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
IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496