Witty Brits baking it up as they go
Before this Cavalcade of Woes otherwise known as the Summer of 2017 makes its September bow, it’s time for a shout-out to a small sliver of goofy British charm and civility that has found its way through the bombast to delight some of us for a precious hour each week.
The “sliver” is known on PBS as “The Great British Baking Show,” and its cult-like following is so fervent that it’s become one of PBS’s most popular shows. But ignore the American rebranding. The show’s British (and thus, authentic) name is “The Great British Bake Off,” or GBBO to any purist worth his or her pinch of salt or teaspoon of baking powder. Specifically, my accolades go out to a pair of British comedians named Mel (that’s female Mel) and Sue (um, ditto), who have been the show’s co-hosts for the past four seasons.
But first, for you noncultists, here’s how the show works and what makes it special.
Each week, that season’s collection of amateur bakers — an eclectic array of idiosyncratic and plucky British commoners — gathers in a large marquee tent in the picturesque British countryside to compete against one another in the baking of three dishes. One, the “signature dish,” is of their own choosing, one is a technical challenge tossed their way by a pair of judges, and the episode’s finale is the “show-stopper,” as in, please-go-way-way-over-the-top-with-this-one-thank-you-very-much. In this segment, you might be confronted with a gingerbread pub, fully tricked out with pool table, dart board, bar stools, and drunken little ginger bread customer curled up asleep in the corner. At the end of each episode, one of the bakers will be judged “star baker” of the week, while one will be eliminated from the competition, cut from the tent, and sent home. Sadness. Tears. Hugs.
Two things I particularly love about this show. One: Affection. Unlike with most telecast elimination competitions, this is not a competition between backbiters. Wickedness (contrived or real) is not a part of the entertainment. Indeed, no small part of the joy of watching GBBO comes in witnessing the authentic support and respect the bakers show for one another. So British. So PBS.
And two: the aforementioned Mel and Sue, my new favorite fairy godmothers. For me, Mel and Sue are the heart and heart of the GBBO. Ostensibly, their job is to emcee each week’s proceedings, to provide goofy humor for the viewer, and to interact with the bakers as they’re scrambling to navigate the multiple trickeries of baking-under-the-gun. As you might well imagine, some of the meltdowns the camera catches are not of the coming-out-of-the-oven variety (too soon! too late!), but meltdowns of the bakers themselves. And this is where the co-hosts shine.
Mel and Sue are the supportive sisters we would all want in such circumstances. Better yet, they’re the show’s den mothers. Make no mistake. They do not coo and stroke. They’re wacky. They’re daffy. Their puns are punishing (“pastry complexions . . . lemon harangue . . . breadful outcomes . . .”). Given a teaspoon of a chance, they’ll gleefully tease the bakers while making long faces at whatever disaster is appearing beneath the rolling pin.
And here’s the rare delight of the show. Always, they ladle it on with affection, but not fakey- fakey affection. Trust me. Their generosity and good cheer is deeply refreshing. If a baker is heading toward distress, Mel or Sue provides just the right dollop of solace, cheerleading, or verbal pratfall, whichever is most appropriate. They keep the proceedings light-hearted while respecting the emotions that bubble up among contestants in this sort of endeavor. They’ve even been known to purposefully ruin a shot to protect their bakers. They’re the very best of mother hens.
And now it ends. The current season (number four) just concluded its American broadcast this month. (Newcomers: You can stream episodes here or find it on Netflix.) This is it for Mel and Sue. Desert is about to be served. And I can declare unequivocally that things will not be the same in the tent without them. Two cups of brash, a few teaspoons of corny, and a generous handful of cheeky, served up with two very large hearts. For my tastes, it’s what has put the G in the GBBO.
Tim Cockey is a writer living in New York City.