Thanks to Stephen Fry I had never wanted to be on television. Around the time Fry made the transition from print to screen, and hence real fame, he wrote a piece lamenting the irreversible step he had taken.
Now, as a result of his face being familiar, he explained, he could never again complain in a restaurant without being accused of throwing his weight around. To put his bins out risked snoopers going through the contents. He even feared cutting his toenails, he said, in case someone got hold of them and knocked up ‘an army of clones’.
Joking aside, Fry knew he had lost the precious gift of privacy and would never regain it. ‘If only I’d stuck to radio,’ he said. His words had a terrible ring of truth and I’ve always remembered them. So I was unmoved when a telly-addict friend rang to gush with excitement that she had put my husband and me forward to appear on Gogglebox and that the production company, Studio Lambert, was interested.
‘Thanks for the thought but no thanks. What’s Gogglebox, anyway?’
‘Mary! It’s only the most popular programme on Channel 4. Everyone watches it. And before you dismiss it out of hand — it would be really big money.’
‘About ten thousand pounds an episode….’
‘It wouldn’t make up for being hated by 50 per cent of telly watchers and being stalked,’ I replied.
I almost didn’t bother mentioning it to my artist husband Giles, a leading exponent of the self-hinder movement who has repeatedly turned down offers of one-man West End shows of his paintings as well as contracts to write books, etc. So I was genuinely astonished when Giles said he wanted to do it. ‘Gore Vidal said you should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television,’ he intoned, as though Vidal, whom he’d never mentioned before, was suddenly his guru.
When the first call came in from Studio Lambert, I was polite but firm. The more I resisted, the more the honey-voiced researchers tried to coax me. (Giles doesn’t answer the phone in case it’s a dinner-party invitation, so they had to go through me.)
Later I found that the main quality the studio looks for in potential participants is a genuine reluctance to appear on television. It’s a way of weeding out showoffs.
One night I decided to see what Gogglebox was about and watched six episodes on catch-up. It didn’t seem that bad — as far as modern television goes. In fact, I found that increasing familiarity with the occupants of the ten households bred not contempt, but content.
‘Why don’t we just do a taster?’ suggested Studio Lambert. ‘We’ll come and film you for a few hours with no obligation. Then you can see what’s actually involved and we can see if it works out for us.’
A team of five descended on the cottage. Each crew member was considerate and tactful — never even glancing at the squalor in our Withnail kitchen. They set up two cameras next to our TV screen and disappeared into another part of the house while we sat back and watched the series of programmes they streamed for us.
Would there be a fee for the taster?
‘Yes, you will be paid the full day’s fee as though we were going to use the programme.’
‘Ten thousand?’ I croaked.
‘Oh no. Just the ordinary day’s fee.’
Unfortunately, I am contractually bound not to tell you how low the tiny fee is, but you would be amazed. It seems that Gogglebox comes under Channel 4’s current-affairs budget, not its entertainment budget, and its contributors are not classed as ‘talent’.
But doing the taster made a difference. Giles and I were both brought up to prioritise singing madrigals around a piano or playing chess above watching television. So watching it as a job was, for us, a glorious guilt-free experience — and how enjoyable to not have to travel to work or get dressed up for it! Consequently, when Studio Lambert said the taster had gone well, and could they broadcast it, I found myself agreeing.
At first, you think that you must disguise the bad parts of your body — wear a hairpiece, false eyelashes, etc. — but these soon become uncomfortable and, in any case, they aren’t what you’d be wearing when you watch. I decided to abandon artifice after a friend watched it on a giant screen. ‘It’s an absolutely brilliant programme,’ he said. ‘It’s so authentic. You can see all the dust.’
The history of reality television is littered with malicious editing. (See Margaret Thatcher’s least favourite documentary, Paul Watson’s l986 anti-Hooray dispatch The Fishing Party.) By contrast, the object of Gogglebox is not to make monkeys out of the contributors but to find common ground among its diverse British households, culminating in surprising waves of consensus. Despite the appalling swearing, it’s generally a feelgood programme.
As regards unwanted fame, my experience has been very different from Stephen Fry’s, possibly because it’s on a much, much smaller scale. The public’s reaction is entirely benign. People approach me, their faces wreathed in smiles. ‘You’re Mary from Gogglebox, aren’t you? I just want to say — your husband makes us laugh.’
‘You’re Mary from Gogglebox!’ screamed the ticket collector on the Plymouth train. “My husband and I love Giles. We’ve learned all his catchphrases. You won’t believe this, but he says to me: “Mary! This is a bit sinister!” ’
Giles doesn’t go out much other than to hill-walk, but when he goes to Lidl or Waitrose his attempts to deflect attention with Roy Orbison sunglasses inevitably backfire. ‘You see people doing a double-take and then coming towards you grinning and asking for a selfie. It would be rude to run away, wouldn’t it Mary?’
‘What expression should I wear in a selfie?’ he asks, his mouth buckling into a repertoire of positions. ‘Should I charge? Or levy a small sum for charity?’
We don’t look at Twitter, although Giles’s sister sends him six good tweets each week and a bad one ‘for balance’. Our postman, after years of hurling ‘You were out’ notifications through the letterbox even though we were in, now knocks on the door grinning. ‘I didn’t know you were on television,’ he explains.
David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman watch too. ‘How did you get the gig?’ Paxman asked me. We are perhaps slightly more popular socially, but that’s of no advantage since we are too busy being filmed watching television to go out.
On the whole Gogglebox seems a force for good. At its core is an authenticity. Everything else on television suddenly seems artificial and guarded. But what’s worrying for TV-makers is what so many of our new ‘friends’ tell us: ‘I have a guilty secret. I watch Gogglebox to catch up on what I missed on during the week. I find I then needn’t bother watching anything else.’