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
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496