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Photo: Netflix
The Great British Baking Show

There’s a television show in the UK that has become such a part of American culture that Saturday Night Live regularly spoofs it. In fact it’s from SLN that I even know about the show. Today’s article helps me understand why people love it so.

Eliot A. Cohen writes at the Atlantic, “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. …

“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. …

“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. … 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.

“A decent-tasting cake is not enough. … 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. …

“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.’ … 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. … 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. … 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. … 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. …

“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!’ ”

More at the Atlantic, here.

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