15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of The Great British Baking Show

Netflix
Netflix

by Sarah Dobbs

If you’re an American fan of The Great British Bake Off you probably know it better as The Great British Baking Show (though its most devoted fans simply call it GBBO, which saves a lot of time). The show's tenth season recently kicked off on England’s Channel 4, and is streaming for American audiences via Netflix (though only one episode is being rolled out per week).

A bona fide global sensation, the baking competition has the power to cause otherwise rational human beings to immediately run to their nearest supermarket in search of obscure ingredients like psyllium or Amarula cream liqueur. It’s a charming, retro, warming hug of a TV show. But how much do you know about what goes on behind the scenes? Without destroying any of your illusions, here are some secrets about how the producers whip up one of the world's most beloved cooking shows.

1. The reason why it has two different names is simple.

A scene from The Great British Bake Off
Netflix

If you’ve ever wondered why the series is called The Great British Bake Off in England and The Great British Baking Show in America, the answer is simple: Pillsbury. The Pillsbury Bake Off, which kicked off in 1949, is probably America’s most famous baking contest. And the company didn’t want there to be any confusion among viewers, hence The Great British Baking Show.

2. Each oven has to be tested every day.

It’s difficult enough to make a cake that Paul Hollywood won’t declare either under- or over-baked without having to worry about whether your oven is working properly. So for every day of filming, every oven has to be tested. And because this is a baking show, they’re tested with cakes. Yes, every day every oven has a Victoria sponge cake cooked in it, to make sure everything’s working exactly as it should be.

3. Every time someone opens an oven door, there's a camera watching them.

To make sure they catch all the drama, GBBO producers insist that every time a bake is put into or taken out of an oven, the moment must be caught on camera. So whenever a baker wants to put their goodies into an oven, or check if they’re ready to come out, they need to grab someone to make sure the moment gets captured on film. (Which must be a hassle for the first couple of weeks, when there are more than 10 bakers all trying their best to produce a perfect bake at once.)

4. The contestants have to wear the same clothes all weekend.

It’s a minor thing, but have you ever noticed that the bakers wear the same clothes for an entire episode, even though it’s shot over two days? For continuity purposes, the contestants are asked to wear the same outfits for the entire weekend. If you’re the kind of baker who ends up with flour all over your shirt whenever you bake up a loaf of bread, the second day of filming could be a bit of a nightmare.

"Luckily they change the aprons so we don't look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the end of it," 2013 champion Frances Quinn told Cosmopolitan. "I think layers [is the answer], but even then you still have to wear what you had on, on top. Difficult."

5. The contestants don't have a lot of downtime.

Having any time to spare is not something that season seven contestant Jane Beedle remembers happening regularly for the contestants. "Maybe once or twice, and when they did we would just sit and have a cup of tea and chat with the people around us,” she told the Mirror. "They don't like it if you have nothing to do, so they try and make the challenges as difficult as possible to keep you busy."

6. The temperature in the tent can make or break a bake.

Sue Perkins, Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, and Frances Quinn in 'The Great British Bake Off'
BBC

Forget setting the oven to the correct temperature—the temperature inside the tent is just as important to a bake. "It's completely alien to your own kitchen at home,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “The temperature fluctuates—you'd be making a meringue and it would start raining, or we'd try and make pastry and it would be 27 degrees outside. The technical challenges and lack of time and lack of fridge and work space are the enemy on that show."

7. The illustrations are created by Tom Hovey, after the episode has filmed.

You know those fun illustrations of the confections that pop up when each baker explains what they’re going to make that day? Those are all drawn by illustrator Tom Hovey. He was working as a video editor on the first season of GBBO when the producers realized they needed an extra visual element—so he offered his illustration skills. And while we see the illustrations on screen before the bakers attempt to make them a reality, Hovey told the BBC he draws them “a pack of photos of the finished bakes from the set after each episode has been filmed … I sketch out all the bakes quickly in pencil to get the details, form and shape I am after. I then work these up by hand drawing them all in ink, then they’re scanned and colored digitally, and then I add the titles and ingredient arrows. It's a fairly well streamlined process now.”

