Tonight PBS airs the Season 3 finale of The Great British Baking Show, the stupendously popular show that taught Americans the meaning of a proper sponge, and introduced them to the steely gaze of Paul Hollywood and cool evaluation of Mary Berry. To mark the occasion, we asked English expat Luke Dempsey to explore his complicated relationship with England past, present, and fantasy.
If you had a happy early childhood, as I did, The Great British Baking Show takes you right back to it, to a place where people are uncomplicated and kind and careful of each other. There is no ego, only fun for the sake of it (and there's a lot of sugar).
Set in the grounds of a stately home, in a big tent reminiscent of those used for a local fair (note, there has to be a tent—this is Britain, where the climate is made up of weather, not seasons), the show reeks, to some, of a halcyon time that never existed. Which is why it's so powerful.
Imagine: England, 1977.
It's the year of the Silver Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth's quarter century on the throne. All over that green and pleasant land, street parties sprang up, as though we'd all been freed from some kind of war-time yoke. (We had not; we had not been at war since 1945.) What we were actually celebrating remained unclear, though this was the Royal Family pre-Diana, pre-Harry's Nazi costume, pre-their current status as Kardashians with better accents, so we were happy to fete them, because Queen Elizabeth stood for something about Britain—decency, calibrated emotions?—that we thought we all shared.
Back then, Britain was a nice (sic.) place. Folks were kind, if reserved. We rode our bikes to distant streams where the older kids stashed their girly mags until the maggots got 'em. We lived in something that resembled civil society: there was free national health care, cricket on village greens, and every child every day in every school got a little bottle of milk to drink.
And on occasions like the twenty-fifth year of someone being Queen, we were more than happy to stay home from work and school, gather our neighbors together, put a bunch of tables out on the street, vote someone fake King and Queen (me, and god remembers who), and eat warm sandwiches on the single warm day of the year.
People baked pies and cakes and biscuits (aka, cookies). I wore a paper gold crown and a red cape. I was 9 years old. The sun shone — rare enough, that.
This is the world evoked by The Great British Baking Show, or the The Great British Bake Off, as it's called over there. Hosted by ribald Cambridge-graduate college friends Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, twelve contestants are asked to bake a signature dish, complete a technical challenge set by judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, and then make a showstopper. One person is sent home each week, until there's a final bake-off between three contestants.
The winner gets an engraved glass cake stand and lots of hugs.
The show reeks, to some, of a halcyon time that never existed. Which is why it's so powerful.
Two years after the 1977 Silver Jubilee, a new queen arrived in Britain, and the place was never the same again. Margaret Thatcher was voted in as the political queen of England in 1979, and after that, everything changed. At the time of her ascension she had already averred to a women's magazine that "there is no such thing as society," and once she was Prime Minister, she gleefully set about dismantling this thing she did not believe in.
She'd already been called "Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher" because when she had served in the Conservative government of Edward Heath in the early seventies, she had put an end to that daily school milk ration beyond grade schools. As Prime Minister, she was even more determined to change the country: it was to be every man for himself.
If you got ahead, and your neighbor didn't, then that said more about the fecklessness of your neighbor than it did about the economic inequalities her policies created. The stock market boomed; the pits were closed; cuts to transportation budgets led to ferries sinking and trains crashing and airplanes bursting into flames. When her poll numbers started to sink, she sent an Armada to a tiny island near Argentina that had been occupied by the Junta. A total of around a thousand military personnel from both sides died, one for every three people on the island.
Forces of self were unleashed, and it was with a heavy heart that I turned my back on the UK before her Conservative party lost power. Strangely, what I found in America was a simulacrum of that lovely place before Thatcher. I have a neighbor who brings me eggs once a week; at Christmas time, the local fire house sends Santa around our streets on the top of their truck, giving out candy for the local kids.
So it was with a full heart that I binge watched The Great British Baking Show recently. I had known that it had been the number one TV show in the UK for a few years, and having never seen it, I just couldn't imagine why. A reality show in which people made cakes? How could that promise enough drama and intrigue to keep me past the opening credits? Here in the U.S., we're used to our reality shows being hard-charging, filled with conflict and characters who you just know are kept around by the producers because they're horrible people but make for compelling TV.
Then I watched one episode of the Baking Show, then another, then the whole thing across a couple of nights, and found myself transported back to a pre-lapsarian Britain where people were nice to each other, baked, and had execrable teeth.
It was wonderful.
For a start, the show's producers have claimed that they work to weed out contestants who want the show to propel them to fame, and I can only believe that to be true, given that the folks on the series I watched were lovely and modest to a fault. When one young baker needed help with her creation, a couple of the other cooks stepped in with hands. When the week's winner is crowned Star Baker (and handed the cute sheriff's badge to wear for a week), the other bakers burst into happy and sustained applause. When a baker is voted off the cake island, the loser invariably agrees with the judges' assessments, accepts long and affectionate hugs from their fellow chefs (and from the judges), and goes off into their culinary sunset speaking only positively about how wonderful their time had been on the show.
In the finale I watched, the baker who came second said of the baker who won that the judges had gotten the result perfectly correct, and, "I mean that from the bottom of my heart." And he said this surrounded by his family in a field, the show culminating in a big party for all the contestants' dear ones.
Is it for a paradise lost, or for a paradise I now realize was no such thing?
But that's where joy of the show finds its limit, because eventually you realize that your family isn't as happy as you thought it was, or someone gets sick, or a politician changes the culture with six words about society, and suddenly you have to work in a job you hate, or your love life sucks, or refugees wash up on Mykonos, or women suffer genital mutilation, or children all over the planet, children the same age you once were, go to bed hungry and wake up hungrier.
No one on The Great British Baking Show brings such things to bear; their families show up for the party, the kids run around all crazy and excited, and that engraved glass cake stand is presented amidst one last polite round of loving applause.
So what am I crying for, as the credits roll on this final episode—is it for a paradise lost, or for a paradise I now realize was no such thing?
In that magical Silver Jubilee year, my father's heart disease was already growing apace; he wouldn't see the end of Thatcher, either—she was finally ousted in November, 1990, two months after he died.
If this show teaches us anything it's the same thing that softie Phillip Larkin, of all people, taught us in his poem about finding a dead hedgehog after he'd mowed his lawn: "We should be kind, while there's still time."
Watch The Great British Baking Show finale Friday August 12 on your local PBS station at 9/8c.