Hard to recall a time when the word “gogglebox” was just quaint slang for a television set, isn’t it? Today the Channel 4 show in which selected families react to a string of TV programmes is a staple of the broadcasting scene. Even people who don’t own a “gogglebox” know about it, possibly because they enjoy snorting derisively at the concept.
On Sunday evening, the nine-year-old show is yet again in contention for a TV Bafta at the annual awards ceremony in London. It is nominated as best “reality and constructed factual programme”, a prosaic category that belies the enduring magic of the show. In a good week, Gogglebox could also probably give the nominees in the comedy, entertainment and current affairs shortlists a run for their money.
Lee Riley, one of the show’s most popular contributors, with his best friend Jenny Newby, will be there on the night with his fingers crossed. He knows that the show has broadened his knowledge of culture and news, and believes it has done the same for regular viewers. “Loads of my friends say they have binge-watched a whole series or drama because they saw it on Gogglebox,” he told the Observer. “It’s also good for keeping up with what’s going on in the world; I watch a lot more news than I used to now, as well, and am really up on politics.”
Peter Bazalgette, the man who brought Big Brother to the screen, makes his admiration for the show clear. He salutes it “as the most brilliant vox pop” due to its clever casting, adding “even its banalities are profound”.
“It’s intoxicating. Gogglebox puts its finger on the pulse of the British public like no other programme,” he said. “It’s the Britain we all want to live in; a country engaged and at ease with itself.”
Bazalgette, now non-executive chair of ITV, does concede, however, that the show represents perhaps a nostalgic picture of a nation where everyone still watches the same shows. But, he counters, there are still some truly unifying programmes, such as Strictly Come Dancing, or Bake Off, or, indeed, Gogglebox.
The Baftas have a special prize for the most memorable, or “must-see”, television moment of the year, which is voted on by the public. Rivals for the honour this time include a terrifying scene from the Korean series Squid Game, presenters Ant and Dec satirising the prime minister, and the dance sequence in which Rose Ayling-Ellis demonstrated her experience of deafness to the audience of Strictly. But the joy of Gogglebox, of course, is that it gives viewers a chance to catch up on all such significant televised moments, with the added piquancy of watching others responding to them. It functions like a digest of topical highlights, drawn from both showbiz and politics. “It is entertaining, but also a roundup of the week,” as Riley sees it.
As the world closed in on our own living rooms two years ago, with the dawn of the pandemic, the companionship offered by the Gogglebox participants was even more necessary. Alternately stoic and sceptical, their banter mirrored the national mood.
“It helped people getting through the lockdowns. It was like a shared experience and we were going through it together, hopefully making people feel they are not alone and giving them a laugh on a Friday night,” said Riley, who agreed to move in with Newby for the duration, while extra cameras were set up inside Goggleboxers’ homes to keep the show on air. It paid off. Channel 4 reported that April 2020 broke its audience share record.
And Britain’s other programme-makers took note. The shows that made headway during the lockdown era were those that took inclusivity as their cue. Channel 4 invited viewers to make art with Grayson Perry, while comedian Romesh Ranganathan zoomed in on his viewers for impromptu chats in BBC Two’s The Ranganation, also up for a Bafta.
One of Gogglebox’s key progenitors, Tania Alexander, has wryly recalled how people laughed at the original idea for the show. Channel 4 was accused of running out of ideas. But a ludicrous premise has never stopped a show from becoming a hit. Baking cakes competitively, or making ex-politicians dance, were both surely once outliers. The infamous fictional Alan Partridge lunch in which he suggests both Monkey Tennis and Inner-city Sumo to a TV boss might, in real life, have led to a popular franchise or two.
The idea for Gogglebox was not quite so far fetched, Bazalgette argues. “It’s extremely simple. It was staring everyone in the face, because advertisers had been filming people watching television at home for years as research.” The “genius” of producer Stephen Lambert, in Bazalgette’s view, was to recognise how compelling it might be.
The second source of inspiration was the hit BBC comedy The Royle Family, which revolved around family television viewing. “Stephen realised a sitcom could be turned into a reality format,” said Bazalgette.
The use of, first, the late Caroline Aherne and then, from 2016, Craig Cash as the Gogglebox narrator was a nod to this parentage. Both had been stars of The Royle Family. But not everyone was convinced the new show was coming from a good place. The critic AA Gill detected an unpleasant note of condescension in the handling of “normal people” emanating, he suspected, from the “Tristrams” of the media world.
“There’s a very questionable notion of the audience being left to entertain itself. Gogglebox is a parody of The Royle Family, but The Royle Family was brilliantly shot and written,” the late critic once said. “The sum total of us watching people who are a bit odd, or clashes of class or culture, isn’t really that enriching or empathetic.”
The cultural commentator Mark Lawson, a fan of the show, sees Bazalgette’s own prizewinning baby Big Brother as a likely influence, as well as George Orwell’s original omnipresent observation state in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “On a distant branch of the TV family tree, Gogglebox could also be seen as an extension of Big Brother, building on to the franchise the TV lounge that the housemates [in that show] were denied,” he said.
Alexander, who eventually left the Gogglebox team in November 2020, always looked for reluctant participants. She preferred to persuade people rather than use anyone really keen. And Ian Dunkley, the show’s commissioning editor, says it still works best that way. “Contributors are explicitly cast because they don’t want to achieve fame or become TV personalities outside of the show,” he said on Friday, in a brief break from the edit of the next episode of series 19.
“Before anyone appears on the show, they go through a rigorous process that ensures they’re properly prepared for what’s to come,” Dunkley said. “It’s a process that doesn’t end when cast members leave the show: aftercare is also a big priority for us.”
But the programme inevitably involves the public in innocent private lives. Ellie Warner from Leeds, who appears on the show with her sister Izzi, has been absent from the show this year as she helps her boyfriend, Nat Eddleston, recover from a serious road accident that made national news.
And Gogglebox has made TV stars, of course, such as the sassy Scarlett Moffatt. More recently it has also invited a flock of celebrities to take part on a regularly basis, exposing them to domestic scrutiny.
It gives audiences what Dunkley describes as a “unique” peek at “a side to celebrity we don’t normally see”. The actor Denise van Outen’s recent breakup with her fiance, Eddie Boxshall, cannot have been made any easier by the fact so many Gogglebox viewers, accustomed to watching telly with the couple, had strong opinions.
Dunkley is proud of its range of voices and views, he says, adding: “There are very few shows on television that feature such a diverse cast of contributors in terms of race, region, class, politics, age and disability – a true plurality of voices.” Yet there is also a sense that the Goggleboxers speak for the nation. Riley testifies that the public usually tell him they agree with his opinion: “Or they laugh along with us, especially if Jenny’s got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe there’s a few politicians that might not like what we’ve said, though.”
Last week brought news of a special edition of Celebrity Gogglebox to mark 50 years since the first Pride march in Britain. It will feature DJ Nick Grimshaw and presenter Rylan Clark alongside other British LGBTQ+ personalities.
All very warm and cosy-sounding, but the show can still shock and offend. More than 100 viewers complained to Ofcom about a recent episode featuring a clip from Roar, the new drama based on the short stories of Cecelia Ahern.
The scene that upset viewers depicted “bestiality”, or at least implied oral sex, between a duck and a young woman: a format that even Alan Partridge might think twice about pitching.
• This article was amended on 8 May 2022 to clarify that Tania Alexander was the co-creator of Gogglebox, rather than its sole originator as we may have implied in an earlier version.