Robert Jackman

How Bake Off conquered America

How Bake Off conquered America
The Great British Bake Off, Channel 4
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From Gordon Ramsay to James Corden, predicting which Brits will make a splash in Hollywood has long been a fool's errand – even in the Netflix era. After all, what's the latest British export to conquer the greatest entertainment market on earth? The Great British Bake Off.

Well, almost. Like Cary Grant (born in Bristol as Archibald Leach), our humble baking show needed a slight rebrand ahead of its launch stateside. Instead the show made its debut, in 2014, under a slightly different name: The Great British Baking Show. After becoming a ratings hit, the competition was then snapped up by a much bigger name altogether: Netflix.

Within three years, the Baking Show had gone stratospheric: finally earning its place, last year, as one of the most streamed shows in America. Did the 2020 home-baking fixation play a part? Perhaps. But what an achievement nonetheless. No wonder, then, Netflix continues to plunder the BBC's back catalogue, uploading old seasons of the Bake Off under the rather pretentious tagline 'The Beginnings'.

‘I like how inoffensive it is,’ says an American friend of mine – a high-earner for a K-street law firm – of the Bake Off. ‘It’s fun that they’re not striving for perfection. And the way everyone just shrugs their shoulders when they screw up.' For that reason, she says, it's totally different to any American game show – a fact that she attributes, somewhat socialistically, to the lack of any serious prize money on offer (an unthinkable omission for any self-respecting US reality show).

The New York Times (admittedly not usually the most reliable judge of British culture) is a fan for similar reasons. Last October, it praised season 11 as offering a dose of ‘extra sweet normalcy’ during an otherwise torrid pandemic year. In a glowing write-up, it quoted the show’s co-creator as comparing it to Wimbledon or the Olympics. It loved the cold opens too: with Matt Lucas’s impression of a bewildered Boris Johnson likened (presumably as a compliment) to Saturday Night Live.

But it isn’t just America’s coastal elites who are bewitched by the Bake Off. A few years back the conservative journal The Federalist – known for its proud embrace of homely Christian values – published an article praising the Baking Show as ‘delightful’ and ‘charitable’, and a necessary antidote to the ‘fragmentation and decay’ that – in the writer's opinion – had come to characterise many homemade reality shows. You can almost see Ben Shaprio nodding along already.

The show’s runaway popularity in the US now means that – unlike in previous years – new episodes are now added to Netflix within days of their original UK transmission. While that means US converts aren’t forced to wait months to catch up on the action, it also makes the Bake Off somewhat of a Netflix novelty: as one of the few streaming shows whose episodes are added weekly (rather than as one binge-ready banquet). Anticipation has returned to television – and all it took was Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.

Of course, the Bake Off’s US campaign hasn’t been entirely immune from criticism. Earlier this month, an American friend and Bake Off fan shared an angry op-ed from a US pop-culture website demanding the removal of Matt Lucas from the next series. Not, as I initially suspected, due to his past ‘blackface’ sketches (whose existence had not gone unnoticed by the New York Times) but because his ‘energy’ and barbed jokes were souring the show’s wholesome vibe. The new fans were making their voices heard.

Admittedly, Bake Off isn't the only British game show making strides in the US. The original Masterchef does serious numbers on Netflix too. The UK offshoot of Ru Paul’s Drag Race also goes down a storm with US viewers.

But the Bake Off remains in a league of its own. Its success is evident not just in its staggering viewing figures (a status, of course, that it built almost entirely from scratch) but the fact that it has now begun to spawn copy-cat shows. In 2018, for example, Netflix launched Nailed It! – its own jazzed-up version of the Bake Off. A more faithful Bake Off adaptation, Baking It, is tipped to land soon with Brooklyn 99’s Andy Samberg and SNL’s Maya Rudolph as the judges.

Can Bake Off hold its crown amongst the new contenders? If the past seven years are anything to go by, you wouldn’t bet against it. Once again, Britain has a serious phenomenon on its hands. And the US can't get enough.