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7 May 2024

Gavin & Stacey, the sitcom New Labour built

The show, which returns this Christmas, is the platonic ideal of life under Gordon Brown: heaven as a place where nothing ever happens, to a soundtrack of breezy landfill indie.

By Fergal Kinney

There’s a moment in the 2008 Christmas special of Gavin and Stacey when an elderly neighbour wakes up accidentally in the wrong house. “It’s Christmas 2008,” reminds the genial Uncle Bryn, bringing the confused neighbour back to Earth. “Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister.”

Last week on Radio 4’s Today programme, Nick Robinson interrupted coverage of Labour’s strong performance in the local elections with a more seismic update: a new Gavin and Stacey Christmas special had been confirmed.

Between 2007 and 2010, the BBC sitcom about a couple from, respectively, Essex and south Wales became the defining TV hit of the Brown years. John Prescott had a cameo appearance in the show, the Liberal Democrats campaigned about the early DVD release of the box set, and David Cameron – as leader of the opposition – publicly professed himself a fan. “I just love Smithy, he’s great,” gushed Cameron to GQ editor Dylan Jones in 2008, branding Stacey “very attractive” and quoting the show’s catchphrases “tidy” and “what’s occurring?”.

The last time that the show returned, in the weeks after the divisive 2019 general election, it attracted a unifying 18.49 million viewers and became the most watched non-sporting event of the 2010s. But what is occurring behind Gavin and Stacey’s enduring appeal?

Gavin and Stacey was a sleeper hit. First transmitted in May 2007, the show was the product of first-time writers James Corden and Ruth Jones, who had met as jobbing character actors on the ITV staple Fat Friends. Corden had appeared in a Mike Leigh film and an Alan Bennett play, where he was told by the Yorkshire playwright that “he was funny and should write down what he says”. Originally, Gavin and Stacey was pitched as a one-off play titled It’s My Day, but the BBC asked for more.

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Though the first series scored only modest ratings, Gavin and Stacey became a word-of-mouth success after BBC Three kept repeating the full series in one mouthful across quiet nights. There was not yet a word for this kind of binged telly consumption, but with its cliffhanger endings and comfort-food warmth the show anticipated the now ubiquitous streaming comedy-drama.

That comfort food element was important. British comedy had never been nastier than in the Noughties, where gross-out humour matched shocking cruelty in hits like Little Britain and Bo’ Selecta. Gavin and Stacey was an unusually affable slice of low-stakes life, with gags as broad as the multi-generational unit contained within the show. Ruth Jones’ grounding in Wales – her and Rob Brydon had attended the same Porthcowl secondary school – afforded the show a positive and easy play on Welsh identity.

In the 2020s, comedy-dramas like Such Brave Girls and Big Mood are drawn from trauma and personal devastation. Gavin and Stacey is not like this. Its three series are the alleged platonic ideal of life under New Labour: heaven as a place where nothing ever happens, to a soundtrack of breezy landfill indie hits from Razorlight, the Kooks and Paolo Nutini. Though it flirted with the risqué – quietly lifting the characters’ surnames from famous British serial killers – the show’s comedy was drawn from everyday observations about satnavs, Eastenders impressions and the shared cultural memory of songs like New Order’s rowdy football hit “World in Motion” or the Band Aid single.

In its casting, too, Gavin and Stacey drew on cultural memory. In 1977, 16 million viewers watched a single transmission of Mike Leigh’s teleplay Abigail’s Party, where Alison Steadman played the terrifying Essex housewife Beverley. A suburban grotesque, Beverley exemplified a type that Gordon Burn termed “the totalitarianism of the totally pleasant personality”. In casting Steadman as matriarch Pamela, Gavin and Stacey updated Beverley for the Blair years.

“She’s moved on from there,” explains Steadman of that lineage in Tim Burrows’ book The Invention of Essex, “they’re comfortable with where they’ve come from and who they are. And they’ve got a bit of money as well.” Burrows identified Pam and Mick’s home as representing “a country finally at ease with itself in the last years of New Labour as a place of gentle banter and simple – often alcohol-based – pleasures”.

For many, Pam and Mick speak for England. They live in Billericay. They have a large semi with immaculate grey-white furnishings. Mick owns a small business, meaning Pam doesn’t have to work. They love Nigella, love diet culture, love golf. They had an extension fitted, paid in cash of course. They send their Christmas cards in October. They dote on their adult son, who is finding getting on the housing ladder and rising through the white-collar ranks more difficult than they did. They leave politics at the door, but will join a demo against mobile phone masts if they’re so much as visible from their window. They’re good people, whose prejudices only come to the surface after so much white wine. Like everyone in Gavin and Stacey, they have little obvious cultural capital and are not highly educated. The joke is that they are so conformist that their sexual fantasies are of Charles and Camilla, as opposed to the earthier People’s Princess (“that hussy” Diana).

Things get interesting in the second series: Stacey moves into Pam and Mick’s home, and experiences sharp feelings of class displacement and alienation, even falling into a depression. Stacey’s family are more obviously working class and grounded in their community, where people are always buzzing in and out of their terraced home. Fortress Shipman is a sealed tomb, with its huge TV and private minibar.

In sociologist Dan Evans’ excellent 2023 polemic A Nation of Shopkeepers, he identifies the petty bourgeoisie in England as a specific and historic class with its own values, ideology and aesthetic, and this is Pam and Mick. They do not fit baggier definitions like working or middle class, and they decide elections. During last week’s local elections, Labour secured the unexpected takeover of Basildon Council from the Conservative Party.

During the Covid lockdown, I took the flimsiest of excuses to instantly rewatch the show. For the first time, I introduced my girlfriend – who was raised in Hungary – to a modern classic. She thought it said a lot about Britain’s internal parochialism that you could spin out three series of Romeo and Juliet from families who literally came from the same small island. She was right, but it stopped mattering: she was hooked.

Turn on BBC Three, and they’re still repeating Gavin and Stacey much of the time. Alan Bennett, writing in 2016, joked that he would be remembered after his passing only as a stepping stone “in the rise and rise of James Corden”. Last year, Sky viewers could watch a celebrity road trip with the actors behind Pam and Mick taking part in a challengingly dull travelogue from Billericay to Barry Island.

New Labour defined itself as being about culture, but what exactly was that culture? Britpop happened entirely on John Major’s grey-coloured watch. Grime, the only dynamite musical innovation, happened in opposition to an oppressive New Labour state that slapped it with police crackdowns and bans. Instead, the cultural beige of the New Labour years is the quite funny, quite compelling, more than a little bland world of Gavin and Stacey. And in 2024, those times will return – for an hour at least. Tidy.

[See also: Disney’s Shardlake series is tediously anachronistic]

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