“Watching that first episode was great – it was as exciting as my wedding day!” gushes Assi Azar, the creative talent behind hit Israeli rom-com, Beauty and the Baker, which airs on Channel 4 tonight.
The 37-year-old, known in his home country as a television personality and co-host of Big Brother Israel, scored success with the series – despite it being his first time trying his hand at scriptwriting.
Now the unlikely love story between Noa Hollander (Rotem Sela), one of the richest and most beautiful women in Israel and Amos Dahari (Aviv Alush), a modestly-earning baker who still lives at home with his family, is available for UK audiences to view tonight and via Walter Presents, Channel 4’s on-demand service for foreign language dramas.
As one of Israel’s highest ever rated drama series, audiences were gripped by the tongue-in-cheek, modern day fairy tale, which also throws into the mix Vanessa, Amos’ spurned ex-girlfriend of nine years, Noa’s former celebrity boyfriend (played by Sex In The City’s Jason Lewis), her interfering agent, his meddling family and a relentless media circus.
If that’s not enough to tantalise, the series has also been produced by Keshet International – the same Israeli company behind the global television hit, Homeland.
The concept of a princess falling for a pauper is of course nothing new – in fact, Azar admits to taking inspiration from Richard Curtis’ box office hit, Notting Hill – but he has given it a thoroughly Israeli twist, mixed with elements from his own life.
“Because it was my first time scriptwriting, my script editor suggested I should write something that is close to my own life, so that it would be easier to build the characters,” says Azar, who adds that just like his main character, Amos, he grew up in a family of bakers from Bat Yam.
“My older brother, like Amos, was my dad’s right hand and my dad was very proud of him because he came to work in the bakery every day. I’m more like the middle child, Asaf. I always used to cause my father problems, because I hated working there – I wanted to be an actor!”
Still, all those years of pounding the dough into beautiful baked goods must have surely paid off?
“Oh yeah, I helped the actors on set learn how to properly knead the dough, But don’t ask me to bake now. Today I’m the worse cook ever – I can make omelette and toast and that’s about it!
In creating his female characters, Asaf reveals that he was equally inspired by his own life. I ask if he feels closer to Noa or Vanessa?
“Noa certainly represents the famous side in me, but if you met my husband [Albert], he will tell you I am Vanessa, 100 per cent!” he quips.
“I’m very loud, very dramatic and I always want things to go my way. At the end of the day, Vanessa just wants to realise her dream and get married. I can be annoying like that, but I’m kind of in love with her.”
Given this was his first foray into scriptwriting and a second series is already in the works, I ask the television personality if this is the direction he would now like his career to take?
“I love writing. I say I’m a writer first then a television host. It’s a happy experience for me – though in truth, it was the most stressed I’ve ever felt in my life!”
Taking three years to complete, Azar says he also felt pressure to produce a script that would resonate with his audience.
“I thought if it failed, I would die. I put so much of myself into it – but when it did work, it was amazing.”
Beauty and the Baker is the latest in a stream of shows that Israel has successfully exported beyond its borders.
Keshet International is one of three companies, including Dori Media and Armoza Formats, which together have sold more than 100 shows around the globe to such far-flung places as Indonesia, Japan, Finland and Brazil.
With that in mind, it seems things have never been better than today’s “golden age” for Israeli television.
“It always amazes me how American series get budgets worth millions of dollars and we can do an entire series for the same amount it costs to do one US episode,” agrees Azar. “When I wrote Beauty and the Baker, it was my dream, like many other Israeli creatives, that it would be broadcast to other countries and would get international attention.
“So yes, it’s a good time to be in Israeli television, because we make amazing products – and no wonder the US and UK are paying attention.”
Beauty and the Baker is on Channel 4 tonight, 10pm, and available for download on WalterPresents.com