*This interview was edited for clarity. It was conducted via phone with e-mail followups.
Part 1: Developing Gogglebox
Since its 2013 premiere, the Channel 4 observational documentary Gogglebox became a surprise sleeper hit in the UK. With a BAFTA win and Series 5 now back on air Friday nights, ratings have escalated to newfound levels, with 4 million people watching the Series 5 premiere this February and another 3 million in consolidated figures.
The concept of Gogglebox, a reality TV show about households in Britain watching the latest programming of the past week, appeared brilliant or banal by critics’ initial reactions. The brilliant execution, with loveable recurring families and friends reacting to a mix of always topical lighthearted reality TV, popular serials, along with important news, is partly due to featuring an excellent cast who have become stars in their own right, given their popularity on social media and features throughout popular press. From Leon to June Bernicoff to Steph and Dom Parker to The Malones to Moffats, Gogglebox has captivated audiences across Britain and beyond. It’s also already been remade in the U.S. and Australia, with more transnational adaptations on the way.
Photo Courtesy of Tania Alexander
Thus far, very little has been written on the woman behind Gogglebox, creator and producer Tania Alexander. Although she gives much credit and gratitude to her cast, who are just paid a nominal fee for their appearances yet spend hours of their life watching television, Alexander’s own 85-hour workweek indicates an immense commitment to making thoughtful quality programming. In this three part series with the woman behind Gogglebox, we discuss the development, production and reception of the series.
I first wanted to ask you about your background, and what led you to create Gogglebox.
I often find myself overseeing projects of scale and ambition. Many times I’ve looked at the potential for scale and the ambition of a new project and said to myself ‘that can’t be done can it?’. However, secretly these are the projects I love doing the most. The ones that challenge and test me, and that ultimately I can learn something new from. These projects tend to be genre-hybrids involving a ludicrously fast turn-around schedule and require running multi-edits and simultaneous shoots.
What were some of those series that eventually led to Gogglebox?
About 12 years ago I did a project for Channel 4 called The Games. We got Olympic coaches to train celebrities in Olympic sports over a three-month period – we did everything from high diving to hurdling and filmed it all documentary style. Then we made the celebrities live together in a purpose built Big Brother style ‘Olympic Village’ whilst competing against each other on live television in sports they’d had a few sessions learning to do and in actual Olympic arenas for 9 or 10 nights in a row.
The show was a mix of documentary, reality packages, live television and event. It was full on mental and the adrenalin from doing it live and not knowing what was going to happen kept it fun and exciting despite the lack of sleep.
A couple of years after that I did a show for the BBC called The Verdict. Again it was a bit of a genre hybrid. We put 12 well-known people on a jury and asked them to deliver their verdict on a rape trail. We cast really high profile, immensely respected barristers and a retired Old Bailey Judge. The victim and defendant and witnesses were actors who in the way director Mike Leigh works spent months researching and becoming their characters. The police were real – ex coppers and the way the whole thing played out was as though it was absolutely real. I did worry on many occasions whether the disbelief could be suspended enough for it to work and was amazed how much it was. I think it was down to the way we covered it. I was keen the jurors were not influenced in any way to the point where I didn’t want the producers prompting with questions to get them to open up – this was too risky in that any question from us might influence their developing views and ultimately their final verdict. The last day in court was the deliberation which was filmed with concealed cameras – it was fascinating to watch and although it clearly was a fictional scenario, the seriousness in which the jurors approached the whole thing, especially reaching the verdict amazed me.
On Seven Days
Then I made a show in 2010 called Seven Days, which feels like it probably gave birth to Goggleboxreally and certainly in the way it’s made. I loved Seven Days, still do, it felt like a hugely ambitious thing at the time. Big Brother had been dropped by Channel 4 and Seven Days was being touted as its replacement. It clearly was nothing like Big Brother and in a nutshell suffered as a result of the association. Anyone expecting Big Brother was disappointed and Big Brother loathers steered well clear. Hence it fast became a ratings flop.
The premise was to film and edit and transmit in the same week, a real life soap opera. Following the lives of different people who lived and worked in the same area of London – we chose Notting Hill but on reflection recognized this was a very bad idea. As well as following these people each week we had them all hooked up to a purpose built website with the idea being that the viewers would be able to comment on the cast lives and the decisions they were making.
The viewers were encouraged to suggest advice, help with a dilemma a cast member was facing – whether it was to finish a relationship; start a new job; tell a family member something important etc and then viewers could tune in the next week to see if the cast were being influenced by the way the public were reacting towards them. It was before Twitter took off and the website didn’t really work and nobody engaged in the way we’d hoped. I think that people struggle to respond if the questions feel too broad and open ended. So the show ultimately ended up just following the intricases of these people’s lives. It had plenty of challenges too.
We would film on a Thursday and transmit the following Thursday and not know from week to week what we were going to get. I often would be sat in the edit two days before transmission with no usable footage thinking how am I going to fill an hour. It always came right in the end and we managed to produce eight cracking one hour shows – it was just a little too ahead of its time and launched before the likes of The Only Way is Essex and Made In Chelsea – the scripted reality boom that originated from the success of The Hills. Seven Days wasn’t scripted, there was no voice over to guide you through – it felt like here it is like it or lump it. Unfortunately it was well and truly lumped!
Despite it not engaging viewers, it’s still something I’m immensely proud of and it was definitely worth it, if out of the ashes came Gogglebox.
What are the biggest similiarities between Seven Days and Gogglebox?
The process of making the two is similar to a degree and Seven Days taught me a lot going into the whole Gogglebox thing – the biggest thing it taught me was never to panic. If you’re two days away from transmission and it doesn’t look like you’ve enough material to fill a show, don’t worry because it always seems to come out in the wash and all that worry is time is wasting time.
Like Seven Days we start filming Gogglebox each week not knowing what we will get. Will the cast engage with the shows? Will they be in a good mood? Will they be feeling like being hilariously funny after a long day at work or following a row with a family member? It’s always a risk and every week there are no guarantees or certainties but every week we manage to pull it out the bag and that’s got to be down to a brilliantly receptive wonderful cast – all geniuses at heart and a lot of really hard work from the dedicated people on my team.
Did you feel like you needed to scale back on the premise and that’s how Gogglebox came about?
Gogglebox is without doubt a much simpler concept to Seven Days – different households around Britain intercut as they watch television from the last week. The challenge was how to make this interesting to watch. We were heavily critisized before it aired. People thought the idea was rubbish and indeed critised Channel 4 for in fact ‘running out of ideas’. I think one publication said it was an idea that suggested it was ‘the end of civilization as we know it’. This was all before anyone had seen a frame of the show though.
What came next in the development of Gogglebox after the initial pitch?
Channel 4’s head of Specialist factual David Glover was the man who spotted the potential of the show. David’s the science head at C4, he does big clever projects like Live from Space and Inside Nature’s Giants. He asked us to make a short ‘proof of concept’ tape so we went about casting.
Funny enough Leon and June were on that original reel – I sent the team to a bridge club in Liverpool. We found Leon and he was super eager to do the show. June was different. She really didn’t want to take part and we had to do a lot of persuading. I’d prefer that though – persuading people rather than people desperate to do it.
The tape we made was a little rough around the edges, gosh it was actually really rough, and it had a strange top 10 mechanism to drag you through it, at the time we felt we needed something to string it together, the script was God awful and the voice over was completely wrong in tone and everything else to be honest. But overall thankfully the tape was good enough to give David the confidence to get a mini series green lit.
What the tape did do though was allow me to work out how I wanted to shoot it and how I wanted the cameras to be used. I wanted to mainly shoot using the wide, ensuring we captured everything from the person talking to the people not talking – what the non speakers were doing was just as interesting to me. The real development of the on-air show you see today came in the first week of the Goggleboxedit.
Thankfully Channel 4 gave us the chance and funds to make a dummy show, to work out what we were doing and to test systems and that’s when I started to really work out what the hell this thing was. Looking back to that week, there was a fair bit of p***ing in the wind on my part I can tell you and I’ve been trying to get better at it series on series but that first week was a real test for me. I don’t ever dare watch the first series – I think there would be a fair bit of cringing on my part. Thankfully I’ve learnt lots since then.
When did Gogglebox as we know it today first began to solidify?
People always ask me if I always knew it would be successful. I’m not sure I could hand on heart say I believed it would be this successful but I did know if we made it funny and I cast it right and first and foremost make it our sole intention to make people laugh then we’d be ok and people would watch. I also knew that when people were being negative about the idea initially and they hadn’t seen a frame of it, I had this secret weapon in an amazingly funny, warm and wonderful cast of characters.
Some of the conversations and comments on that early reel gave me the confidence that this had real potential to be very entertaining. You couldn’t script the stuff we captured – it was utter genius. At the time I just remember being utterly buzzing with excitement about cutting this show with these amazing people. I love people. I love watching their conversations. We tend to watch TV with people we love and watching people interact with each other, especially when they love them… I just find it so fascinating.
One of the first families we filmed with were a family from Liverpool who didn’t want to do the actual show in the end. There was a mum and dad and two grown-up, twenty-something kids living with them at home. We showed them a clip from the Queen’s Jubilee concert of Paul McCartney singing ‘Hey Jude’. He sings the opening line and he’s a bit flat or it sounds that way. Dad looks perplexed at the TV. Looks at mum, looks back at McCartney. Then exclaims in a strong Liverpool accent ‘They definitely shot the wrong Beatle!’ It was a hilarious, spontaneous and genius moment. Everyone laughed out loud. Moments like this without doubt gave me the confidence in the early days that what we were going to make was something potentially very special. I thought this could be really good but I’ve just got to make sure we get a good cast and design it in a way that allows for this humour to breathe and work as well as it can.
It’s about timing as comedy always is and that’s the craft involved in Gogglebox, that’s the thing that challenges us the most each week. It looks so simple to make but it’s so difficult, the most difficult thing I’ve done. The credit to its success lies in the cast and the craft involved in allowing them to work to their full potential. I’d like to think I’ve got a little better at crafting it and them with each passing series
Up next week: Alexander’s TV influences for Gogglebox, casting the series in an unconventional way, and the making of the series.
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).