Last week a visitor to the Great British Bake Off set was on the phone to her mother in South Africa. “She was having her hair done at the time, and she said to the hairdresser, my daughter is on the set of The Great British Bake Off,” says its co-creator, Richard McKerrow. “And quick as anything the hairdresser said: ‘Does she know Paul Hollywood? I love him!’”
The story is testament to the extraordinarily successful international reach of the programme, which returns to UK screens this week. It’s now licensed for home-baked productions in no fewer than 35 countries, with Morocco, Mexico and Uruguay the latest in the line-up; in Morocco, the series premiere achieved a lip-smacking 40% audience share. Denmark, France and Sweden all celebrate their 10th season this year, and more than 1,500 episodes have been made across the world, featuring 1,300 bakers.
The distinctive white tent has been pitched at a castle (in the German version); by a lake (Poland); by the sea (Israel and Belgium) – and in Australia, dispensed with altogether in favour of a huge shed. In Argentina and Mexico it’s called El Gran Pastelero (The Great Pastry Chef); in Denmark it’s Den Store Bagedyst (The Big Baking Contest) and in Germany it’s Das Grosse Backen (The Great Bake). In Italy, where it’s Dolci In Forno (Sweets in the Oven), they have the oldest judge of any region, 83-year-old Clelia D’Onofrio; and the winner there in 2015 was a male professional boxer. In Norway, the winner is given a new kitchen; in Sweden, they’re thrown into a lake.
The licensed productions, though, are only part of Bake Off’s story abroad: because in addition to that, more than 200 territories around the world take the UK show, these days very soon after it’s been broadcast in Britain. In the US, for example, it will be shown on Netflix just three days after it runs on Channel 4. “Netflix don’t disclose viewing figures – but it’s easy to see how much watched it is, from Twitter and from the celebrities who want to take part,” says McKerrow, chief executive of Bake Off producer Love Productions.
Bake Off’s success is perhaps the best modern example of the UK’s soft power, the nation’s ability to create a positive impression abroad. The licensing process ensures each edition is true to the show’s original style: when companies abroad pitch for the franchise, they’re given the “Bake Off Bible”, and any change to the format has to be agreed with Love Productions.
It explains, too, why for some Bake Off has the cloying scent of “soft empire” about it: all that twee Britishness, with a set modelled on a tented village fete: and it’s either exported directly, in its UK version, or slightly adapted to fit a different country and culture.
Philosopher Tom Whyman says it’s “like an imaginary, idealised Britishness, consciously updated to take account of multiculturalism. It makes people feel the concept of Britishness is still relevant.” He thinks Bake Off’s appeal lies in its reinvention of the British idyll as separate from the more questionable imperial connections that created it. He also thinks it’s interesting that the programme’s fame abroad has coincided with both Brexit, and the threatened end to the UK brought about by the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.
But the sense of Britishness around Bake Off is, Whyman contends, heavily curated. “If you’re not British and don’t know much about Britain, you could think it’s the Britain of Bake Off – but of course most people in this country don’t live in that chocolate-box world we see on the set,” he says.
He concedes the programme’s major positive act has been the launching of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, Nadiya Hussain, into the limelight: she was the winner of the 2015 series and, as for most of the other programme-winners in the UK and elsewhere, the Bake Off crown led to a whole host of other media opportunities. For McKerrow, that’s the hallmark of why the series is “radical TV that doesn’t look like it’s radical … people think it’s twee, but just look at the bakers in the new series and look at Nadiya. They prove the utter multiculturalism of Britain. I think people watch it and feel reminded that deep down, for all the noise of Trump and Brexit, we are open-minded, kind people.”
For TV writer Scott Bryan, Bake Off’s appeal for Americans in particular is that it gives them a different view of Britain. “Other reality shows can be quite cynical,” he says. “But I think in the US especially they really like the supportive attitude they see in the British version of Bake Off, and it’s something they might not have seen before. It’s that mix of forward-looking unconventionality with tradition that explains its appeal,” he says.
For him, Bake Off’s popularity overseas speaks as much to the high quality of British TV as much as anything – and, he says, that’s not something everyone in the UK appreciates. “Britain is one of the best countries at making TV in the world, and it’s only when you go abroad that you realise how deeply loved our TV is,” he says. “I’m not just talking about Fawlty Towers and Top Gear, either: programmes like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You also has a huge following.
“So much investment has been poured into British programme-making in recent years, and you only have to look at shows like Sherlock or Dr Who to see how we’re batting it out of the park.
“At a time when there’s a lot of talk about Channel 4 privatisation and the future of the BBC, it’s worth emphasising: mess with the ecosystem at your peril, because will we continue to make such successful TV? If change happens, will the harmony we have be affected in an adverse way?”
The strength of British TV, says Bryan, lies in the close links it has in the UK to theatre and movie-making. “There’s a lot of crossover, with actors and with writers moving between them; you’ve got this culture with a lot of talented and highly trained people, and the chance to try what they do in different arenas. And of course Britain has always been a nation of TV viewers: when you live in a country that has bad weather for six months of the year, you tend to watch a lot of telly.”
Bryan believes Bake Off takes international viewers by surprise by appearing to offer them a stereotypical view of Britain, only to deliver something much more than that to the table.
“What you get is a great reflection of how Britain is today: you have the young student versus the Yorkshire nan in her seventies, and you have so many different flavours inspired by so many different backgrounds,” he says.
One anomaly of the international programmes is that the British have only one Bake Off – their own – whereas in many other countries in the world there’s both the British version and the local production.
But all that may be about to change: McKerrow reveals talks are ongoing abut bringing The Great Australian Bake Off to Channel 4. If that happens it will add another new flavour to a product no one could have expected would go on tasting so good, for so long, in so many places.