It is the wildest dream of every Gogglebox fan – spending time on the sofa with the very people millions of us look forward to watching the week’s TV with every Friday. And lucky me got to see past the soft furnishings to the world beyond.
I hulled strawberries for Rev Kate Bottley, and witnessed her hurl a burnt loaf of bread she’d left in the oven out of the kitchen window. At the Malones’ house in Manchester, I was followed up the stairs to the smallest room by Lucy, Izzy, Dave, Bobby and Frank – their four huge but soppy rottweilers and one staffie, that had taken a shine to me.
I sat and watched Countdown with Liverpool pensioners Leon and June, while she made notes on the back of their copy of Radio Times and he sat in appreciation of Rachel Riley’s lovely arms (“I never liked Carol Vorderman. She never turned me on.”)
I received a warm welcome on every doorstep where I found myself standing nervously. It took me a while to get into Umar Siddiqui’s in Derby because the doorbell I was pressing was his neighbour’s. And not working. But I knew I was in the right vicinity as the terraced street’s numbered wheelie bins are the most recognisable in Britain.
I zigzagged across the map for five emotionally rollercoasting weeks; a 1,942-mile not-exactly-round trip that took me as far south as the Sussex seaside and as far north as County Durham to meet the preternaturally witty Moffatts and their excitable shih-tzu, Harry (named after the eligible prince).
All in all, I met 35 human Goggleboxers, six cats and seven dogs, plus three family members, one dog and one cat who aren’t seen on TV, and a builder called John, who was working on Giles and Mary’s downstairs loo.
Gogglebox began with a modest four-episode run on C4 in March 2013 and drew around 1.2 million viewers curious enough to investigate how telly about people watching telly could possibly work. I don’t mind admitting that I, too, was one of those initial doubters who thought reality TV had reached the bottom of the nadir barrel with this self-reflexive format, but once I’d sampled the creative swearing of Stephen, the affectionate bickering of pensioners Leon and June, and the sozzled pantomime of Steph and Dom, I was hooked.
The audience grew exponentially thanks to evangelistic word-of-mouth. Social media helped; the householders have built substantial followings on Twitter, notably Steph and Dom with 214,000 followers and Scarlett Moffat with 199,000. They’ve all become stars without leaving the house.
Ratings rose from 2.6 million at the end of series two to 4.4 for series three. The most recent tipped 5 million, way out in front of comparable C4 hits such as The Island with Bear Grylls and One Born Every Minute, and on a par with BBC1’s bankers including Holby City and Pointless Celebrities. Where else do you get a whole hour of TV about people who like each other? Certainly not in drama or scripted reality shows or talent shows, which are built on conflict, tension and tears.
The Goggleboxers, whether families (the Malones, the Tappers, the Michaels, the Woerdenwebers), couples (Leon and June) or old friends (Sandy and Sandra, Bill and Josef, Jenny and Lee), choose to share a sofa.
It’s disarmingly simple and yet arduously demanding to make. Two remote cameras in each living room, one fixed, one roaming for close-ups of tears or looks of horror; one temporary control room set up in an adjoining room (teenager Josh’s bedroom at the Tappers; a van parked outside Lee and Jenny’s caravan); film each house for two evenings a week; start editing on Tuesday; final cut to C4 on Thursday; transmission on a Friday.
All participants say they enjoy their local fame. Sandra is almost militant about the fact that she uses the bus and takes selfies of herself at bus stops to prove it (“Don’t worry about it, babes, I’m normal”). When George Gilbey chose to do Celebrity Big Brother, his much-loved Clacton family were dropped because their very ordinariness was jeopardised. When Andy Michael stood for UKIP in Hastings & Rye in May’s general election, the family also had to be dropped. He didn’t win, and so they’re back on the box.
Cynics should know that the show is in no way “faked”. Their TV diet is prescribed for self-evident reasons of planning and continuity, and the producer/director might use talkback to stop one of the Goggleboxers nodding off (biggest culprits: Jonathan Tapper, who works unsociable hours as a chauffeur, and Leon, who’s 80), but none of it’s scripted and all of it’s real. I’ve watched telly with every household, and I can attest that they are just as witty, astute, silly and cutting when no cameras roll.
Other highlights of my trip included touching Jenny’s coveted “antique plate” in her caravan in Hull; joining the Tappers in a vast family takeaway feast in north London and discussing young Josh’s future plans until he protests, “This isn’t a careers interview!”; and fumbling around behind Giles and Mary’s television as I tried in vain to connect a neglected DVD player to what Giles charmingly still calls their “digibox”. Their mugs, unlike those belonging to naughty hairdressers Chris and Stephen don’t have wacky phrases on the side (“Drama Queen” and “It’s All Gone T*Ts Up!”).
And when I reached my final stop-off, the Michael family’s seaview home just outside Brighton, sage-like dad Andy commented, “Having seen 13 families in their natural habitat, you have an insight into British society in its multifarious colours.” Wise words, Andy. And after 1,924 miles I can confirm he is right.
Gogglebox returns to Channel 4 tonight (Friday 11th September) at 9.00pm
Do you have any questions for Gogglebox’s Mary and Giles? The Wiltshire couple and co-creators Tania Alexander and Stephen Lambert will be at the Radio Times Festival on Friday 25th September, discussing how such a simple format became a ratings smash and taking questions from the audience. For more details, click here.