Formats Unpacked: Gogglebox
How watching people watching TV became one of our most loved formats
Thanks for taking the time to join us. This week’s format is a real favourite of ours and probably yours too. It’s been unpacked by Carol Nahra.
Carol is a documentary journalist, programmer, and lecturer based in London. She’s written extensively about the UK documentary landscape for industry publications and if you love docs you must check out her Docs on Screens blog.
Carol also hosts the podcast DocHouse Conversations, is the residential trainer for the Grierson Doclab, and is the UK Consultant for Sheffield DocFest. She’s incredibly busy so we are massively grateful for her taking the time to unpack the wonderful Gogglebox.
Over to Carol…
What’s it called?
Gogglebox (TV show)
What’s the Format?
It’s a simple one: A cross-section of friends and families around the UK sit on their respective sofas and watch a selection of programmes from TV that week. And comment on them. Snacks and pets are optional. The sections are stitched together by a comedic sounding narrator. That’s pretty much it.
What’s the Magic that Makes it Special?
Lots, actually. Casting is at the heart of the alchemy. The cast is a carefully selected cross-section of British society with a colourful range of accents and combinations - from the two grannies in their armchairs to the always funny Siddiquis from Derby, to “best friends” Lee and Jenny, to hairdresser Stephen from Brighton and his husband Daniel, to the Ven family from South London. With a carefully curated blend of age, class, ethnicity, occupation, and geography, there’s seemingly someone for everyone. Their front rooms - and the outside of their houses, including their bins - are inviting signposts that it’s time to settle in with old friends. There are often tantalising snacks on display - particularly at the Malone house, although they never seem to be touched.
The show is what’s called in the industry a “mini-rig” - consisting of cameras which are remotely operated. This is a miniature version of a larger and very prevalent Channel 4 style of programming known as the fixed rig. The technology was first used for the enormously successful run of Big Brother on Channel 4. Twelve years ago, the broadcaster began using it to explore other spaces, from single families to A&E Departments, maternity wards and police stations. The genre also allows explorations of smaller spaces, from chicken restaurants to gun shops to First Dates.
The magic of the rigs, both big and small, are that they allow for more natural behaviour, without the intrusive presence of a cameraperson. (Of course the behaviour of the Goggleboxers isn’t completely natural - phones are seldom on display, as the contributors give the TV their full attention.) Technology does not yet allow the crew to go very far - they are normally tethered off camera close by. For Gogglebox, that means the kitchen, or in times of COVID, a van parked on the street.
Another key ingredient is the heavy lashes of relatability on display here. As we at home react to the clips, so too do the Goggleboxers. And their often similar reactions, edited together, bring us together to a virtual water cooler. The fact that the shows are turned around so quickly, so that in its Friday broadcast you are watching programmes from the very same week, contributes to this sense of community. It also adds to the intense pressures on production, as evidenced by a recent report in the Guardian, and the departure of longtime series head Tania Alexander.
With a slew of industry awards under its belt as it enters its 17 series, Gogglebox is the relatively rare example of a popular series that is loved by critics and the public alike. Even the New Yorker has weighed in on its popularity, noting that “Its humor, which is dry and subtle and, like oatcakes or Pimm’s, seems peculiarly British.” The format has also been successful selling internationally - production company Studio Lambert has sold to more than 30 territories. For those working in the industry here, it’s a chance to see in full technicolour how the nation is responding to their work, like a streamlined film of Twitter responses. It’s a reminder to all that audience engagement has sure come a long way from letters in the post. The format is particularly popular on social media, and many of the contributors, such as sisters Ellie and Izzi Warner having substantial followers. Of course the pull of celebrity has led plenty of Goggleboxers down the garden path away from the front room, starting with tippler hotel owners Steph and Dom Parker, who left the programme to appear in a series of programmes, before recently having to put their hotel on the market.
For years I have kicked off the semester teaching documentary with a top notch Gogglebox clip - watching Educating Yorkshire student Musharaf overcome his stammer. It’s full of memorable moments, including when teenager Amy Tapper explodes with excitement out of her corner couch position when Musharaf chooses the same poem to practice that she did in school that day. The clip is also a chance to see the late great Leon, a Gogglebox favourite with his wife June, both sadly no longer with us. My class of American students always respond well to the range of Brits on display - even if the accents sometimes defeat them.
The casting for Gogglebox really is outstanding. Casting is always such a huge and difficult part of shows like this and I can’t think of another reality show whereby I like the entire cast. Every one of them. The bond that we’ve developed with this group of people is so strong that just seeing former cast members Leon and June again in the clip above is almost as moving as seeing Musharaf speaking at the leaver’s assembly.
Thank you all for reading. If you’d like to unpack a favourite format get in touch. If you’ve enjoyed this please share it with something you might think will enjoy it too.
See you all next week.