Portaloos, PPE and plenty of cushions: how we make Gogglebox under lockdown

Tania Alexander
Giles and Mary, stars of Gogglebox - Channel 4

Gogglebox is not an easy show to make at the best of times. Every week we film five families a night, for six or seven hours and after each shoot the rushes are driven from all over the country back to the edit in central London. The show is edited together over three days and then is prepped for its Friday night broadcast on Channel 4.

The weekly production pace is frenetic, relentless and the hours are long. The production relies heavily on utilising the time we have wisely as one tiny mistake is capable of derailing the whole process in an instant. Thankfully, over the course of the seven years we’ve been making the show, we’ve all learnt to hold our nerve.

The impact of the lockdown – which has been traumatic for so many in so many different ways – has added a new layer of complexity to our already fragile and demanding production process. On Tuesday March 17, a week before Boris Johnson’s lockdown had been implemented, I was walking home from an early training session on Hampstead Heath and it struck me that it would soon become impossible to continue filming the cast and editing the programme in the current way.

I suspected the lockdown measures were around the corner and if we didn’t act fast and create a completely new way of producing the show, ensuring the safety of both the cast and my team, then it may well not be possible to keep Gogglebox on air. At this point we were five weeks into a 15 week run. I felt a huge responsibility to Channel 4, to my team, to our cast and to the viewers to somehow keep the show going. The question was how? And whatever we did needed to be put into place in time for filming the next episode. And that was in just two days time.   

After an emergency briefing with my tech team, a plan was hatched. Before the official lockdown was initiated and with the full cooperation of the cast, we asked them to leave their homes for a couple of hours, while two crew members in PPE rigged their houses. The crew sandbagged down the tripods so they couldn’t be moved and positioned the cameras with strict instructions of “please don’t touch the kit!”. Once rigged, the cameras would remain there for the next 10 weeks and we knew there would be no returning to fix a toppled camera.     

The rig itself threw up some challenges, but on the whole it ran relatively smoothly. Oh, apart from the moment we congratulated ourselves for turning a rig around in two days to have Stephen and Daniel say, “but where are you guys going to take a pee?” At that point there was a bit of a kick-bollock-scramble to locate some portaloos. Thankfully, the situation was quickly resolved by some very resourceful production staff. 

Ellie and Issy - Channel 4 

With cameras and cabling installed we then rigged a gallery in the crew transit vans for camera and sound personnel to work from. The producers also now had their own mini rigs set up in their cars. Cables ran from the cameras in living rooms along corridors and down stairs – often utilising the odd cat flap – outside to connect via a lockbox to the rigs both in the crew vans and the producer vehicles.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to film with the full cast. For example, we took the decision to tell Mary and Marina, who are in their 90s and live in a care home, that we didn’t want them put at any risk so we should stop filming with them altogether. The ladies are safe and well looked after but often tell us they dearly miss the crews and the fun they have during filming each week. 

Jenny decided she wanted to spend the lockdown period with Lee and moved into the caravan with him beforehand so they could isolate together and continue filming. The adjustment Lee has had to make having Jenny share his caravan has been witnessed by the viewers on a weekly basis with great comical effect.

Lee openly admits that Jenny has caused chaos since her arrival. He told me she’d put up a washing line and the gardener, not knowing it was there, came round the corner on his drivable lawnmower and went straight through it. Not only did he get a mouthful of Jenny’s knickers but ended up dragging them, and a few of her bras halfway round the caravan park. She also didn’t bring enough summer clothes so has taken to cutting up her leggings and tops. Lee said Jenny in hot pants is an image he’ll never be able to unsee.   

Jenny and Lee - Channel 4

Life in our edit has also changed dramatically. By the time we went into lockdown, I’d already asked 20 of the 32 edit staff to work from home. Each editor works in a room alone. They build timelines with support from producers who dial in virtually using mainly FaceTime. There are lots of different methods. Macs are propped up on cushions next to the editors - I often hear the familiar voice of a producer chirping instructions from within the metal book.

It’s a needs-must situation. One editor finds it more practical to attach their iPhone with a food clip to a water bottle, which he flips and points at the timeline so the producer can see what she wants to lose and keep of the content. I then move systematically around each of the eight suites, prop open the door, pull up a chair and cut the show from the corridor.  

Craig Cash has also had to change the way he narrates the show. Normally, he drives into a studio in Manchester, records the voiceover from there, which I direct remotely from London. His new set up involves him narrating each episode from the glamorous confines of his coat cupboard. I’m still directing from London but oddly, I’d say the recording sounds exactly the same, if not a little richer. Coats and cushions in a crisis are clearly what’s required. 

Working like this is challenging, but there's no other way for us to make the programme. We have all had to boost each other’s morale on exceptionally long days, often finishing in the early hours. I do miss having the whole team alongside me. Often, it’s the little things you miss, the silly distractions. Those things that define so many of our experiences, and that contribute to the very fabric of what we do.  

After this series concludes, we’re diving straight into making the next series of Celebrity Gogglebox. I’m planning to film and edit it in exactly the same way as we are currently. I was worried that some celebrities would not want to film during this time, but not a single one of them has shown anything but joyfully enthusiasm for joining the gang.   

When I look back at this period in my life and the show’s history, I’m not sure what I’ll think. I don’t think I’ve had time to really process it all yet. I know that I feel proud of my team and that we’ve managed to keep Gogglebox on air. The hundreds of messages I receive each week from NHS staff, as well as from people going through a really tough time are heart-warming and humbling. These messages thanking us for doing what we are doing to keep the nation’s spirits lifted, if only for an hour on a Friday night, without doubt make the challenges and relentless long hours worthwhile for sure.   

I am also proud of how our cast have adapted to the new system. Some of them were worried that they would have nothing to say after weeks in lockdown, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, they continue to hold up a mirror to the way we all lead our lives. Somehow, that feels more important than ever right now.

Tania Alexander is the executive producer of Gogglebox

As told to Scott Bryan