When good TV goes bad: becoming mainstream killed Gavin & Stacey

It was Gav’n’Stace that propelled James Corden to intergalactic domination but the when the show left BBC Three, so did its tight focus and cult status

Hard to imagine now he’s literally everywhere – hosting talkshows, panel games and awards bashes, looming down from billboards, doing the voiceover for your interior monologue – but a decade ago, we weren’t living in a James Corden-ruled dystopian state. The Bucks bantersaurus was pretty much unknown back then. Sure, he’d acted in Fat Friends and The History Boys to some acclaim, but he showed no sign of becoming the cultural equivalent of chlamydia, Brexit or ads for Graze boxes.

It was Gav’n’Stace that propelled Corden to intergalactic domination. Even though he was neither Gav nor Stace. Co-created with Ruth Jones, the Anglo-Welsh sitcom’s secret was that it was never really about the titular twosome. Sure, they gave the story its Billericay-meets-Barry premise but they were also smugly dull in that way loved-up couples can be. They were ITV material, not Bafta-winning BBC gold standard.

Instead, it was scene-stealers such as sarky goth Nessa (Jones), ultra-lad Smithy (Corden) and tragicomic Uncle Bryn (Rob Brydon) who turned the series into a 00s phenomenon. And any show that can casually reel off Alison Steadman, Sheridan Smith and Julia Davis among its supporting cast has got to be something special.

Tears of a crown... Corden as Smithy.
Tears of a crown... Corden as Smithy. Photograph: Baby cow

And for a couple of series back there, Gavin & Stacey was very special. As well as its stellar cast and cute set-up, it was gorgeously written: well-observed and instantly charming. It blended the beige romance of Tim and Dawn from The Office with The Royle Family’s domestic warmth and the romcom twists of a Richard Curtis flick.

It teemed with loving details. The serial killer surnames (Shipman, West and Sutcliffe). How Nessa hinted at a dark past of sexual acrobatics with celebrities. The bantz of the Essex boys, with their catchphrases, curries and greeting of “Gav-lar!” “Smithster!” before breaking into a robo-dance. The nicknames of their posse: Dirtbox, Deano, Fingers, Jesus, Swede and, of course, Chinese Alan (“Someone order a Chinese?”).

Over two series, Gavin & Stacey rose from word-of-mouth BBC Three hit to primetime BBC One. Ratings grew from a humble 543k to a hefty 10.25m. Sadly, it was during the third and final run that G&S J’ed the S.

The debut series barrelled along with the momentum of a burgeoning romance, from first date to wedding. The second saw Stacey move to Essex, marital strife and Nessa having Smithy’s baby. The third repeated itself: Gav moved to Wales this time, there was another wedding (Nessa to Dave Coaches), another pregnancy (Stacey’s). It was still very good, just not great any more. Wider success meant the show lost its tight focus. There were charity singles, Smithy’s Sport Relief sketches, crowbarred-in cameos from Noel Hear’Say and John Prescott. It worked better as cult gem than mainstream juggernaut.

Jones and Corden have wisely resisted all temptation to revive it. While his three co-stars – Jones, Joanna Page and Mat Horne – settled into low-key careers, Corden went on to transatlantic ubiquity. Not being funny but: what’s occurring?

Contributor

Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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