Even if a bake goes horribly wrong, Hovey said his “illustrations are a representation of what the bakers hope to create. Even if the bakers don't produce what they’ve intended to I have a degree of artistic license to make them look good.”

8. The contestants don't interact with the judges very much.

“They very much tried to keep it unbiased,” Quinn said about how the bakers don’t spend much time interacting with the judges. “We saw a lot more of Mel and Sue. Mary and Paul would purely come in to do what we called the royal tour—where they'd come in and find out what you were making, and then they'd come back in for judging. You're not in the same hotel having sleepovers! You form more of a relationship after the show when you see them at things like BBC Good Food or whatever—but they need to keep their distance [on the show]. They're there as judges."

9. Making sure that the technical challenge is actually possible is one person's job.

Sandi Toksvig in 'The Great British Bake Off'
Netflix

Another vital behind-the-scenes role is that of the food researcher. It’s down to them to make sure that the elaborate concoction the judges have decided the bakers have to whip up is actually possible, given the ingredients, instructions, and time the bakers will be allowed.

The tent presents its own challenges, too, because it could be hot or cold, depending on the weather, and it tends to have quite a wobbly floor, which can make delicate decorating work trickier than it might otherwise seem. “The tent is just mocked up, so the floor is really bumpy and bouncy because you’d got so many camera guys running around,” Quinn told the Irish Examiner.

10. The show got into some trouble for its partnership with Smeg.

Part of GBBO’s homey charm has to do with the setup of the tent where the bakers do their cooking, and few appliances spell “retro” as well as a colorful Smeg refrigerator. A viewer fed up with what they described as “blatant product promotion” wrote to the Radio Times to complain, and an investigation was launched into the series’ agreement with Smeg. As BBC guidelines state that a series may "not accept free or reduced cost products" in return for "on-air or online credits, links or off-air marketing,” the broadcaster ended up having to write the company a check for all the times their product got some screen time.

11. There are never any leftovers.

The judges only take a mouthful of every bake, which seems to leave an awful lot of leftover pastries, cakes, and ridiculously complicated bread sculptures. But don’t worry—none of it goes to waste. “The crew eats all the leftovers," Beedle told The Mirror. "We get some brought to us in the green room so we can taste each other's bakes, but it's only slithers."

12. Hundreds of season five viewers wrote in to complain about "sabotage."

Midway through season five, contestant Iain Watters had a bit of an issue with his Baked Alaska. Realizing that his ice cream had not yet set, he threw the entire dish into the trash rather than serve the judges a subpar dessert and was sent home as a result. Footage from the episode made is seem as if fellow contestant Diana Beard had removed his ice cream from the freezer. Beard left the show at just about the same time due to health issues, but some viewers (811, to be exact) smelled sabotage—and wrote in to the show’s producers to complain. Media watchdog group Ofcom looked into the matter, but said that they had assessed viewers’ complaints and “they do not raise issues warranting further investigation under Ofcom’s rules.”

Paul Hollywood took to Twitter to clear up what became known as “bingate,” tweeting: “Ice cream being left out of fridge last night for 40 seconds did not destroy Iain’s chances in the bake off, what did was his decision BIN.”

13. Mary Berry watched Breaking Bad backstage.

Although it looks pretty nonstop on screen, there’s quite a bit of downtime during the show’s filming days. Especially for the show’s judges and hosts. Former judge Mary Berry had one unique way of passing the time: binge-watching Breaking Bad. “It’s shocking,” Berry told The Telegraph. “Then you get into it and you think: ‘Have I seen episode four or five?’ You get hooked. It’s better than motor racing, which [my husband] Paul watches—though I’d prefer Downton Abbey.” She’d apparently rope former hosts Mel and Sue into watching it with her on occasion. What better way to relax during a long day of baking than by watching Walter White, umm, baking?

14. The application form is no joke.

Fancy your chances in the Bake Off tent? If you’ve been inspired by the show and reckon you could nab a couple of Star Baker titles, brace yourself: The application form is a whopping eight pages long, and it’s full of probing questions. As well as giving details of your hobbies, lifestyle, and level of experience with various types of baked goods, it also asks applicants to describe their baking style, and answer a couple of existential-sounding questions.

