If Japan has sashimi, Britain has the victoria sponge. Or the scone. Or the Bakewell pudding.
The United Kingdom’s televisual exports may seem studded with excellent black comedy and science fiction—and, of course, the unmatchable Downton Abbey—but the real summer sensation is BBC One’s The Great British Bake Off, Britain’s best loved, and most-watched, reality talent contest. The sixth season of the show began on August 5.
The greatest thing about Bake Off, as it is known (or its hashtag, #GBBO), is not the kitsch design of the marquee’d kitchen in a stately home’s grounds, or the cakes made in each of the three rounds per episode—although both are important lures.
Perhaps its best aspect is how it indulges in a very British variant of the reality contest: This is not a show created by clashing large characters against each other.
Instead, it is merely about people trying to do their best baking cakes, and then accepting a loss with dignity. Everyone kind of gets along, too.
Each season brings 12 amateur bakers—10 in the first season—together to complete three challenges each episode.
Surrounded by more pastel-colored bunting than a sun-bleached photo of the queen’s coronation, they create one of their signature bakes, followed by an infuriatingly vague variation on one of the judge’s recipes, and, and then finally a “showstopper”: In the first season this meant some neat icing work on a biscuit.
By last year the battlefield became littered with more croquembouches and gingerbread labyrinths than you can shake a piping bag at.
It means that although the show still acknowledges that its cast of hobbyists are just doing something they love, Bake Off has grown to indulge in the images of people genuflecting before ovens, slapping their oven mitts down in disappointment, or wincing as the judges probe their tart’s soggy bottom.
But while the beady-eyed assessments of baker Paul Hollywood and British baking goddess Mary Berry can cause tears and neuroses, these are always people united by a mutual passion, and a universal appreciation for a cup of tea.
There have been controversial flashpoints like last season, where Diana accidentally left Ian’s ice cream out, or the season before where Deborah accidentally swiped Howard’s custard, which have caused widespread consternation among viewers.
But these moments are not cause for proper reality show bad-blood or ill-feeling: everyone, no matter what, is friends. Some even end up going into business together.
In Paul Hollywood’s recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs—another paragon of Britishness worth your time—he discussed a failed attempt at a U.S. version of the show that aired in 2013, featuring him as a judge.
“It felt uncomfortable,” Hollywood said, “I think it came down to the editing. It would be literally 1 2 3 change shot, 1 2 3 change shot, when that’s not Bake Off. Bake Off is long, lingering shots where you’re looking at a cake.”
The British show also has a wryness to it, to offset its many levels of saccharine. Presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are a veteran comedy duo, with their tongues firmly, though not unkindly, set in their cheeks.
The competitors are not annoying reality show caricatures, but rather hard-working, humble people.
Each series tends to have the bookish male baker, the young student juggling their exams with the show, the bloke with a blokey job, the put upon mother, the one who loves something very old-fashioned, the one who relies on pizzazz, and the man of undefined sexuality whose output consistently looks like it belongs on the set of Abigail’s Party.
And so, as Season Six begins, we are already welcoming back the show’s familiar delights: Mel and Sue sniggering in the corner, and hugging people when they cry; the wonderful Mary Berry and, indeed, the fantastic Tumblr that is Mary Berry Biting Into Things.
At the end of every episode, someone will accept their fate with tears and a very British stiff upper lip—but, as they and we know, the sponge-making must go on.