Monday 18 December 2017

Viewers going goggle-eyed over couch potato pundits

Glasses raised: Dom and Steph from Gogglebox. Photo: Channel 4.
Glasses raised: Dom and Steph from Gogglebox. Photo: Channel 4.

John Boland

Sixteen years ago, Caroline Aherne introduced us to The Royle Family, which invited us to eavesdrop on a household of Manchester slobs as they slumped in front of the telly and commented derisively on the programmes they were watching.

That, of course, was a sitcom but so also, you could argue, is Gogglebox (Channel 4), which picked up a prize at last week's BAFTA television awards and which also invites us to eavesdrop on families as they react to the week's viewing.

Yes, the characters in Gogglebox are real people, but some if not all of them are also clearly playing a part, or at least playing up to the watching cameras that have been installed in their living rooms.

How else can we explain Stephanie and Dominic Parker, perpetually sloshed as they guzzle wine in their 17-bedroom Kentish mansion and cast bleary eyes on the TV programmes they're watching?

There can be little doubt that they're very aware of the impression they create – an impression that has earned them almost cult status among Gogglebox addicts, not to mention an invitation to participate in a new series of Celebrity Big Brother.

Still, they're good value. I especially liked Stephanie's reaction as the two of them watched the recent season of Downton Abbey: "I wonder how many windows they've got. We've got 63."

And I liked, too, the response of retired schoolteacher Leon as he looked aghast at a recent programme about Ukip: "If Nigel Farage is going to be prime minister, then I'm going to New Zealand." After this week's election results, he'd better start packing his bags.

Gogglebox, which has been a considerable Channel 4 hit, was created by Stephen Lambert, the man who also dreamt up Wife Swap, Undercover Boss and The Secret Millionaire. And making a deliberate nod to The Royle Family's influence, he hired Caroline Aherne to be its narrator. If only someone would cast a similarly jaundiced eye on most of RTE's output.

Yes, there've been putdowns of various homegrown programmes and personalities in shows like RTE2's Republic of Telly and in skits by the likes of Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan, but it might be interesting to take the Gogglebox formula and get a cross-section of Irish viewers to say what they really think about the homegrown fare that's foisted on them.

Or is it just myself who finds series such as The Family Project, which has started a new season on RTE1, both patronising and essentially phoney – exercises in earnest do-goodery that also manage to make their celebrity mentors seem more important than the disadvantaged people they're supposedly helping?

This week's mentor was former Mountjoy governor John Lonergan, tasked with offering some focus to the life of 15-year-old Aran, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome but has a keen interest in Irish history.

Lonergan arranged for him to learn about tour-guiding and to deliver a historical talk at the grave of Eamon De Valera. And what would result from that exercise that might be of lasting benefit to Aran? The question was side-stepped but the programme gave Lonergan ample opportunity to spout feelgood platitudes about "potential" and "achievement" and about how "once you have self-confidence the world is at your feet".

If only life were that easy, but at least the airwaves-loving Lonergan got yet another half-hour of exposure.

The BBC also loves itself, as was evidenced in 50 Years of BBC2 Comedy (BBC2, where else?), a two-hour orgy of self-congratulation in which a multitude of gag merchants marvelled at how great they and their illustrious predecessors truly were.

There were sections on double acts (Cooke and Moore, Morecambe and Wise, Fry and Laurie, Smith and Jones, French and Saunders, Reeves and Mortimer) and on catchphrases ("Suits you, sir", "Ooh, you are awful but I like you", "Am I bovvered"), but not much that was funny or indeed interesting, though I was struck, as were various contributors, to be reminded that Monthy Python's Flying Circus was a BBC1 show – it had always seemed so essentially BBC2.

An escape from this incestuous love-in, though somewhat incestuous itself, was Harry and Paul's History of the 2s (BBC2), in which Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse skewered a lot of the Beeb's sacred cows.

There was Episode 46 of The Great War, in which various grizzled former combatants recalled a Christmas truce frontline football match that the Germans won on penalties. There was Joan Bakewell Tart flirting with her male guests.

There was a horrendously stilted Forsyte Saga followed by an even more arch version of I, Claudius. There was The Old Grey Wrinkled Testicle presented by Bob Harris Tweedious and an Alan Yentob who grovelled before Orson Welles. Presenting it all was Harry Enfield as a gruesomely posturing Simon Schama.

It was all great fun without providing many actual belly laughs. And belly laughs were in short supply during the Globe production of The Duchess of Malfi (BBC4), John Webster's Jacobean tale of madness, incest, torture and murder that I first encountered as a college text.

It was preceded by The Mysterious Mr Webster, in which the lead actress, Gemma Arterton, sought to establish contemporary relevance by comparing the 17th century dramatist to Tarantino. Webster's plays are scarier, though, and even more bloody.

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