What began as a simple idea to showcase Britain’s best amateur bakers has become a full-blown TV phenomenon: The Great British Bake Off. The hit show, created by Love Productions, has charmed viewers the world over with its heartfelt contestants putting their all into every last bundt cake, blueberry tart and baguette. The series returned in late August for its tenth season in the U.K., marking its third on Channel 4 after a move from the BBC. Its success has spawned a juniors spin-off and a slew of international iterations, including a U.S. version on ABC. Richard McKerrow, co-creator of Bake Off and creative director at Love Productions, shares with TV Formats the ingredients to the series’ success.
TV FORMATS: Where did the concept for Bake Off originate?
MCKERROW: Anna Beattie and I had the idea within a couple of months of setting up Love Productions in October 2004. We like to do things that have never been done before. There had never really been a proper baking show in the U.K., and yet baking is incredibly popular; there is a real culture of country fêtes, where people set out their home baking. We thought, What if we were to do a very simple, amateur baking competition—looking for the best British home baker? It was a simple idea that had never been done before. Then we found out that there was a reason it hadn’t been done before, and that’s because every single broadcaster in the U.K. thought that it would be incredibly dull and boring, like watching paint dry. [Laughs] So they all said, Absolutely not, no way. The funny thing when I look back now is that all of the reasons they said “no” are probably all the reasons that it’s so successful.
We were passionate about it, and it never left our top five ideas that we hadn’t got commissioned. We pitched it to anybody and everybody! Finally, the then-controller of BBC Three thought it was a good idea, but not right for BBC Three. He passed it over to BBC Two.
TV FORMATS: Did you anticipate that it would achieve the level of success it has?
MCKERROW: We never anticipated that it would grow in the way that it did. We just set out to make an original program with the best production values we possibly could. The show has been described as a sleeper hit. The first [season] did quite well, but I remember being slightly disappointed in the figures of the first episode. Anna Beattie, who is the co-creator of the show, said to me, “Don’t worry Rich, it’ll grow.” In a funny way, it’s a bit like baking: it takes time!
Everyone said, Baking is going to be boring, it’s not dramatic enough. But actually, baking is much more dramatic but in a slow, deep way rather than a superficial, television way. When cooking goes wrong, you can add salt and pepper and race around to fix it. With baking, it’s about how you put it together before—that’s why [the bakers] kneel down and stare at it through the oven. In the end, the drama is less superficial, far deeper and more profound.
TV FORMATS: What do you look for in casting?
MCKERROW: The simple answer is brilliant bakers. That is the one total rule; we want the best possible bakers. As a documentary maker, you’re trying to create an environment where people forget that the cameras are there, which is incredibly hard to do in constructed television. I look back to the first time that we brought the first group of bakers together, and we were watching them being watched by the two judges—I was in awe because they didn’t care that we were filming! They were more obsessed with what the judges thought of their eclair, scone or loaf of bread than the camera. That’s the secret: when people are more passionate about the real thing that is going on than about being on television.
TV FORMATS: How do you keep it fresh and innovative, while still remaining true to the heart of the format?
MCKERROW: Fortunately, every year, 12 or 13 new bakers come along, with new stories and histories that are unique and individual. When we moved from BBC to Channel 4, the [hosting and judging] talent changed. But it didn’t make a difference to the show, because the true talents are the bakers—the ordinary people, not the celebrities. It doesn’t diminish the incredibly important role that the hosts and judges play; they are a vital and prominent part of it. But we have a mantra: Love the bakers, love the baking.
Every season, we try to make sure that we find the best possible bakers, that we find a broad range and also that the challenges are distinct and different. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do something that we’ve done before. There is the broad format of having the signature challenge, the technical challenge and the show-stopper, but I can’t begin to tell you the incredible amount of effort that goes into designing the various challenges. There’s a tremendous amount of work behind it and a team of people who really care about the show.
TV FORMATS: How do you plot and test the challenges?
MCKERROW: We have an extraordinarily experienced, accomplished team that researches all the possible challenges. Then we try them out. We see how long it takes to do. That’s why Bake Off is really a 365-days-a-year operation. Our contributor care almost reaches its most important period over the ten weeks [after the premiere]. Although it’s obviously vital during the preproduction casting and during the weeks that we film, now we’re in the time when we can’t control the public reaction. [Duty of care] is something that I am very passionate about. Television is pretty well regulated and yet social media is utterly unregulated, and therefore, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next. All we can do is look after the bakers to the best of our ability during that period of time.
TV FORMATS: Was the plan from the beginning to format it for international markets?
MCKERROW: We’re always driven by the creative. If you’ve designed something original, there’s always a chance that it could travel internationally. If you make it to the best of your ability, certainly with an English-language program, there’s a good chance you can have program sales. To then sell the format, that’s a whole different bar that you’ve got to hit, which is mostly judged by audience figures.
BBC Studios distributes the format globally. The format, like the original show, has grown slowly. Denmark’s version is extraordinarily successful, with its latest series attracting over half of the viewing audience. Argentina did the first Spanish-language version in the [LatAm] region, ranking number one in its time slot with more than twice the share of the closest competition. There’s a version in Brazil.
We produce the American version, for ABC, in the U.K. The first-ever version we did was for CBS, The American Baking Competition, and it was shot in America. It didn’t do too badly, but one of the problems was that CBS didn’t promote it off-network. When FOX put Gordon Ramsay against it with MasterChef, CBS didn’t move it. Therefore, it didn’t get picked up. We sold the finished programs of The Great British Bake Off to PBS, where it aired under the title The Great British Baking Show. Rob Mills [senior VP of alternative series, specials and late-night programming] at ABC Entertainment saw the British version on PBS and thought, Why don’t we let Love produce an American version in the same way they produce the British version? They let us do it the way we always wanted to do it.