Gogglebox: Lockdown’s real hero

There’s a moment in the latest episode of Channel 4’s ‘Gogglebox’ that for me, sums up its enduring appeal. Clone-faced siblings Pete and Sophie Sandiford are engrossed, staring at the telly, mugs of tea perched on the table opposite. They are watching a preposterous looking American drama about the blonde girl from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ who, tired of being surrounded by insufferable, patently unfunny nerds, takes up a new career as a flight attendant. Naturally, within minutes, she’s being attended to in the sardine-box confines of the in-flight crapper.

Quickfire banter about plane-based sexual capers unfolds between brother and sister; the rat-tat-tat entirely natural, the desire to outdo, to make the other laugh, palpable. Then, with a beat, Pete says, with dry, Northern inflection — “She’ll be taking it up the business class”. They both laugh, the kind of genuine, head-back, completely-lost in-it guffaw that alights following the tiniest of sparks. Electrical joy transmitted freely between those on the same wavelength. We, the viewer, laugh too, feeling like we know these people on our screens and that they are like us. Like our siblings, our friends and our loved ones.

And in a time where contact with all of those closest to us has been at best highly compromised but at worst, entirely taken away, it is no surprise Gogglebox has become one of the British Isles’ most popular TV shows. Now, more than ever, we need this. Human connection, the wavelength now virtual, but never more craved.

I didn’t get it though. Not for a long time.

There’s an ongoing joke between me and an old friend. Our tastes are broadly aligned but when there is a discrepancy, we fully commit to exaggerating the differences between our stances. It tends to be on account of his love for bone-headed action flicks and my appreciation for pretentious indie films about death. You know the ones he likes. They’re called things like ‘Knucklefists IV’; ‘Rise of the Ninja Bastards’ or ‘Fast & the Furious 9: The Revenge of Paul Walker’s Ghost’. Whereas, my preferred cinema choices don’t even have titles. They’re just sounds like a humming bird reciting Keats.

Anyway, we fell into our usual roles for comedic effect the other day. I was besmirching his love for the new Godzilla film — you’ll doubtless have seen it. It’s the one where the Lizard Giant violently bums Kong and everyone freaks out because of the Kongzilla babies running amok in NYC! I’ve seen it too. You don’t need to tell me.

“Oh, of course. I forget you’ll be busy watching a Somalian art -house feature this weekend won’t you? That’s far more to your tastes”, he responded, cuttingly.

As with all close to the bone humour, the comedy lies within the truth it shines a light on. There is a snobbery about my tastes. I am discerning and I am too quick to critique before I watch things, sometimes. There’s also the issue of time, that most precious of commodities. Once tiny people emerged in my house like shrieking bombs of incessant need, I had to become more selective. The windows of time have been half-closed for 8 years now. It has meant that, for example, instead of committing to Bruce Willis’ latest — “Die Harderer”, I’d far prefer to spend my allotted time scrolling through Netflix before settling on going to bed an hour later having watched nothing whatsoever. You see? Selective.

Gogglebox has been around since March 2013 and has been syndicated in almost 20 countries worldwide. I became a Father in March 2013 and am on a watch-list in 4 continents. The parallels go on.

It was around this time a different friend recommended the show. I was still in a state of early-onset PTSD…I mean, still glowing with the warming wonders of parenthood, but he was adamant this would be the perfect easy watch. For whatever reason, I never fully committed. Cookery shows like Barefoot Contessa and The Pioneer Woman were my go-to. Watching American women blasphemously discuss eggplants, cilantro, arugula, zucchini and popsicles was, apparently, my bleary-eyed jam.

My concerns over Gogglebox were namely its distinctly basic premise: People sitting down to watch the telly and commenting on it. It felt so…banal. So trivial. Sitting down watching telly where people are sitting down watching the telly. This was either Idiocracy in full swing or Charlie Kaufman had impregnated my brain.

As it turns out, is is neither. It is a simple, gentle and welcoming hour of weekly television. Originally narrated by Caroline Aherne and now, Craig Cash, these are deliberate choices. The feel is very much akin to the timeless brilliance of The Royle Family. A window into the worlds of distinctly British characters: Dry, droll, witty, lacerating, warm, affectionate and full of heart. Biscuits and a cuppa. Eye-rolls and arm-nudges. Arched brows and scathing evisceration of those on screen; barbed comments, funny and quick-witted, thrown at the screen like paint on canvas.

My wife has been a big fan for years and so, for whatever reason, I gave it a go during the original lockdown. I have not been disappointed since. It is, ostensibly, a virtual hug and a natter with your mates. In ways, it feels less disconnecting than the agonies of the average Zoom call. It is passive and bereft of the demands of the facsimile interactions we are all now sadly accustomed to. Its message is simple: Sit with us, have a brew and a laugh. And sometimes, maybe a little cry too.

Like the very best television, it is the characters we cling to. We see ourselves in some. We wish we could befriend others. The idiosyncratic quirk and hilarity of Giles & Mary’s relationship; Mary & Marina’s wholesome and very cute friendship; the in-sync and ever-funny siblings of Ellie & Izi or Pete & Sophie. Best-friends Jenny & Lee. Drier than desert bones, sat in a caravan in Hull, pouring buckets of molten-hot scorn on Matt Hancock or taking notes to make sense of Line of Duty.

This is us. This is our Britain. And it is so utterly at odds with what we see elsewhere. Whether that’s on our other, smaller screens. The ones tethered to us, the ones that have caused our necks to creek and our thumbs to have reached the next stage of evolution. The screaming banshee wail of the Facebook void; the place where opinions are shat out, loudly and proudly, where a vacuum of irascible hate is left to mutate into your racist Uncle Nigel with the flags in his bio.

It rallies against the big screen too. Against the impossible pursuit of perfection that make women feel shit about themselves; against the unattainable and ridiculously beautiful people playing high school geeks and losers. The people we watch are on our side. They’re normal and real and relatable.

In a world of phonies, of disconnected celebrity, grifters masking as political commentators, of failing institutions and a perennial torrent of 24/7 terrible, soul-in-a-vice levels of gloom…don’t we need something real. Something pure.

There are a hundred sitcoms that could be written about each and every character on the show. But they needn’t be written. The magic is already captured for us.

In an uncertain, ever more frightening world, give me easy, welcoming comfort. There’s no better company to be with during a pandemic. You heard that right from the snob’s mouth.

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