In December of 2017, Leon Bernicoff, an 83-year-old retired schoolteacher from Liverpool, passed away after a short illness. When his wife, June, announced his death on Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people showed their support, and tens of thousands sent messages of condolence. When I found out just a week ago the Leon had passed, I found myself getting quite emotional, as he had been a small but important part of my year living abroad in the United Kingdom. We'd never met.
During my year in the U.K., I encountered a category of television show that can only be described as “the concept of this show sounds horrible, but it’s actually amazing.” For example, the unfortunately named Undateables, a reality show that followed people with physical and mental disabilities through the trials of dating was, despite its title, highly empathetic, deeply felt, and humanizing. I don’t think I saw a single episode that didn’t make me cry.
The other show in this category that I came to love--in fact, it ended up being my favorite UK show full stop--is called Gogglebox. The concept sounds even stupider than the last one: you watch people watching TV. To be more precise, you watch a handful of different families from around the UK (well, England and Wales, anyway) talk about a selection of shows each week.
I know, I know, how could this possibly be any good? And yet, it was! It quickly became my most anticipated hour of television each week. From stationary cameras set up around their living room televisions, I’d watch as the stars of Gogglebox (I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe them) would chat their way through a sampler platter of the week’s telly. From mainstay ratings grabbers like Strictly Come Dancing and Get Me Out Of Here, I’m A Celebrity! to dramas like Happy Valley and Luther to news reports and documentaries from the BBC and ITV, each week was a different taste of what the British small screen had to offer.
But more than that, the collection of families brought together was a grand tour of Britain—a middle class family in North London, a working-class family in Durham, two hair-dresser ex-boyfriends and their dachshunds in Brighton, two gospel-preaching women in Brixton, a posh couple never without a drink in their hands in Sandwich, a pair of best friends watching from a trailer in Hull… the list goes on. And while at first it can feel a bit awkward, a bit forced, it’s amazing how quickly you slip into their living rooms, and how quickly (and despite the saccharinity, I really don’t think I’m overstating it here) some of them slip into your heart. Which brings us to Leon and June…
Leon and June were early favorites of mine. The couple, who would watch their shows from their living room in Liverpool, had the kind of relationship you hope to grow into: two people who have shared their entire lives and still find themselves irrepressibly delighted by each other. They’ve debated what “friends with benefits” means (the conclusion they came to was “friends who are receiving government benefits”), and discussed Tom Jones (“Sir Tom Jones,” Leon corrects).
Though the bulk of the show consists of clips and commentary, there’s also a delightful amount of B-roll (the production of Gogglebox has remained a kind of intentional mystery for me, but I guess they just leave the cameras rolling during some bits). I’ve seen Leon dance with June, steal candies from a tub he was supposed to wrap as a gift, complain about his diet, and fiddle with a light-up Christmas sweater that wouldn’t turn off. “Fuck ’em” he says, before smiling down at the lights.
But after spending months watching them, I began to feel like I knew them as people (and I speak not just of Leon and June, but of many of the Gogglebox families). I know that Leon was an Everton football club super-fan (though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where Everton is); I know that he was a lifelong Labour supporter (he once referred to former Prime Minister David Cameron on air as a “fuckface Tory” and a “posh knob”); I know that he and June used to take their kids to the Liverpool Zoo (from the episode where they watch The Secret Life of Zoos). And I know that he was madly in love with his wife.
This last point was driven home in so many different ways, from the look in his eyes as he’d mischievously tease her (or the look in his eyes as she’d tease him), to the unfiltered emotions he showed several times—once during an episode of Planet Earth where a starving polar bear roamed the icebergs looking for a meal, another while watching the end of Gladiator. I have been reduced to tears more than once by Leon’s tender commentary, especially regarding his feelings for June.
What I eventually came around to realizing was that, distinct from more typical reality television, Gogglebox provides an unparalleled intimacy with its stars. They watch from their own living rooms, on their own couches, photos of their own grandchildren on the coffee table.* As someone who has a low tolerance for reality TV faux-earnestness (I nearly broke into hives watching two episodes of this season of The Bachelor), the chatter and jokes of the Goggleboxers comes off as genuine and endearing.
But it’s not just their reactions to the popular TV shows that’s eye-opening; they regularly are asked to watch news reports and political interviews, and if you think they’re keeping their political opinions to themselves, you are incorrect. One fascinating example from my year in the UK was when Barack Obama visited ahead of the Brexit Referendum, and expressed his desire for the UK to remain in the European Union. Opinions were strongly split—sometimes down the middle of people’s living rooms. It was commentary at least as interesting as a lot of talking heads. (I found Leon’s rant about David Cameron, below; watch that and tell me that’s not good television.)
They’ve tried Gogglebox-style shows in other countries, though it hasn’t been as successful as its original iteration. The American version, The People’s Couch (which sounds more like a communist IKEA franchise) aired on Bravo from 2013-2016, though never quiet got the foothold of its British counterpart.
It’s entirely possible that a good deal of my personal besotting is due in no small part to my general ongoing Anglophilia; I’ve only watched a few clips of The People’s Couch and the exposition talk that doesn’t seem to bother me in Gogglebox grates on my ears without the buffer of an accent. Plus, with Gogglebox, there’s a two-layer cultural exchange happening, exposing me not only to everyday Brits but giving me a taste of what shows they’re consuming (I don’t know that I actually have the patience to sit through an entire episode of Strictly, as it's referred to in casual conversation). Throw in the unique flavor of British self-deprecation, and its possible that this is a project that works best in its original flavo(u)r. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure I found any Britons who enjoyed Gogglebox quite as much as I did (they, as it turned out, were watching entire episodes of Strictly).
I can’t really even really push that hard for my fellow Americans to watch Gogglebox, since it seems to be pretty hard to find in the States (though, if you ever find yourself in the United Kingdom, even in a hotel room just for a night, you should absolutely fire up Channel 4’s On Demand feature, All4, and see if there are any episodes of Gogglebox available to watch). Short of that, you can find scattered clips online. Aside from June and Leon, keep a look out for Jenny and Lee, Ellie and Izzy, Giles and Mary, Sandra and Sandy, and Dave and Shirley, though really, they're all good value.
I suppose all I really want to say is, thank you, Leon, for agreeing with June to share your living room with us. It was a delight watching telly with you, and you won’t soon be forgotten. Here's hoping you're somewhere, looking down at your light up Christmas sweater, saying "fuck 'em" and having a laugh.
*If you’re curious, yes, they are being paid (reports state the each Gogglebox family receives £1500 for every week they were on the show, and I wouldn’t be shocked if some of them got upgraded sofas from longtime sponsor Sof-o-logy).