Every night over 20 million of us enjoy an evening in front of the telly, but imagine if the TV looked back at you – what would it see?
-Opening line of Gogglebox
A TV show about watching TV, in theory, sounds more banal than most contemporary reality programming. But in the UK, Gogglebox became a hit since it premiered in March 2013. It’s the stuff of reception studies scholars’ dreams, officially called an “observational documentary.”
Gogglebox follows households from across Britain responding to relevant news stories, reality TV shows like Top Chef and Britain’s Got Talent, and popular films from Titanic to The Full Monty.
As a sleeper success that recently won a BAFTA for “Best Reality & Constructed Factual,” it may have just reached its peak. Certainly, watching the cast watch the BAFTAS is a top meta moment, but also a great scene of pure jubilation. Bill from Cambridge claimed it was the first thing he’s won since the 1975 British Chess Championship; best friends Sandra and Sandy embraced in the south London neighborhood of Brixton; and exes-turned-pals Christopher and Stephen in Brighton hurriedly opened a bottle of champagne.
The cast, who welcome viewers in their homes with uncensored and sometimes quite explicit commentary, is what really makes the show so enjoyable. The appointed “Posh Ones,” Dominic and Stephanie, are rumored to be on the next installation of Celebrity Big Brother.
Retired duo June and Leon, the quintessential “old married couple” provide cheeky banter on everything from finding the remote control to Leon’s interview for MI6 when he was in the army. I couldn’t help but tear up when they watched a recent widower speak of his late wife, or during the famous scene in Titanic when Rose lets go of Jack. Following both scenes, Leon says to June, “I couldn’t do without you.”
But the most telling parts of the series for a foreigner in the UK, such as myself, are the households’ responses to recent political events.
June and Leon are quite possibly the most liberal-minded of the Gogglebox bunch. The two cheered when the UK passed same sex marriage legislation. They empathized while watching a documentary on a group of men risking their lives to find a better life in England.
Leon is particularly supportive of immigrants, citing that his grandfather came to the country as one. He expresses his distaste for the head of the UK Independent Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage, whose party swept victories in the recent European election. Leon voted for Labour “with a heavy heart,” and the party is attempting to appease UKIP, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair has addressed.
During a news brief on David Cameron, Leon pointed out that working class citizens do not vote for “posh rich boys who look after the posh rich boys,” while Reverend Kate from Nottinghamshire stated it isn’t easy to vote for him “when you’ve seen the heart of your city ripped out by a Tory government.”
I first came to London in 2011, and most of my graduate cohort also hailed from other nations, from China to Portugal to Canada, and our British colleagues were welcoming and open-minded. Since returning in 2013, immigration issues have exacerbated. Farage spoke of “less civilized” Europeans from Romania and Bulgaria who could cause crime while taking jobs and abusing the benefits and healthcare system. The blatant xenophobia struck a chord with me as I am originally from Romania.
The reactions on Googlebox towards foreigners helped me understand attitudes towards outsiders in the UK, as foreign born residents in continue to be on the rise. Goggleboxer Andrew is a retired hotelier in Brighton, and furiously responded to an ad by the current head of the Labour Party Ed Miliband who said there is nothing wrong with employing from abroad, but that the rules should be regulated so “local people get a fair crack at the whip”:
“No, local people should be offered the jobs first, not just a ‘fair crack at the whip,’ whatever that means. They should be offered the job first because they’re born here, brought up here, their parents were born here, their grandparents were born here, so they should be offered the available jobs first. And then, if all that local labor is absorbed … bring them in and that’s fine.”
Gogglebox has essentially assembled a televised social experiment. It encapsulates pop culture nuggets from film and TV, and the most significant news events of each week, with unfiltered reactions to how it impacts individual citizens based on their beliefs, backgrounds and education. It’s only a shame the Season 3 finale ended before the results of this European election. I know Leon in Liverpool will be disappointed but not surprised. And I know I’ll be waiting patiently for Season 4.