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
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear