The Great British Bake Off is very much a British reality show, where contestants encourage rather than plot against each other. Photo: Netflix
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

The Great British Bake Off is the genteel alternative to Gordon Ramsay and his cutthroat, ego-driven MasterChef

  • I’m used to MasterChef US contestants plotting their opponents' demise as a permanently angry Gordon Ramsay harangues them
  • So it’s a pleasant surprise to see The Great British Bake Off contestants admiring each others’ work as joking judges encourage them

I confess I’m a latecomer to The Great British Bake Off. Not being much of a baker, the show didn’t immediately appeal. But like everyone else during the pandemic, I watched more television than I care to admit. One happy result was discovering the show's genteel and wholly English entertainment.

I’m prone to cook imprecisely and hurriedly, experimenting with ingredients in primarily savoury dishes. This approach reflects my normal skew to Gordon Ramsay-judged competitive cooking shows like MasterChef.

That show is a far cry from the languid and measured Bake Off, whose participants are given reasonable time to bake, decorate, chit-chat and joke with the show’s presenters. Sometimes they can even admire their cohorts’ efforts, unlike MasterChef’s manic contestants pressure-cooking a dish in 40 minutes.

As I mentioned, I’m late to this party, jumping on the bandwagon during season 10. One of the original judges, Mary Berry is no longer on the programme. I’m sure some diehard fans will say the show is not as good as it was, or that Prue Leith can’t hold a choux to Berry, the grande dame of cake judges.

Chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsay is known for his angry demeanour. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

All that may be true, but I still find the show and its English temperament a refreshing change from the cutthroat North American cooking grudge matches. It’s so pleasant to enjoy keen amateur British bakers free of ruthless strategic schemes and ego-driven professional ambitions.

These folks are there because they just want to make better scones and crumpets, not find a stepping stone to launch a global patisserie brand.

In a country tent pitched somewhere idyllic and pastoral, the foppish lads and earnest lasses seem genuinely pleased to be in the company of other baking hobbyists. There’s no duplicity. There’s barely even gamesmanship. No one is assessing a rival to plot their ouster. The show itself doesn’t encourage flour gladiators with games to disadvantage one contestant over another, or promote conflict for drama.

Why The Great British Bake-Off is what the world needs right now

Perhaps that’s the cross-Atlantic contrast in character. A show like MasterChef focuses on prizes and career potential. The Great British Bake Off is more about domestic self-improvement. No one is ever asked, “How badly do you want to win this?” as Ramsay is wont to do, ratcheting up the pressure on poor, overwhelmed souls while they furiously whip a Béarnaise sauce into shape.

Most American shows also take themselves way too seriously, to a point that borders on the ridiculous. It’s not uncommon to hear hosts say dumb*** things like, “This could be the most important rack of lamb you ever cook. You have 10 more minutes!”

The Brits revel in the frivolousness of their baking – such as making cakes in the shapes of busts of celebrities like Freddy Mercury and David Bowie. There’s also no shaming of anyone’s taste level when they conjure garish fluorescent marzipan biscuits.

The Great British Bake Off is a happier, friendlier place than Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef.

Through it all, the contestants remain blissfully self-deprecating. Everyone is surprised when they make it through another week, unlike Americans on MasterChef who, even when they escape elimination by the thinnest margin, still believe they are the best of the lot and will be the ultimate winner.

In these divided times, it’s nice to see politeness and courtesy between judges and participants and especially between fellow competitors. As stern and officious as Paul Hollywood is, I can’t imagine him yelling at someone because they didn’t proof their dough long enough, or dismissively throw an undercooked pastry from his mouth back on the table. That’s just not proper English behaviour. Only Scottish ruffians like Ramsay would do that.

The Great British Bake Off, like Downton Abbey and The Crown, is nostalgia made chic again, taking tradition and reframing it for more progressive, contemporary viewers. I dare say it makes Britain great again.