a grim world by indulging in fantasies of the simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England is nothing new. During the Blitz, Londoners rediscovered the joys of the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope. They might have been huddling in fetid, overcrowded subway stations under a shower of Nazi bombs, but they could lose themselves in the contest between Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie for domination of the inoffensive Anglican clerics of Barset. Trollope is still very much worth the reading. But in our fraught times—so much easier, to be sure, than the dark days of 1940—many people like me have sought refuge in a different idyllic England of our dreams. Hence the entirely deserved popularity of The Great British Baking Show—devotees were ecstatic when, the coronavirus notwithstanding, a new season began a few weeks ago.

Every summer for the past decade, a dozen amateur bakers have trooped into a cheerful, white party tent supplied with counters, ovens, refrigerators, and all the basic paraphernalia they need. Each week is themed—breads, pastry, biscuits—and each week there are three challenges: the signature bake (a more or less straightforward assignment), the technical (a cruelly abbreviated recipe for some obscure item), and the showstopper, an opportunity to build elaborate structures on whimsical motifs. The setting is the lawn of a magnificent bucolic estate in Somerset or Berkshire. Most often the sun shines, but when it does not, we know somehow that the rain is more a gentle and fructifying moisture than a miserable downpour.

The contestants are supervised by Paul Hollywood, an experienced baker (and race-car driver), and, in later seasons, Prue Leith, the chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and a restaurateur, an author, and a journalist. Previously, her place was filled by Mary Berry, a prolific author who in an earlier age got credit for moving British cuisine beyond boiled brussels sprouts. They have two sidekicks, in the current version of the show: Matt Lucas, an actor and a comedian, and Noel Fielding, a comic who is weird but amiable, if you like Goth.

The givens of the show remind one of Rudyard Kipling: “Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they; But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!” The Laws of the Tent are no less stern and unforgiving. When time is up, it’s up, and you must present your bake. Each week, one participant is booted out. There is barely enough time to accomplish the tasks. The omissions in the technical recipes approach sadism. A decent-tasting cake is not enough: the piping must be exquisite, the design original, the structure (who knew that bread has structure, come to think of it?) perfect, the color attractive, the appearance consistent, and the layout symmetrical. Prue is intimidating enough in her Professor McGonagall way: “This is rather a mess, isn’t it?” and “Hmmm. Claggy. What a pity.” But the hard man of the show is Paul Hollywood.

Hollywood, with his silver hair and piercing blue eyes, is demanding to the point of inhumanity. In the days of the empire, he would have been a regimental sergeant major, looking an unhappy private in the eye three inches from his face, pointing at a fleck of lint on an otherwise impeccable uniform, and saying, “Your uniform is filthy, you horrible little man.” In a crisis, though, Hollywood, like Nigel Green playing Colour Sergeant Bourne in Zulu, would be the one walking around coolly saying, “Keep your voices down” and “Button your tunic,” calming the shaky Welch Fusiliers with his imperturbable insistence on idiotic standards of decorum. These days, however, he is one heck of a baker.

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.

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!”