Why the Great Bake Off won’t work without the "British"

Our obsession with all things peculiarly cake can’t be replicated – but transcends borders.

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The end of summer is what is colloquially known as a bit of a downer. However sweet the blackberries, it is hard not to mourn the loss of the sun-warmed peaches that went before. Thank God, then, for the return of Queen Mary of Berry and her tented court, with their sticky buns and smutty puns, to brighten the darkening days.

The Great British Bake Off is a rare example of a programme that does indeed bring the Great British Public together. The final last year was the most watched programme of 2015, and more people tuned in for the first episode of series seven than for even the most popular moment in the Rio Olympics.

So influential is this mild-mannered cookery competition that the Morrisons supermarket chain claims to employ a “bake officer”, whose job it is to identify ingredients used in each episode and prepare for the resulting spike in sales. When Nadiya Hussain made it to last year’s final, David Cameron announced his support for the Luton-born, Leeds-based mother-of-three, who was subsequently invited to make a 90th-birthday cake for none other than the Queen (the real-life one, mind, not the lovely Mary).

It wasn’t long before schedulers elsewhere fancied a slice of Bake Off. The format has been sold to 20 countries around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, but, perhaps surprisingly, the one place where it has struggled is the United States, despite the superficial cultural similarities between our two great, sugar-loving nations.

The first US attempt at re-creating the magic, The American Baking Competition – on which, in 2013, contestants competed for $250,000 and a publishing contract rather than a commemorative cake plate – proved floppier than a stale brandy snap. Critics deemed it “half-baked”, and Paul Hollywood, British housewives’ favourite, was slammed as “insipid and boring”, even though he embarked on a brief affair with the Mary Berry replacement, the TV chef Marcela Valladolid. It didn’t make it to a second series.

Last Christmas, it was Berry’s turn with The Great Holiday Baking Show, which tried so hard to be like the original programme that contestants were flown to Berkshire to make their Santa cookies and eggnog creams in the original tent. Yet this “terrible knock-off” also failed to rise to the occasion.

The problem? According to a friend who is well versed in food television on both sides of the Atlantic, such attempts to ape British production styles are “like watching a dog walk on its hind legs . . . There is something inherently British about Bake Off that we just don’t have and cannot emulate successfully.”

US viewers are used to high tension and manufactured drama, which is the antithesis of the format’s quiet charm. When I see a contestant weep into her mixer as she explains how proud of herself she is for making it on to the show, I wince with embarrassment. Here, Berry’s quickly blinked-back tears on Hussain’s victory made national news; over there, tears are as much a part of the package as flour and eggs.

Yet how to explain why the far less high-octane British original – shown on PBS under the title The Great British Baking Show, because a cake mix company holds the copyright to “Bake Off” – has, as the New York Times reports, achieved “near-cult status”?

The answer is surely that its fans aren’t watching for the thrill of competition, or even the joy of baking. No, it’s the British bit they’re hungry for – pots of tea on gingham cloths; stately homes and lovable eccentrics; exaggerated politeness and stiff upper lips.

In other words, the same safe vision of a mythical Britain that the UK takes such pleasure in every Wednesday evening, and that we’ll keep on watching on Channel 4 next year. Maybe we’re not so different, after all. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation