*This interview was edited for clarity. It was conducted via phone with e-mail followups.
Did you always know you wanted the content that the Gogglebox cast watched to be varied, that mixture of everything from nature shows to the news to party political broadcasts?
Yeah, I try each week to include a good mix of drama, documentary, entertainment and news. We are obviously very reliant on that particular week’s TV schedule and without doubt some weeks are more fruitful than others. For one episode a couple of weeks ago [Series 5, Episode 4] I wanted to include MasterChef because it was back with a new series, First Dates which was also new, and the drama Poldark because everyone in the UK was talking about it – I think that was also a launch episode too. I wanted to do the film Gladiator too because it’s brilliant and I knew our cast would react well to it. And then towards the end of the week the news came in that Jeremy Clarkson had been sacked from Top Gear for punching a producer – everyone has a strong opinion on Clarkson so I knew we’d get some good amusing content from our cast, which we did.
What hasn’t really worked in the past?
Even if I want to include it, what I have learnt from doing five seasons of this, is not every show works for us. In the time we have within each item (usually about 4 to 5 minutes) we clearly can’t reflect the narrative of a drama or documentary that’s over an hour long. So what we do is go for the one or two moments that get the best reaction. These can often be predicted as the most memorable or standout moments. Other shows that don’t work for us are comedy driven shows as it’s not that interesting watching people just laugh. Also shows that are very choppy and fast cut because it makes it difficult to add lots of families off the back of a very strong but quick visual moment because by the time the third family reacts you’ve forgotten what they are reacting to. In the early days of editing this, I used to fear doing drama but once I’d stopped worrying about not having to tell the story, it was fine and this season we’ve been averaging a couple of dramas a week. Drama wise, this season we’ve done Gladiator, Skyfall, Cape Fear and this week I’m excited to be able to include the first episode in the final season of Mad Men.
What we find sometimes is that there is often a universal feeling from the cast as a whole on a subject which often reflects itself— what I can only describe as a very ‘British’ attitude towards something. Whatever their background it’s often the same passion they share about something. The Queen, for example. Sandra, one half of our South London ladies, will become incredulous if there is anything negative in the news about the Queen – who she refers to as her sister – she will quite literally exclaim outrage and she absolutely means it. This week we cover Skyfall and when M dies at the end, all the cast are visibly upset and protective and can’t quite believe M has died. What’s funnier to me is how then they all become so upset for Bond who ‘hasn’t got anyone now that M is gone.’ I find it all very funny.
The thing about Gogglebox is that yes it’s funny, yes the cast are brilliant all those things, but the main thing is overall its tone is incredibly warm and feel-good. It starts from a good place because let’s face it we don’t watch television with our enemies; we usually watch telly with the people we love. So fundamentally you’re starting with a baseline of warmth and love and that something that comes through all the time especially with Leon and June, the friendship Chris and Stephen have, and Sandra and Sandy have, and the warmth within families like the Siddiquis. We naturally take the piss out of each other and we bring people down, nobody’s allowed to show off and that’s reflected. But at the end of the day, when it’s something serious, life, death, illness, there’s heart and warmth.
The way I look at it is, ultimately we piggyback off great moments in TV. Often the moment is enveloped and enhanced and in some cases made a lot more powerful by our cast reactions
That’s very true. It’s true for me as a viewer.
There’s a classic example. Channel 4 have this show, Unreported World, where journalists go out into the world investigating issues. There was a big story of the mistreatment of thousands of dogs in Vietnam. Our cast was absolutely horrified by what they saw; it was really shocking footage – thousands of dogs being crunched into these trucks alive in the most hideous of conditions. The original airing of Unreported World programme went out on the Tuesday night and our show that Friday. Tuesday night, it got around 700,000 viewers and not one complaint. When Gogglebox aired and covered the dog story, there were about 700 complaints from viewers. Goggleboxing it, if you like, enhanced the message and their reactions made the original footage much more power and therefore more impactful.
Wow. Do you feel like as the creator and producer a responsibility to show that kind of important and socially aware content as well?
The regular inclusion of news and current affairs are vitally important to me. Not only for the topicality but also because it provides a little sample of how every day people view things. A sample slice of what the man on the street really thinks, especially when it’s politics. I’ve heard a few politicians watch it. David Cameron has admitted to being a Gogglebox fan, apparently he and his wife love it. I find it hilarious, as we’ve been very rude about him. He said recently to a journalist during his campaign trail that he considers it a ‘very clever programme’. I think it certainly is a good way to see what the average person thinks and maybe give the politicians a blink of that.
I feel it’s really important because there’s no other platform out there at the moment, I mean we’ve got Question Time. But there’s no other platform like this, where else on TV can you say David Cameron’s got a woman’s mouth? Where else can you say Nick Clegg has a face that looks like he’s got bad breath? Where else can you say this besides on Twitter? Everyone expects to be entertained on Gogglebox, but I think it’s just as important to wedge the line; to show the September 11th Twin Towers documentary, which I think was a really powerful package. When that package aired, some comments on Twitter said ‘Gogglebox used to be funny, I didn’t expect this.’ I think some got it and some just want to watch it for the laughs.
Do you see that reflected on Gogglebox too? Especially with the show’s voiceover that tells, “X million of us watched Strictly Come Dancing,” and it reflects the viewership and that a whole family wants to watch it.
I’ve noticed from the casting process on Gogglebox that everyone still watches television together and yes, there might be someone with a tablet or phone watching stuff but on the whole we’ve found that people still watch telly together. It’s still very much of a family thing. There’s been a small amount of criticism that it’s not representative, that people don’t watch television that way anymore but from the casting and follow ups we’ve done we’ve found that people still watch programmes via the television.
What do you think ultimately led to the success of the series?
I think it’s worked in the U.K. because I understand the audience. Humour is obviously subjective and people have said they recognize my sense of humour throughout. I’ve tried to advise the many territories that have picked it up to not try to emulate our show but play it very much to the humour of their own nation. What’s funny to us may well not be funny to a French, German, Swedish or indeed Mongolian (yes it’s been bought by Mongolia) audience.
Gogglebox has already been adapted in the US as The People’s Couch on Bravo and in Australia for Sky.
How are you dealing with that success and demand now?
I’m trying to keep a lid on it. On one hand, I’ve got a show where the identity is totally based on keeping the cast as real people, i.e not “Z-list” celebrities, in their own homes around the country. As soon as they start to feel celebrity-ish and they’re seen turning up to the opening of an envelope and doing chat shows, it will fall apart. The integrity of the programme is paramount and sustaining it is really tough. For them it’s hard because when they do go out whether it’s shopping at Asda or to an awards show because we’ve been nominated, they turn up and get literally mobbed. I can’t describe it, it’s like the NTAs (National Television Awards) the other week when we went to collect an award. I took Sandy and Sandra and major celebs like Jonathan Ross, Ant and Dec were coming up to them wanting to meet them and take a selfies with them. It was just bizarre. It freaks our cast out too as they still feel like normal people, but when they’re out they are treated like these really famous people. I suppose they aren’t normal people anymore though are they; they’re watched by 7 million people every week. I have a brilliant team who take great care of them though – it’s a full time job but their welfare is hugely important.
This three-part interview series with Gogglebox creator and producer Tania Alexander aimed to provide insight on the development, making of, and reception of this rare observational documentary, very much unlike any other reality TV programming on the air. Alexander’s background in large-scale projects that also capture the British zeitgeist let to a series that is seemingly simple, yet delightfully rich and complex in its implementation. In its own right, and in its short span thus far, Gogglebox has become one of the newfound institutions that brings British TV audiences together, just like it has with its core cast, reuniting the traditional and the topical programming week in and week out. While I was in the UK, the series provided a slice of British life, and gave me an unprecedented insight on the personalities and personal politics of Brits across the country. If the best kind of editing is meant to look seamless, this should not detract from the intensive labour that goes on in producing the series. Gogglebox’s subsequent smash success is heavily indebted to Alexander’s careful consideration of British pathos and her weekly thoughtful execution.
Stefania Marghitu is a PhD student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ Division of Critical Studies. Her primary interests deal with critical and cultural studies of television, the showrunner and modes of authorship, feminist TV criticism and production studies. You can find her work published in The Spectator’s Performing Labor in the Media Industries issue (forthcoming in Fall 2015), Gender Forum, Flow TV, and the edited collections Refocus on Amy Heckerling (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming in 2016) and Smart Chicks on Screen: Representing Women’s Intellect in Film and Television (2014).