"Honestly, hand on heart, Beauty and the Baker is one of my all-time favourite shows that we have in our collection," enthuses Walter Iuzzolino, founder and curator of Walter Presents, the UK's only foreign language VoD (Video on Demand) drama channel. An Israeli romcom, Beauty and the Baker is one of Israel's highest-rating dramas which, to date, has been remade in Russia, Greece and Holland. Now, UK viewers will have the opportunity to watch it when the first episode premieres on Channel 4 next week, with the full series becoming immediately available for download on Walter Presents.
A modern fairy tale, it follows the unlikely love story between Noa Hollander, a wealthy, beautiful megastar and Amos Dahari, a baker who still lives at home with his parents and siblings in a suburb of Tel Aviv. They meet at a restaurant where Amos has gone to celebrate his ninth anniversary with his girlfriend Vanessa. Noa, meanwhile is avoiding public speculation about a break-up from her Hollywood lover. Their chance encounter leads to unexpected romance. But can their love survive the challenges of her jet-setting lifestyle, her controlling agent, his unworldly family, both their exes and the media?
"On the one hand, it's a shamelessly commercial piece, with all the classic ingredients of a typical love story. However, I think there's an honesty about it which really resonated with me," says Iuzzolino. The underlying themes are sophisticated, he says, particularly regarding the notion of family. "She lives in a vacuum of no relations and he lives surrounded by these noisy Sicilian types who I love! To me, it painted the portrait of a community and bonds that are really lovely. I think it gives the series a lot of [weight]."
Iuzzolino is a fan of Israeli television drama. "It's incredibly sharp. Their storytelling, writing and acting is just compelling. There's something quite visceral [about it]. In a way, I sort of get it because I'm Italian and Catholic and Jewish culture [can be] similar. They're both very much about family, passions and emotion."
His affinity for dramas such as Hatufim, The Gordin Cell and False Flag led him to research other titles from the Israeli TV production company and distributor, Keshet International. He was drawn to this series - his first Israeli acquisition - purely based on its title. "It appealed to my old self as a former producer of food and cookery shows. I had always thought that there was a lovely romantic narrative to cooking and baking. In a world where there are a lot of spy, political thrillers, intrigue and murder programmes, this title gave me that same feeling and I thought, 'This is interesting.' Clearly there's going to be cuteness, glamour and love. I was curious." He then went on to YouTube and watched a short promo version - "It probably wasn't even subtitled" - before binge watching the whole series.
Iuzzolino says he fell in love with it after the first minute, unlike director, Oded Raskin, who initially turned the job down when he saw the script.
"The cover was pink and I was terrified because I'd never seen a romcom. I didn't want to do it." But the characters lingered in his head and he kept returning to it, finding it "really funny." Eventually he called the producers asking if they would take him back.
Raskin believes that the reason for the show's success is simple: love is universal. The fact that you can identify the same characters from the equivalent social economic status in every country also adds to its general appeal, he says. Season two is in the final stages of editing.
To a certain extent, Beauty and the Baker is the result of art imitating life. Although its creator, writer and TV host Assi Azar, was inspired to write the series after seeing the film Notting Hill a few years ago, many of the show's characters, including Noa and her agent Tzvika, are based on a combination of people he knows, as well as his family. "Amos is basically my older brother - the good guy - and the annoying brother is me. The little sister who comes out of the closet is also me as I'm gay." Even the bakery setting is based on personal experience. His father, Avi, like the father in the show, also called Avi, owned a bakery. His mother was a manager of a supermarket, as is her fictional counterpart.
Azar is well aware of the implications of celebrity culture - he has co-hosted Israel's Big Brother - and so he wanted to start with the premise that "celebrities are not sweet. Their instinct is to be patronising and arrogant. I'm not saying I'm like that, I'm saying that Julia Roberts (in Notting Hill) was another extreme side of the truth."
But the makers stress that the show is not about social criticism.
"It takes you away from your day-to-day reality," says Azar. "It's supposed to make you laugh, it's supposed to make you believe in love."