How ‘The Great British Baking Show’ Overcame COVID-19, But Revealed the Franchise’s Unsavory Side

How ‘The Great British Baking Show’ Overcame COVID-19, But Revealed the Franchise’s Unsavory Side

  • December 1, 2020
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The temperature in the tent reached fever pitch this season, and it wasn’t just chocolate mirror glazes that melted in the heat.

Every season of “Great British Baking Show” (or “The Great British Bake Off” to folks across the pond) has included controversial eliminations, baking disasters and emotional highs, but season 11 was a tiered cake of controversy with cultural insensitivity and severe online trolling as its top two layers, and the pandemic as its genoise base.

At times “Bake Off” can be the most therapeutic show on television (who doesn’t enjoy a triumphant amateur placing the final spun sugar nest atop their beautiful creation), but it can also be the most stressful. The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing lockdown meant that viewers on both sides of the Atlantic needed “Bake Off” more than ever. However, perhaps it was too much to expect Channel 4 and studio Love Productions to deliver flawless baking escapism given the difficult circumstances?

This season of “Bake Off” very nearly didn’t happen, says Love Productions creative director Richard McKerrow.

“We really felt that unless we could do it as ‘Bake Off’ has always been, with hugs, with the Paul Hollywood hand shake, with all the closeness, the format wouldn’t be doable with the pandemic in full overdrive,” McKerrow says.

Fortunately, Love Productions had cast all the bakers by February, so when the idea of creating a bio-bubble was floated in April, they could make sure everyone was on board before it burst.

Creating a safe space for production involved hiring out a hotel and a good chunk of its staff, and piling around 100 cast and crew inside for seven weeks of shooting.

McKerrow describes the task as “Herculean,” explaining that the bakers had to endure a nine-day quarantine period at home with two COVID tests, after which they were driven to the hotel in rental cars (which incidentally had to be deep-cleaned five days prior), followed by 48 hours of self-isolation and a third COVID test.

Not only did almost all of them have to be away from their friends and family during the shoot (a few bakers were allowed to bring their kids into the bubble, while finalist Dave Friday left his heavily-pregnant girlfriend at home), but they also had less practice time than the show usually allows.

“We normally film it every weekend with a documentary sensibility, it’s not like a reality show where we chuck them in and shoot it quick. It’s really important to us that the bakers can go home and get a chance to practice. That obviously wasn’t going to be possible, but they still had an opportunity to practice in a practice tent during the down days between episodes. We tried to make it as similar to normal ‘Bake Off’ as possible,” McKerrow says.

Yet for multiple reasons, this season of “Bake Off” didn’t always feel like it was worth the calories, as judge Prue Leith puts it.

After Sandi Toksvig left the show to pursue other projects, Matt Lucas was chosen to join Noel Fielding as co-host. The decision drew a fair deal of criticism due to Lucas’ history of portraying characters in blackface, brownface and yellowface in his sketch comedy shows “Little Britain” and “Come Fly With Me.” Netflix and the BBC dropped both series from their services earlier this year, and Lucas issued an apology alongside his comedic partner David Walliams.

“David and I have both spoken publicly in recent years of our regret that we played characters of other races. Once again we want to make it clear that it was wrong and we are very sorry,” Lucas tweeted.

However, similar issues with Lucas arose this season when in episode 6, Japanese Week, he jokingly referred to katsu curry as “cat poo curry” (it should also be noted that Lucas portrayed a Japanese schoolgirl in a series of undeniably racist sketches in “Come Fly With Me”).

The joke was exacerbated by what many viewers felt was a culturally insensitive episode in general, which saw the bakers take on challenges that weren’t all that Japanese, and which saw them use Chinese and Indian flavors in their dishes.

Japanese Week prompted multiple think pieces on the show’s alleged insensitivity. Author and culture critic Candice Carty-Williams wrote on Twitter that Lucas used “racist language” and described the episode as “a shambles.”

Former “Baking Show” contestant Kim-Joy says she feels the episode’s challenges “could have been more clearly Japanese,” but says the bakers are certainly not the ones to blame.

