As the dad of an extroverted ten year old boy and thoughtful thirteen year old girl, with a wife with a clear sense of perspective, there isn’t much to watch on TV that we all agree on. Sure, Doctor Who is a hit, but truth be told my wife sneaks peeks at her computer while the TARDIS is hurtling through time and space. When the kids were younger Expedition Unknown was a winner, though once she realized Josh never finds what he’s after my oldest’s interest cooled appreciably. When the World Series was on three of the four of us were up to watch a few games, but for consistency the only series that always wins the day is The Great British Baking Show.
Together we’ve binged the show, side by side on the couch, popcorn in hand all this fall, and over Thanksgiving break together we devoured the most recent season.
What strikes me about The Great British Baking Show is its overwhelming sense of kindness. On the show, beneath a literal big tent, contestants from across the UK bake and bake and bake everything from familiar shortbreads to exotic and odd dishes out of British history.
It’s a competition, but not as cutthroat as many American cooking programs seem to be. Over the weeks contestants strive to do their best, but can be seen helping each other, encouraging each other, and presenting a sense of camaraderie that swells up to meet the tears and heartbreak that comes under pressure.
Everyone is welcome in the baking tent. Age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical differences, choices in style, the diversity of all these make a richer picture of humanity, even as all are focused on creating art …edible art, of course… and participating in what comes across as a grand adventure and rollicking good time.
But that good time isn’t without hardship. No one can bake perfectly every time, and whether it’s mixing up salt and sugar or making an ambitious attempt that falls short, there’s something metaphoric in these bakers’ onscreen world. On The Great British Baking Show, as in life, everyone wants to do well, has doubts, fails, and has the ability to come back.
A sensitive lot, it’s not unusual for contestants show tears after being told they didn’t do well, but over and again they gather themselves and “crack on.”
My kids, seeing these tears, pursed lips, and determined nods saw in the bakers something from their own lives. While they haven’t been told specifically that their doughnuts are over decorated or their biscuits too wobbly, they have been in school for years and have felt that sense of sadness and frustration in subjects that don’t involve sugar or spice.
How healthy then for them to see adults, some like them, some wildly different, wrestle with disappointment. How great too that they see other adults around them supportive, generous, and kind. “It’s just baking” was a refrain from more than one contestant, and while it is, maybe for those of us watching it was also something more.
For educators like me, sentimental and sometimes silly, The Great British Baking Show offered some lessons I’ll take back to my work next week.
The two professional bakers making the decisions about who won and lost offered judgement that was honest (I think. Heck, I can’t taste the cakes). Criticism seemed tough, but was often accompanied by encouraging words (the sponge may be doughy, but the mango passion fruit hazelnut ganache, or whatever it is they’re talking about, tastes great). Contestants took the feedback with a nodding sense of acceptance, knowing, I think, that it was delivered in such a way as to guide them to better things.
The critique that was offered was always specific and situational, meaning they may have burned those biscuits, but the next bake has the potential for greatness. Leaving the amateur bakers with hope was as important as pointing out that the puff pastry leaked butter on the pan.
When the hosts, two generous hearted comedians, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, announced the “star baker” they seemed to do so with pride, and when they had to say who came out on the bottom they exhibited caring, even as they broke the news. Hugs ensued.
Even more, the hosts showed an ability to insert humor into the high stress situations of the baking competition. With a hug or clever comment they helped crack the tension and allowed the contestants to breathe, laugh, and regroup. Like great teachers (and counselors, and secretaries, and even principals) they showed that laughter can help create an atmosphere where progress is possible. Without humor, without heart, it would just be a competition. We seem to have enough of that. It was a clear lesson for folks like me who have the opportunities to bring balance to what can be a high stress world of middle and high school.
I’d be naive to imagine that every day at school could be The Great British Baking Show, but the spirit of the program, the exuberance, celebration of differences, and kindness on display are things that I can take to my work and encourage in those around me.
And then, at bedtime on the night we watched the final of the last season, I overheard my wife talking with my kids and I realized that it was more than just communal TV time or one sentimental educator’s musings on how to apply something he saw over vacation to school.
My wife and kids were talking about the people they’d been introduced to throughout the program: painter Terry, whose artistic vision (he did a 3D face sculpture?!?!) outpaced the time allowed on almost any challenge; Dan’s love for baking for his partner and his kids, and joy in this opportunity to break out of the under-appreciated challenge of being a stay at home parent; Kim-Joy, who my son observed would be a natural at my little art school; and the welcoming couple who’d taken Rahul as one of their own family when he emigrated from India.
Their pyjama conversation was about those little moments when as an audience we were reminded that The Great British Baking Show isn’t about baking, it’s about humans.
And my wife, who is far wiser than I am, and far, far more able to connect and make a meaningful point brought it back to our own kids when she told them: “Be kind like Rahul and confident like Ruby.”
Good advice for us all.