What a ridiculous idea. People watching telly watching people watching telly. How could that ever catch on?
And yet Gogglebox — where we view householders watching the same telly as us, beamed into our living rooms from theirs — is a smash. So much so that from September 22, we will see the first broadcast of Gogglebox Ireland — more of which later.
Of the entire reality TV genre, Gogglebox is the most meta yet, in terms of concept. Andy Warhol would have loved the idea, if not actually the content.
Two years and seven series in, how has it managed to remain so successful?
Two reasons. First, Gogglebox transcends the usually problematic brows — high, middle, low, and no-brow are sidestepped, by astute casting. There is something — and someone — for everyone.
Posher households and commoners alike are represented from the comfort of their home sofas.
It appeals to our inherent nosiness too, as it gives us licence to snoop inside the sitting rooms of others; what they eat and drink, what they are wearing, how they live.
Ordinarily, viewers who tend towards higher quality programming like arts documentaries or historical drama may be unlikely to watch, say, naked dating or people swallowing wombat testicles in the jungle, but by offering varied weekly snippets from the overall programming schedule, Gogglebox sidesteps ideas of trash versus quality.
Which, in the sprawling arena of modern television, is quite a feat.
Secondly, and more significantly, we are bound to identify with at least some of the Gogglebox viewers.
Not the viewers of Gogglebox at home — that would be you or I — but the variety of viewers cast by the series to be filmed viewing what we are viewing. Saying what we are thinking.
This probably sounds more complicated and confusing than it actually is — if you have never watched Gogglebox, this is how it works: In 2013, Channel 4 invited a variety of English and Welsh households to be filmed watching television, and to comment on what they were watching.
That’s it, in a nutshell.
The families and friends were chosen to reflect a realistic cross section of society, and their reactions to what they are watching are unscripted (unlike other reality shows set in, say, Essex or Chelsea).
This makes for spontaneous authentic reaction to what is being viewed, which is often hilarious, down to earth, sweary or all three. But still. How can watching people watching telly be genuinely compelling or interesting?
“I love it,” says my friend Kate, an art teacher who watches the show with her teenage sons — it’s the only programme they all enjoy watching as a family.
“It is extremely heartwarming and positive, thanks to kind editing. For people like me who don’t really like watching TV much but want to know what is going on in TV land, it’s perfect — I can watch one fun programme and feel well informed.
"It’s great to watch with my boys, because it leads to interesting chats. The editing is brilliant, showing different families and friends having the same opinion about situations.
"Another friend of mine says she likes it because she feels reassured that others feel the same as her.
“One week they were all watching a programme about caravanning. I couldn’t believe that it was Friday night and I was watching a programme about people watching a programme on caravanning, yet is was brilliant entertainment.
"You get to know the families — when new families are introduced, it takes a while to get used to them, but the more you watch it, the better it gets. It’s just a shame that a single-parent family isn’t represented.”
Narrated by comedians Craig Cash and the late Caroline Aherne (Ireland’s version will have Deirdre O’Kane and Roey Cowan), some of the Gogglebox households have become minor household names themselves — the posh couple, Steph and Dom; the flamboyant Brixton friends, Sandy and Sandra; the funny, thoughtful Siddiqui family; Chris and Steve, the Brighton hairdressers; the north London Tapper family.
These are not the only Gogglebox households — there are quite a few more — all reflecting the diversity within British society. Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, posh, common, gay, straight, old, young.
It is this diversity which make the programme interesting.
Variations of Gogglebox already exist in America, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Israel, Finland, Belgium, France, South Africa, and Spain. Chinese television has bought the rights to the programme, as has Ukraine.
In the UK, there is a spinoff, Gogglesprogs, which — as the name implies — involves the reactions of children watching telly.
And now it’s coming to Ireland. You’d imagine it would do very well here, given Irish loquacity and wit and fondness of shouting at the telly.
“The auditioning and casting has been going very well,” says the series producer Simon Proctor.
“We’ve been street casting, going to clubs and events in various centres around the country. And then we put a call out because we are trying to find a farming family and a sporty family.
"Initially much of the interest to be one of the households on the show came from Dublin, but we have been casting in Limerick and Cork and other places around the country to find a diverse range of people.
"In the UK version, the casting people found Sandy and Sandra in a nail bar and Steph and Dom at a bridge club.
“We will have a dozen households when we go on air. They’ll be watching what’s available in Ireland — the Irish and British channels.
"It’s entirely authentic and unscripted, and on a tight turnaround — only programmes from the previous 7 days are featured. Gogglebox is in lots of different countries now, all culturally very different from each other.”
The Irish viewers won’t be announced until the show goes to air on September 22.
I have a confession to make. Until this article, I’d never seen it. I’d dismissed the idea as no-brow fodder, peopled by morons for morons.
So how come it is so popular with so many people — including friends and acquaintances — who are definitely not morons? How does that work?
“Come around and watch us watching Celebrity Big Brother,” a friend suggests a bit sarcastically.
“We could simulate a live version of Gogglebox — you could take notes.”
Just watch it, say others.
As an introduction, I start with the Gogglebox Brexit special. It’s funny.
Far funnier than I could have imagined, because apart from the pithy commentary from the televised people on sofas, there was that feeling of identification; they are saying what I am thinking.
(Not all of them — one Gogglebox family, the Michaels from liberal progressive Brighton, were dropped from the show for the duration of Season 5, because the husband was running for election as a UKIP candidate — thus ensuing a conflict of interest — but returned for Season 6 when he failed to get elected.)
Gogglebox is on the same spectrum as The Great British Bake Off — relaxing, untaxing television, with a jolly feelgood factor. The Irish version, I imagine, will be a scream.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved