There's nothing like Gogglebox. No other TV show – no other cultural artefact, in fact – reflects British contemporary life in quite the same way. The simplicity of the format is what makes it so irresistible: families from across the country, each selected for their rapid, idiosyncratic wit, are filmed at home giving their opinions on the week's TV, whether that's current affairs on the news, a much talked-about drama or The X Factor final.
Conceived by Studio Lambert Creative Director Tim Harcourt, the show was pitched to Channel 4 in 2012 and developed by producer – and Studio Lambert Director of Factual Entertainment – Tania Alexander. Drawing on the aesthetics of The Royle Family, and the humour of Harry Hill's TV Burp, an intense casting process ensued, and – as I'm sure you'll remember – as soon as it came out, in 2013, the show was an immediate hit.
I spoke to Tania about Gogglebox’s uniqueness and success, and asked a question that has been bugging me for about six years now: how the hell do they film it?
VICE: Hi, Tania. Tell me about the genesis of 'Gogglebox'.
Tania Alexander: We wondered, 'What would it be like in British homes all around the country if they were all watching a TV event, whether it was the news or a royal wedding? What would all the conversations be like? What would different people be saying?'
I loved The Royle Family and I imagined Gogglebox visually to look exactly like that but it’s not similar, in that The Royle Family sees the family’s lives played out in front of the telly as opposed to them commenting on it – but definitely that family in front of the box, that look, that wide shot with them all on the sofa in their own front room. Visually, it was immediately clear to me.
I also absolutely loved Harry Hill’s TV Burp as the tone of humour was near perfect for what we wanted to do with Gogglebox. I thought if you combined the look of The Royle Family with the tone of TV Burp and threw in real people – with their own lines, cast because they are naturally very funny and ideally without even realising it – we’d be onto a winner.
Can you tell me a bit about the casting process?
First and foremost, we didn’t want people who wanted to be on telly. I wanted to have to persuade people to do it, because people who want to be on telly tend to try too hard. I sent casting teams around the UK and we went into hairdressers and shops on high streets, and hung out in markets. There wasn’t any game plan, I just wanted teams on the ground, looking for interesting people to take part.
We found Leon in a bridge club in Liverpool. I thought, “Aren’t people who play bridge quite posh? Why don’t we go to some bridge clubs in Liverpool? I know lots of well-to-do elderly folk play bridge.” And that’s exactly where we found Leon. Two rather attractive, blonde assistant producers walked in there, and Leon looked at them and typically said, “Whatever you’re selling, I’ll buy it!” June wasn’t convinced though, and I had to personally get on the phone with her the night before filming and say, “Please do it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it next week.” And she never looked back.
I wasn’t interested in personal backstories, I just needed to be convinced that the people we cast would be able to deliver in the moment, on the day – with a fast turnaround show there is no going back, so I needed that security and I wanted the diversity of Britain represented.
How did you guarantee that the people you cast would be able to perform on the show?
We did strange silent auditions! And what I mean by that is: if we liked someone, we’d go to their house and film them commenting on images held up in front of them by the team, of anything from Simon Cowell to the Queen. We wouldn’t speak or ask questions, we’d just hold up different images on A4 cards and wait for them to react. Doing this allowed us to see how quickly they could react, how fast they could formulate an opinion and how insightful that opinion was. Plus, it gave us a good idea as to the level and type of humour they had, and how left-of-centre their thought processes were on any subject.
In season one, I think we had ten households. We changed it up in season two with eight from the original series, and we added Linda, Pete and George from Essex, and the Woerdenwebers from the Wirral with Silent Jay. Now we’ve got 20 households. Nowadays it’s much harder to break new cast – our old cast are real seasoned pros and it’s difficult to compete with them. New cast have to first get past our rigorous casting process and a final sign off from me, and then be good enough to compete on the day with the much-loved veterans. Gogglebox viewers are a tough crowd and highly critical of new families. It’s like when they introduce a new family into Eastenders or Corrie. You hate them for ages, then they get a good storyline and you stop noticing they’re new. It has a lot to do with familiarity. Everyone loved Scarlett Moffatt on Gogglebox, and rightly so, but as with all our new families, initially she and the family took a while to land. The Moffats joined in season three and didn’t feature loads but suddenly in season five, they were all over the show. They found their groove, and everything was landing perfectly. Scarlett took off and was brilliant. I would say, it takes a good two seasons for a new household to settle in.
Gogglebox is one of the best ways its fans have to tap into the zeitgeist. What do you think about its cultural impact?
I hear all the time that ‘they’ watch it in Whitehall. Apparently in Oxford, there’s sociology sessions based on it, which I find hilarious. The topicality of it makes it continually relevant, and it represents a slice of Britain.
Now, to some practical questions. Firstly, are the families given a DVD of TV shows, or do they just watch what’s on TV that night?
No, we couldn’t do that because of the length of time it would take to film shows in real time. The cast sometimes watch shows in advance, sometimes live, and sometimes after they have transmitted. We try to include a live show, a couple of news stories, an entertainment show and a documentary or two. We’ll look at a show like Killing Eve for example, and we’ll do a cutdown. We’ll watch the episode in full ourselves, and then we will make a narrative cutdown for the field.
We film about five or six things a night, so something that’s an hour long will probably cut down to about 25 minutes. We structurally build it so the cast understand what’s going on, but in my mind, I’ve already identified the scene that I think they will respond to best because I’ve cut so many episodes now, one tends to know what works. Politics works well for us, as it provokes plenty of opinion and humour.
My second practical question is: I know you say you were inspired by this Royle Family set-up, I’d love to know on a practical level, how on earth is the show filmed?
I was clear on how I wanted Gogglebox to look from the off. I wanted a single frame that, once agreed and signed off, never moved. Mary and Giles’ room, for example was a perfect frame. I loved that room as soon as I saw it. Weirdly though, Giles’ chair originally was behind Mary’s, which wouldn’t work for TV as it was like they were watching telly as though they were on a train. I said, “Let’s put the chairs out like normal people, Giles.” So we pulled the chair beside Mary’s. I never tire of that shot.
For camera set-up there are two hot heads mounted on sticks next to the televisions. One camera covers the wide, locked off shot and the single camera tracks the close ups. We rig a mini gallery, which is set up in a kitchen or bedroom. There’s a small team in the field – a producer, a camera person, and a sound person and a logger – and those four people are squashed in whatever room is available for the entire shoot. It’s like a mini TV studio. There’s nobody ever in the room with the families. For the show we mainly stay on the wide angle but the close-up shot is often used to capture an eye-roll or facial expression that we’ll use in the edit for comedy punctuation.
Gogglebox is always current, and we’re familiar with the cast. Why do you think the public have taken to it so much, and secondly, can you ever really see an end for it?
I think one of the most loved things about Gogglebox is its relatability. Viewers will recognise things they’ve said themselves about television that week and the cast are hugely relatable characters. They’re normal people. People say to me it is like checking in on old friends on a Friday night. There are a lovely bunch of people who follow the show on social media – a Goggle Gang, if you will, who pour their wine and chat to me throughout the show, about what’s been said that week and how they “thought that about that TV show, too.” People also tell me that Gogglebox is a good way to get a fun round-up of the week’s telly, if you can’t be bothered to watch telly during the week.
I think the main thing that people love about the show is that it’s about people, families, relationships and more than anything tonally, it’s warm. Gogglebox makes people feel good – and if it sends you off to bed feel warm and fuzzy of a Friday night then there’s nowt wrong with that!