With the seventh season of the Channel 4 returning this week, it's impossible to not be charmed by the everyday details
It says a lot about how far we have come in the century since 1916 that viewers on this side of the Irish Sea can take so steadfastly to our hearts the everyday Brits sitting on their couches watching the telly. If that’s a step too far, allow me to put it another way; Gogglebox is a show so thoroughly enjoyable that somehow the experience of watching people watching TV can be so charming, you aren’t even put off at the frequent sight of the two gay hairdressers’ haggard heels as they routinely bare their souls and soles to millions of viewers nitpicking what went wrong with an X Factor contestant’s performance.
Set to return to Channel 4 tomorrow night, the show raises the act of tuning into the telly to something immediately recognisable – and soulfully nourishing to anyone raised in the warm glow of cathode rays, surrounded by their family members reacting to the action on screen. These are no mere couch potatoes, they are couch potatoes dauphinoise, slicing through the programmes of the last seven days with discerning wit, blistering disinterest, or moving tears, elevating the shows they’re discussing, making them appear better than they actually are.
Television has long touted as the ruination of the family, driving the unit apart into scattered pieces, fractioning the whole into different rooms of the house. Instead, Gogglebox shows us what we have long known – the idiot box is part of the family. And when we come together to watch it, to observe together, to get caught up in the emotional games, the ebb and flow of life, the spectacle of television becomes something more. It becomes theatre.
Look, I know it’s still just a silly TV show about people watching TV shows, but after six seasons, the geographically and socio-economically diverse people who make up the Gogglebox pundits are so well known to me, the fly on the wall in their lives, that they mean something to me. When Leon, now 81, turns to June in the living room of their Liverpool semi-d, to tell her how he could not live without her, still squabbling after 60 years of marital diss, it’s just as affecting as the old couple in Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s French drama Amour, if not more so – it is, after all, real. Sort of.
Peering into someone else’s living room on a regular basis is an incredibly personal – and personable – experience. After a few weeks of noticing the obvious quirks of their lifestyles (the Malones’ one mangy-looking Rottweiler snoozing on the couch amid the sea of four – or is it five – other purebreds, the giant ashen boobs perched inexplicably behind the two kinda boring guys, when Silent Jay just disappeared), other minute details start to stand out; you notice when Leon and June change the framed photograph on the table between them. Or when one of the Sidiqquis gets a haircut. You start to wonder why the Woerdenwebers have two copies of the same Harry Potter book side-by-side on their book shelf.
Retired teachers June and Leon Bernicoff, whose happy marriage is built on a foundation of bickering [Channel 4]
Do things get hammed up for the cameras sometimes? Of course, this is television, after all. But as the British TV critic Grace Dent says, Gogglebox smacks of the first series of Big Brother, when people like Anna Nolan and Nasty Nick were “in the main reserved, unaffected and compellingly natural.” Six seasons into Gogglebox, the performers have become more animated, but it’s the quiet moments between TV shows, when they’re just talking about themselves and their lives, that make for the most soothing scenes. By the sixth season of Big Brother, we Makosi claiming she got pregnant in the hot tub and Kinga getting intimate with a wine bottle.
Gogglebox is live Tweeting without Twitter, only more satisfying – for a show watched by 5m people, it’s not about reaching the widest audience, rather the easy reach to the person beside you on the couch.
TV3 is set to bring the format to Irish screens later in the year. Often the plantation of British television on Irish screens doesn’t work. But this could. With the right mix of Irish people from all over the island tuning in and tearing apart the Roses in The Rose of Tralee, sighing as Pat Kenny mansplains to Collette Fitzpatrick how to moderate a leaders debate, or absentmindedly humming along with the theme tune to Reeling in the Years, it could well make for as compelling viewing as the Channel 4 one.
Every Thursday, James talks Sean Moncrieff through what's making waves on the small screen this week. You can listen back to TV on the Radio below: