How Channel 4's Gogglebox has kept us laughing for almost a decade and why it's become even more important in the pandemic
Footage of the most unexceptional normality has become our much-needed escapism, says Lydia Spencer-Elliott.
By Lydia Spencer-Elliott
It’s no grand hypothesis that the greatest pleasures in life are the simple ones: a glass of ice-cold water on a hot day, a piece of buttery toast in the morning – you name it. And eight years ago, on 7th March 2013, the TV producers at Channel 4 happened upon the audio-visual equivalent of bread and water in the form of Gogglebox.
Allegedly, the creator, Tania Alexander’s initial vision was a “mix of Harry Hill and The Royle Family” with real people, but there’s something much more fascinating about Britain’s households critiquing the week’s television that has gifted the programme its longevity – the show has successfully made a Friday night event of the squashed sofas of strangers.
The anticipation lies in the unbingeable nature of the format. Each episode is so current that to marathon watch would be like continuously streaming the 10’o’clock news from the wrong month. Instead, Gogglebox enjoys the glorious old-school excitement of waiting.
Invariably, it’s an anthology of the most discussible scenes from the past seven days. Whether breaking news, reality shows or high-production dramas, Gogglebox creates a patchwork of every shocking, tear-jerking or side-slapping moment to ensure its audience misses nothing that could be the basis for water cooler conversation.
But the best bits of the show have always been in the interim. Gogglebox cast members Leon and June – who the nation mourned like collective grandparents after their passing – bickered warmly with the familiarity of a couple still in love after 60 years.
Steph and Dom – the series’ poshest household with an unapologetic penchant for booze – argued over who was more hungover: “If you hadn’t been pestering me for sex all night I wouldn’t be, would I?” Steph bellowed as he poured another round of generous martinis.
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Boisterous friends from Brixton, Sandra and Sandi, screamed as the cameras rolled when they managed to accidentally electrocute themselves with a fly swatter.
Eight years later, every living room filled with happy chaos still acts as a key component to the addictive episodes. You find your own viewer response is heightened whenever the cast laughs, cries or yells.
Previously, the accepted line on the show’s appeal has been that we’re all massively self-absorbed. Like the Greek God Narcissus, we stare into our own reflection. And this ‘metawatching’ is, actually, embarrassingly unsurprising.
Two whole decades ago, the author and critic David Foster Wallace predicted exactly this would happen. “We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching,” he wrote.
And from the moment Kodaline’s Perfect World blasted over panning footage of terraced houses, mobile homes, bungalows and one 17-bedroom house in Kent, there was something decidedly familiar about it all—it felt, comforting, like coming home.
But the warm and companionable attributes prove the programme isn’t a solitary reflection at all—it’s an open window to human interaction. The cast create a shared experience using just two small remote-control cameras that unobtrusively perch in the periphery of their living rooms.
In lockdown, Gogglebox has unsurprisingly recorded its highest figures of all time with 6.5 million viewers. Elsewhere at Channel 4, The Great Celebrity Bake Off and Friday Night Dinner have enjoyed similar success.
Each show on the top performers list depicts social life, close proximity, family gatherings: things many people haven’t experienced first-hand in a year—footage of the most unexceptional normality has become our much-needed escapism.
A phenomenon of an anthropological study, the show has spawned insatiable public interest. Who pays for the cast’s takeaways? Why have they decorated their house like that? Where has this new family come from? Are some of the questions that spring to mind.
It’s won National Television Awards and BAFTAs. Cast members Scarlett Moffatt, Reverend Kate Bottley, and George Gilbey have all become celebrities in their own right.
At its core, Gogglebox is an equaliser. Regardless of age, income or education, anyone can laugh at The Malone’s rambunctious dog head-butting Tom as he clutches his nose in agony and yells “you kn*****d Dave!” at the unheeding rottweiler.
While other reality shows have made spectacles of their subject’s woes or weaknesses, here the playing field is levelled. With Gogglebox, everyone is in on the joke—and that’s what has kept us laughing for almost a decade.