Coronavirus in the UK: why Gogglebox is proving so important in the age of Covid-19

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Who knew Gogglebox would prove the ultimate antidote to all this uncertainty? 

Last week, life in the UK changed – dramatically so – when, in order to slow the spread of Covid-19 and prevent unnecessary pressure on the NHS, Boris Johnson (without actually saying the word ‘lockdown’) put the UK on lockdown.

It was a tough pill for many to swallow. Indeed, shortly after the prime minister’s address, social media was flooded with questions as people did their best to understand the strict new coronavirus guidelines. Could they still go to work? Would they get arrested if they popped to the corner shop for a chocolate bar and a packet of crisps? And what would happen, really, if they dared step outside for more than one walk per day? 

As is so often the case with me, I decided the best way to deal with my lockdown worries was to bury them deep within the confines of my mind. To make believe everything was much the same. To pretend everything was… well, everything was normal. After all, I’m privileged enough to work as Stylist’s digital editor-at-large, which means that I am – as a rule – “at large” most of the time. Indeed, on an average non-coronavirus week, I only go into the office once or twice, to attend meetings and the like: the rest of my time is spent working remotely.

My last official trip to Stylist HQ was Monday 9 March. I haven’t ventured into London since. To be quite honest, I haven’t really gone far from my house at all: the odd trip to my teeny nearby Co-Op, on a fruitless search for pet food and toilet paper (I guess ‘necessities’ are different for everyone, really). A few (very local) walks with my endlessly energetic rescue dog. An exciting road trip to the end of my mum’s driveway, so that we could exchange groceries and smile at one another from afar. That’s it.

Rather than reflect on everything that’s happened and give myself time to process my emotions, though, I’ve buried myself in work. I’ve spent three weeks indoors, near-tethered to my computer. I’ve made light of the lockdown to friends and family, in a bid to keep their spirits up. I’ve watched endless re-runs of Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier. I’ve diligently read every Covid-19 update and reported it, where necessary, to Stylist readers. Above all else, though, I’ve been busily pretending that my anxiety isn’t through the roof. That it’s normal to randomly burst into tears throughout the day. That everything is completely fine, thank you very much.

But, on Friday 27 March, I watched Channel 4’s Gogglebox. And the standout episode proved itself to be the healing balm I so desperately needed.

Gogglebox stars Amira and Iqra
Gogglebox stars Amira and Iqra.

I may be something of a TV snob, favouring HBO dramas and critically acclaimed comedies over reality shows (I am, quite possibly, the only person in the UK who hasn’t seen a single episode of Love Island), but I tune into Gogglebox every single week without fail.

Now, seven years and 15 series into the show, the cast are as familiar to me as my own loved ones. When I’m watching TV in the week, I usually take note of any standout moment – a major revelation in ITV’s Liar, for example – and hug myself thinking about the candid, funny and telling reactions the Goggleboxers will have later in the week.

Having pushed it so far and so violently from my mind, though, I hadn’t even considered the fact that Johnson’s lockdown announcement would make the Gogglebox cut. For a while, it seemed as if I was right: the cast were busily focused on The Mandalorian, The Nest, This Morning, and Saturday Night Takeaway. I belly-laughed until I cried at my favourite armchair critics’ antics. I nodded along with their commentary.

Then, halfway through the episode, the ad break cut back to the prime minister informing everyone that they absolutely must stay home. That they should only leave their houses if absolutely necessary. That this is the only way to ensure the NHS doesn’t become overwhelmed by coronavirus cases. 

The reactions were mixed, to say the least. Brother and sister duo Pete and Sophie wondered aloud what qualifies as “essential work”, while the patriarchal leader of the Malones (yes, the family with all the dogs) jokingly compared Johnson’s speech to Churchill’s iconic “We will fight them on the beaches” number. Giles and Mary, meanwhile, opined that they preferred coronavirus news to constant Brexit updates.

Yes, the mood was serious, true, but it felt… ordinary, somehow. And, just like that, the coronavirus lockdown shifted in status from a looming sense of unspeakable doom to… well, something still horrible, but ordinary, too. Something tangible, and real, and possible to fathom. Something we can all handle, if only we pull together (metaphorically, at least) and follow governmental guidelines.

In giving a face and voice to all those others around the UK struggling with this pandemic, I felt infinitely less lonely. Still very much in lockdown, sure, but far less alone. And that, reader, was a beautiful sensation. 

After the episode rolled to a close, I cried: not tears of frustration, for once, but relief. And it seems I wasn’t the only one who found the episode reassuring: Twitter was flooded with messages from viewers thanking Channel 4 for airing the feel-good episode.

“Needed this tonight,” wrote one.

“I can’t even put into words how happy I am that they’re still broadcasting Gogglebox,” added another. “One tiny bit of normalcy and routine that brightens up my week.”

Another noted: “It’s been a long week. Have just switched off. To the people who came up with the idea, to the people who made it happen, to the people who undertook the casting, thank you. It never fails to make me laugh.”

And still one more pleaded: “Can we have an episode every night?”

Thankfully, unlike so many other TV shows, Gogglebox will continue to film during the coronavirus lockdown: rather than welcoming a camera crew into their home for the foreseeable future, the cast have had cameras rigged up so their reactions can be captured as usual.

As Ian Katz, Channel 4’s director of programming, said: “The coronavirus outbreak is an enormous creative challenge for all broadcasters and though it is having a profound impact on getting some of our productions onto screen, it’s also a time when public service broadcasters like Channel 4 can step up and help people navigate through the extraordinary challenges we all now face.”

Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon added: “We are here to inform the audience with trusted news and current affairs, to help them stay in touch with what’s going on around them and, just as importantly, to lift them up and make them feel connected with the rest of the world when they are isolated at home.”

Thank Christ for that, eh?

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Originally published on 30 March 2020.

Images: Channel 4

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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