"It's a long application form. I think it's designed to put some people off, essentially," fourth season contestant Beca Lyne-Pirkis said. "It asks you about everything you have done, good and bad. It's designed to get information about your character, stories, mishaps and successes."

Still fancy applying? Though submissions are not open at the moment, you can keep your eyes open for when the next batch of contestants are being accepted here.

15. The audition process is a grueling one.

If you happen to make it through the application process, the audition process is even more difficult. “Every person who makes it into the marquee has passed a rigorous series of tests,” GBBO creator and executive producer Anna Beattie told The Telegraph. In addition to the application form, The Telegraph reported that there is “a 45-minute telephone call with a researcher, bringing two bakes to an audition in London, a screen test and an interview with a producer. If they get through that, there is a second audition baking two recipes … in front of the cameras, and an interview with the show psychologist to make sure they can cope with being filmed for up to 16 hours a day.”

License to Bird: Meet the Real James Bond

American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.
American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.

On January 4, 1900, a child was born in Philadelphia. His name was Bond. James Bond. He would not grow up to be a globe-trotting, license-to-kill-carrying playboy spy like the other James Bond. Instead, he became an ornithologist, and lived a fairly quiet, normal life—until someone borrowed his name.  

Bond lived in New Hampshire and England while growing up, and developed an accent that a colleague described [PDF] as an “amalgam of New England, British, and upper-class Philadelphian.” After graduating from Cambridge, Bond returned to the U.S. to work as a banker, but his childhood interests in science and natural history spurred him to quit soon after and join an expedition to the Amazon to collect biological specimens for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

After that, and with no formal training in the field, he started working as an ornithologist at the Academy, and was “among the last of a traditional museum breed, the independently wealthy, nonsalaried curator, who lacked advanced university degrees.” Working at the museum, Bond became an authority on the bird species of the Caribbean, and his 1936 book, Birds of the West Indies, was considered the definitive guide to the region’s birds at the time. 

Despite his many scientific accomplishments—which included dozens of papers about Caribbean and New England birds, more books and field guides, numerous medals and awards and other researchers using the term “Bond’s Line” to refer to the boundary that separates Caribbean fauna by their origin—that book would be what catapulted Bond, or at least his name, to international fame.

In 1961, Bond was reading a London newspaper’s review of the latest edition of his book and found eyebrow-raising references to handguns, kinky sex, and other elements of a life that sounded very unlike his. He and his wife Mary quickly learned that another James Bond was the hero of a series of novels by Ian Fleming, which were popular in the UK but just gaining notice in the U.S. Mary wrote to Fleming to jokingly chastise him for stealing her husband’s name for his “rascal” character. 

Fleming replied to explain himself: He was a birdwatcher and when he was living in Jamaica beginning work on his first spy novel, Birds of the West Indies was one of his bird “bibles.” He wanted his main character to have an ordinary, unassuming name, and when he was trying to drum one up, he remembered the author of the book he turned to so often. “It struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born,” Fleming wrote to Mary. (Fleming later called “James Bond” the “dullest name I’ve ever heard.”)

Fleming told Mary that he understood if they were angry at the theft of Bond’s name, and suggested a trade. “In return I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit,” he wrote. “Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” 

He also invited the Bonds to his home in Jamaica, which they took him up on a few years later. During the Bonds’ visit, Fleming gave James a copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, inscribed with the message “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”

For the next few decades, until his death at the age of 89, Bond’s famous namesake caused the ornithologist a few minor annoyances. Once, he was supposedly stopped at the airport because officials thought his passport was a fake, and the occasional bank teller would likewise think the same of his checks and refuse to cash them.

Young women would often prank call the Bond house late at night asking to speak to 007, to which Mary would reply: “Yes, James is here. But this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now."

Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances from the new cast, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 3, from the Cambridge Five to the Aberfan disaster. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service (Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime) and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (aka Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has the first four seasons, but you’ll have to head over to PBS Masterpiece for the fifth and final season, which just wrapped its run a few weeks ago.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy, and with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the uppercrust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the movie, which premiered earlier this fall, is still playing in select theaters (and is quickly making its way to on demand). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu

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