“I didn’t think it was the bakers’ fault because that kind of thing happens every year. We did samosas in our season, I did an actual Indian one, but others did different flavors, and they always say use whatever flavors you want,” Kim-Joy says. “I think they should have been a little more careful because it’s Japanese week and there were people getting Japanese and Chinese mixed up.”

After the episode came out, Kim-Joy, who is half Malaysian Chinese, received messages saying that she “would have smashed Japanese week” and that she “should have been there,” which she says were also somewhat misguided.

“I appreciated the sentiment, it’s a nice thing to say, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate,” she says.

McKerrow says the “Bake Off” producers try to incorporate several historical or international themes each season, admitting that “some have been more successful than others.”

“Paul had been to Japan in the last year so he had a bit of interest in it,” McKerrow says. “We’ll show the the judges the challenges and they’ll feed back to us, and obviously the technical they own themselves. We don’t really look to change things going into each season, we just try to be quite self-critical about what we got right and what we got wrong. You’ll always make mistakes and it’s important to hold your hand up. We will look at what worked and what didn’t work this season, what needs to be improved.”

However, the controversy of Japanese week was then over-shadowed by what happened when Hermine (a fan-favorite whom many had tipped to win the season) was eliminated in the semi final.

After the result, one of the finalists Laura Adlington received a torrent of online abuse from viewers who thought she had “stolen” a place in the grand finale at Hermine’s expense. She responded to it, imploring viewers to “please take a moment to consider you words before you judge someone you’ve never met.”

Then, in an unprecedented move, “Bake Off” judge Paul Hollywood also addressed the abuse Laura received, labeling it “disgusting behaviour” on Instagram.

Echoing Hollywood’s message, McKerrow says the judges have had the final say on “Bake Off” from day 1, and that the show’s guiding principal has always been that anyone could go home at any time.

“I remember the first season I got a call from the production team because Paul and Mary (Berry) couldn’t decide who to send home and they were asking will you decide? I literally said you fucking well lock them in a room and remind them they are the judges,” McKerrow says. “Noel and Matt are the emcees and Paul and Prue are the judges. There has been a lot of criticism about Hermine not going through and Laura making it, Paul explains it, Prue explains it, and we might sit there as producers and think really, is that the right decision? But they’re the judges, it’s their competition. We film it, we document it, we find the bakers, but it’s their competition.”

Viewers also complained on social media about the appearance of racism, as Hermine is Black and Laura is white.

In her response to the mass trolling, Hermine asked that people “honor my time in GBBO by showing love and kindness,” rather than being “unkind in my name.”

The volume of attention surrounding that semi final decision may have been unprecedented, but hate being directed at “Bake Off” contestants is far from it.

Several former contestants who Variety spoke to said they were subject to severe trolling during and after their time on the show which ranged from negative comments about their appearance, to receiving death threat calls at work.

When she heard of the online abuse Laura was getting, Rosie Brandreth-Poynter, a full-time vet and contestant from last season, was “disappointed, but not surprised.”

“I remember looking at the lineup for this season the night it came out and thinking who’s going to be picked on this year, who’s going to be me, who’s going to have a horrible time of it? It’s terrible looking at their smiling faces waiting to start with no idea what’s coming, no idea that people are going to be horrible for the sake of it,” she says.

Rosie made it to the semi final stage of the competition, but she says it was after the quarter final when fan-favorite Henry Bird was eliminated and she went through, that the abuse began to mount.

“People phoned my work and said they needed to talk to me about their dog, the nurses put me on, and they started telling me that I should go and kill myself and I should be so ashamed and I was the worst thing to ever happen to TV. They said I ruined everything, I ruined their year, why don’t I just go and die. When you get that in the middle of a busy work day it’s not very nice,” she says.

While contestants on other reality TV shows such as “Love Island” or “Big Brother” might be more prepared to deal with online abuse, part of the appeal of “Bake Off” is that the bakers are “quite naive, mostly not media savvy people,” says former contestant Dan Beasley-Harling.

Both during his season and in the two years since, Beasley-Harling says he has received a steady stream of hate on social media, some of it directed at his family, a good deal of it homophobic.

