Why Channel 4's Gogglebox is the best thing on television

It reminds me that TV executives can get things right, which is bloody annoying.

It was a bored evening when I was prodded by my Twitter feed to try Gogglebox, a programme with a daft premise I’d been sneering at for weeks. Real people sat on their sofas reacting to TV programmes? Oh please, I’ve got Twitter for that. We’re watching them on TV watching things on TV? Beyond being neat, it seemed there wouldn’t be much in that to engage a jaded cynic with half an eye on funnier, cleverer commentators. It’s vox pop, I thought, and I hate vox pop, they add absolutely no dimension, pointless questions asked of the kind of people who would ring a quiz line just to say ‘don’t know’. What did you see of the incident, random passer by? ‘Nothing, but I hear it was dreadful.’ What do you think of child-murderers, insightless stranger with no relevance? “They should put them in prison and throw away the key’. Thanks, now it’s back to Kay in the studio.

Then I watched it, and now I can confidently state with all the experience of someone who has loathed a lot of comedy over the years, that Gogglebox is the funniest thing currently on TV. There’s very little on that makes me proper laugh out loud, since the halcyon days of TV Burp at its finest. It does a similar thing, I suppose, with Harry Hill replaced by a variety of ordinary people – couples, families, friends – except no writers, no punchlines. People don’t need them; they are funny, man. One couple - I think it was Stephen and Chris - made me really cackle as they discussed a documentary. ‘Hitler was born with all this teeth’ said one. ‘The dirty evil bastard’ said the other, deadpan. It doesn’t look anything, written cold like that, things rarely do. You have to be there.

If I came for funny, I stayed for something else. Of course there’s more. There’s family dynamics, annoying teens, debate; there’s drinking, body language and dreadful art - I can’t focus on what one couple say because of the terrible breast painting hovering behind them, a tit on each shoulder. There’s the nation’s obsessions reflected. I’m thinking of one young man, trying to hush his mum at the start of The Day of the Doctor. ‘Don’t say one word’ he warned. ‘But what’s the …’ she started. ‘NOoooooo’ he howled, and we all understood. We’ve all been there, on both sides of that sofa.

Then there’s Leon and June. If one couple sum up the joy of Gogglebox for me, it’s Leon and June. A Liverpudlian couple in their 70s, they were watching "Countdown", doing what all right minded people do, trying to get a better word than the contestants. Leon got piss, and June got passion. Piss! said Leon, repeatedly, pleased with himself. Passion, said June, with quiet confidence, not rising to it. Piss and passion. In just that, everything. The stuff that drama aspires to: revealing, comedic, familiar, unpretentious. It was glorious. And June got the (imaginary) points.

As well as reminding me of TV Burp, it takes me back to the first two series of Big Brother. It has the same sociological feel, that almost-buzz when something interesting about who we are and where we’re at, is being revealed. We can all find someone in the ‘cast’ to reflect ourselves, to favour, to sometimes laugh at - but not cruelly. It has the affection of ‘Kids Say the Funniest Things’, this sofa-bound slice of life. And these references remind me that while it feels new, it’s really not, because nothing is.

It reminds me too that TV executives can get things right, which is bloody annoying. It’s much easier to deride them and my god they’ve practically forced the ammunition into our hands. Nobody sets out to make bad programmes, but as a quick for instance, the manipulative cynicism that pervades X Factor when people with mental health issues are carefully selected to go on screen goes some way to explain our distrust. This time, I’m asking ‘who commissioned this?’ in a very different tone, with respect. Like the editors who turned down J K Rowling, I suspect I may have looked at this on paper and failed to see the spark.

The one clanging note is the voiceover. It’s obvious what they were aiming for – ‘let’s have something quirky that can provide another layer.’ But Craig Cash is no Daves Lamb or Quantick. His mock-sincere drawl is the only off-note in the show and it’s banal to the point of grating.

Producers will soon doubtless be angling to get their programmes ‘reviewed’ on Gogglebox, which I hope it will resist. And it will certainly create ‘stars’ – it’s how TV operates, eating itself. I shan’t blame Leon and June for bringing out a range of jigsaws, I may even buy one. And in a couple of years, when Steph and Dom are holding hands across their hammocks on I’m a Celeb, I’ll only have myself to blame.

Until then, make the most of its strange power. They watched Children in Need one week, something I had studiously avoided (it’s a good way to get a quick overview of what’s on, incidentally) for reasons. The cast were crying, as a particularly moving section of film moved to its finale. And I felt a tear roll down my face. I was crying watching a TV show of people crying watching a TV show I hate. They’ve got to be doing something right.

Jenny Landreth is on Twitter @jennylandreth

Leon and June from Gogglebox. Photo: Channel 4
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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle