It’s not an unreasonable assumption that Americans prefer to know about Britain’s heritage than the way it is today. So it will come as no surprise to anyone on either side of the Atlantic that a Great British Bake-Off spin-off (which can be contracted to The Great British Bake-Off) called The Great Holiday Baking Show is airing on ABC primetime over the Christmas season. The Great British Bake-Off is a cooking competition celebrating British culinary traditions against a landscape idealizing Britain as the green and pleasant land of yore replete with signifiers of our imperial past, like the bunting-lined parties we used to host for wartime victories and royal events. Though if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that cultural fascination has triumphed over commercial interest, it’s worth remembering that in the UK this year the finale of The Great British Bake-Off was the most-watched program of the year, that past seasons of the show currently occupy peak Sunday airtime on PBS, and that a US version of the format called The American Baking Competition debuted in 2013 but was cancelled within a year following poor ratings. It’s both too lucrative and too particular to attempt anything other than a spin-off.
Americanizing the brand has proved difficult. PBS had to re-name the US airings The Great British Baking Show not because of cultural misunderstandings – as surely ‘Bake-Off’ is a term friendlier to the American spirit of competition than ours of miserable make-do – but America’s corporate hegemony. Girth-romanticising pastry company Pilsbury hold the trademark to the name ‘Bake-Off’ since it is the name of their patented annual cooking contest. The American Baking Competition continued the tradition of American reboots of British reality shows exporting celebrity judges, but it backed the wrong horse. Perhaps they were expecting some latent movie star glamour to suddenly burst forth from baker Paul Hollywood when he was brought into geographical proximity with his namesake – or more likely they wanted another British villain – but there was less gel than the sour scouse keeps in his hair when they brought him into the show. Though far sweeter and lacking the negativity that reality TV bottom-feeds off, The Great Holiday Baking Show has made a far better choice in calling upon veteran food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry to handle the judging, especially since any successful translation of the format requires as much exploitation of British icons as possible.
As is usually the case in television, the biggest factor affecting the success of The Great Holiday Baking Show is time. The Great British Bake-Off is shown over ten weeks and, while it is clear from the preponderance of sunlight and the frequently-used excuse of it being a ‘hot day’ that it is filmed in Summer, the baking is not linked to any particular season of the year. As the title states, The Great Holiday Baking Show is very clearly themed around the American Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to reflect the period of the calendar year in which most baking is done and/or consumed in the US. The producers have evidently latched on to the seasonality of baking as justification for a short-run December-long series which also conveniently prevents them from having to commit to a full season in programming terms. Conversely, the configuration of cake-eating with sunny countryside settings in the British original has almost made it seem like an exclusively Summer activity in the UK, not a happy by-product of taking refuge from the cold of Autumn and Winter as it is in the US. Finding what is culturally equivalent about an imported show is often the key.
The subject matter and presentation of The Great British Bake-Off is twee and backwards but it gestures to the diversity of post-colonial Britain. Though by no means proportional, there is a range of ethnic, racial, sexual and regional representation in the contestant base. To wit, the 2015 winner was Nadiya Jamir Hussein, a British-Bengali women identifying as a Muslim. I’m glad to see that The Great Holiday Baking Show has followed in these footsteps, though in both cases it’s difficult to tell whether this is selection strategy or merely that it’s an inclusive enough application process for minorities to make it through. What makes the difference is the ability to use the original format and continue to have Mary Berry on board, although why they would make her a judge for an American spin-off only to patronise her like a cigar store Indian in a parallel universe is beyond me.