“When it happened to me, I felt like I was the only person that it was happening to, it was genuinely really upsetting,” he says. “My husband, to be honest, didn’t really want me to take part in the show. He said people will attack us, they’ll attack our family, it’s not worth it. If you don’t get a good opportunity out of it, you’re just exposing our family for no good reason.”

Brandreth-Poynter, who is appearing in the latest edition of the “Bake Off” Christmas special, says she “refused point blank” to let the hate ruin her experience and memories of being on “Bake Off,” but acknowledges that for some people it isn’t as easy as turning off their phones, adding that wishes she addressed it more at the time.

“You spend years building up a sense of identity and confidence in yourself, and then you’re exposed to the opinion of the world and they just tare you to pieces and say we hate this thing about you, you’re not a nice person. They chip away the foundations of everything that your self-confidence and identity is built on,” says Beasley-Harling. “It’s not a quick fix, it takes time to build it back up again. It’s taken me about 18 months ago to feel normal again.”

Before each season begins, the bakers take part in individual and group meetings with the Love Productions press team to go over “the worst case scenarios,” as Kim-Joy describes it, as well as a one-on-one session with a psychologist.

Members of the Love Productions staff also make sure to check in with the bakers every week the show goes out and long after it ends.

“We don’t see our job as ending after the season is over, the team of people who work with these bakers stay in touch with them and look after them,” explains McKerrow. “We have to be honest about the fact we don’t and can’t control the reaction. We tell them up front we will support them and hold their hand, but we saw in the past when three women got to the final there was horrible misogynism. They’re a small minority but they’re a vocal minority.”

Beasley-Harling says that Love Productions could have “done a better job in supporting us,” saying that more sessions and phone calls with a trained psychologist could help those who are subject to the worst abuse.

“They do try and prepare you, I knew there’d be people saying they didn’t like my outfit or I wasn’t skinny enough, but ultimately nothing prepares you for thinking you’re picking up a client phone call and it’s someone telling you to die on the other end of the phone. Nothing can prepare you for that, for the onslaught,” says Brandreth-Poynter.

Although there was undoubtedly plenty of negative in Beasley-Harling’s experience of “Baking Show,” he and all the other former contestants agreed that being on the show was “a net positive.”

For Beasley-Harling “Bake Off” opened doors to teach baking from home, for Nadiya Hussain it was a stepping stone towards becoming one of the U.K.’s most recognizable TV hosts and achieving national-treasure status, while for Kim-Joy it gave her the opportunity to become a cookbook author.

“I really wanted to make something of it, to make the most of the opportunity,” says Kim-Joy, whose second recipe book “Christmas With Kim-Joy” was published by Quadrille earlier this year. “I wasn’t confident at all before ‘Bake Off,’ I found it bizarre to think that people would like me in any sort of way. I’m still not confident now, but I feel lucky that I’ve been able to create recipes and make happy bakes for a living.”

Like all ten seasons before it, the latest “Bake Off” series went out on a high. Adlington presented a delicious showstopper, Friday and Peter Sawkins were part of arguably the closest decision in “Bake Off” history, and all the crew and hotel staff who made the season possible gathered to celebrate their achievement.

Ratings for this season of “Bake Off” were the highest that Channel 4 has ever achieved, and it has remained in Nielsen’s top 10 shows on streaming for the last few weeks, so as ever attention is already turning to season 12.

Whether or not Love Productions will once again have to blow a massive quarantine bubble is still floating in the air, says McKerrow.

“Options are open, it’s going to depend on lockdown, no lockdown, vaccine, no vaccine. It’s great we managed to do it this time, because we know how to do it; but it’s certainly not our ideal. To ask bakers to be away from their families for weeks, I think it changes the dynamic,” he says.

However long it takes “Bake Off” to rise next season, McKerrow says the producers are already evaluating how to remedy any soggy bottoms from a historic seven weeks in the tent.

“The truth is that we have a philosophy of when you introduce a camera to the world you change it a little bit, so you should leave it better than you found it. Love the bakers, love the baking, that’s what we’ve always tried to do,” he says.

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