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
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.