When Gogglebox’s producers came up with the show’s format, they’d found the Holy Grail of television shows: cheap and straightforward to churn out, but still massively popular. Netting four million viewers is quite good going for a programme that any of us can make just by putting a mirror next to our own TV. It’s no surprise, then, that a production company with a dearth of original ideas has nicked Gogglebox’s format in the hope of also nicking some of its viewers. The result is BBC2’s Common Sense, which features ‘real people’ (as opposed to what? Surreal people? Androids? Holograms?) having contrived chats about the previous week’s news stories with a camera shoved in front of them while Ruth Jones narrates. And that’s it.
The participants have been picked for ‘their sharp wit and humorous take on life’, but also reflect the stereotypes of ‘real people’ which the media easily falls back on. So, we have Cockney wideboys, cuddly grannies, rosy-cheeked butchers and poshos in pin-striped suits, although others, thankfully, are less obviously chosen to represent a tick-box group, such as the male Mancunian / Vietnamese nail technicians. They’re all there, really, just to open their mouths and let the words fall out.
In the first episode, we hear their views on populism (mostly bewilderment, but defined by one of the pin-striped suited poshos as ‘a word used by people who hate democracies functioning effectively’), climate change (‘we’ve got icebergs floating all over the place now’), the Queen being briefly mistaken for an intruder in Buckingham Palace’s gardens (‘if he had shot her … I bet they would have made a court case out of it’) and the Prime Minister taking yonks to say anything more substantial about Britain leaving the European Union than ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (‘people are calling her flippin’ Theresa Maybe’). There’s a healthy cynicism about Tony Blair attempting to ‘worm his way back into British politics to make up for Iraq’ alongside trying to ‘smarm his way’ into being the ‘President of the European Union, among other things. If not, he wants to be God’. Inevitably, Donald Trump’s tweets come up, and whether he’ll take notice of any of his advisers brave enough to ask him to tone his mad rants down (‘Otherwise they’ll shoot him’).
Most of the participants, having probably watched Gogglebox, know the score and realise that witty banter is the order of the day, even if they don’t always deliver. Their chats are edited down into short exchanges, with the assumption that us viewers have the attention span of a bluebottle. Random sentences are punctuated by annoying plinky-plonky music, which somehow sounds like the producers sneering. And rather insultingly, the characters are introduced in exactly the same way as those in Little Britain are – with them looking at the camera while it pans slowly across them as jingoistic music plays. As the reviewer in the Telegraph asked, are we supposed to be laughing with or at the participants?
Common Sense reminds us that television has a condescending, awkward way of presenting ‘real people’ – i.e. any of us – on screen. The smarmy title gives it away, with the snobbish connotations of the word ‘common’. It’s as if the producers are looking at ‘real people’ from outside, like they’re staring at goldfish in a tank and prodding the glass every now and then. An extreme example of this tendency is, of course, the odious The Jeremy Kyle Show, which turns desperation into a spectator sport. And when ‘real people’ dare to think they’ve got talent and try their luck on The X-Factor and its ilk, those that can’t get remoulded into what’s likely to sell gig tickets and downloads get their dreams chewed up and spat out in their faces. All these shows exploit as well as present the ‘real people’ who appear on them. Even though they ostensibly give us proles an opportunity to express ourselves, they also reveal bourgeois attitudes about the working class. It’s not that programme-makers are necessarily deliberately setting out to do this; they’re just making a living by producing what the market supposedly wants, like the rest of us. However, the patronising whiff around series which ‘showcase’ ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ people does make you wonder if they’re produced by people who think they’re a cut above. At least the internet gives many of us the opportunity to broadcast ourselves if we want to, in whatever way we prefer, without television’s distorting lens. If we want to make a YouTube video giving our opinions on the link between earthquakes and fracking we can, and equally we can make one listing our favourite Harry Potter books. Or, if we really want to engage with ‘real people's' views, we could just as well switch off our screens and start a conversation ourselves.