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31st May 2019

The Return of Gavin and Stacey

In the midst of Theresa May’s resignation and the Tory party leadership contest in full swing, this week was dominated by just one piece of entertainment news which captivated comedy lovers the world over. Gavin and Stacey burst on to BBC Three in May 2007 and became a hit with the 18-30 demographic making stars of its creators James Corden and Ruth Jones. The show was a hit and over three series and nineteen episodes, the nation was hooked as the Shipmans and Wests became one big happy family thanks to a chance union between telephone operatives Gavin from Billericay and Stacey from Barry Island. Bringing the British sitcom into the 21st century was no mean feat and there were many different elements which attributed to the show’s eventual success which we are about to discover and the fantastic news of its long awaited return has sent excitement throughout the TV watching nation.

The first decade of the new millennium was a very unsettling time for the British sitcom. Ricky Gervais had revolutionised the genre in 2001 when he wrote the first fly-on-the-wall sitcom surrounding a documentary series about the every day happenings at paper merchants Wernham Hogg. Here we were introduced to the self-obsessed, insecure, failed entertainer David Brent who found himself as the manager of the Slough branch and saw this as an opportunity to become the international star whom he’d always assumed he would be. Although The Office was hugely successful and made its indelible mark in the history of British comedy, it also heralded an era where comedy retained a harder edge and the family nucleus which had always been a reliable staple, had slowly disappeared from the genre. Yet this was all about to change and the family dynamic was about to be shook up and explored like never before. The traditional sitcom would return but from the most unlikely places.

In 2000 television writing supremo Kay Mellor created the heartwarming ITV comedy drama Fat Friends surrounding a slimming club group and the impact that weight loss was having on the lives of the main characters. Starring Alison Steadman and Gaynor Faye, the show lasted for four series and was hugely popular with the audience. Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Fat Friends was that it provided the setting of the meeting between Ruth Jones and James Corden, then playing supporting characters Kelly Chadwick and Jamie Rymer. The pair were instantly drawn to each other and realised they had a lot in common. Being on set for hours and hours can be extremely boring and Jones and Corden required something to help them pass the time. They began to have long conversations about the combinations of characters that are always present at a wedding and the archetypal traits of each member of a wedding party. This would occupy them for hours and hours on end and became a successful distraction technique in downtime from filming but they never had any desire to take it any further. Yet on reuniting some years later, they decided to approach the BBC about transforming such an idea into a TV drama.

The concept quickly expanded to not just a wedding but how the two people got to the alter and the impact of their relationship on their respective families. Suddenly this wasn’t just a comedy drama about a wedding, it was an ensemble piece with two young lovers at the centre. Gavin and Stacey was first broadcast on BBC Three on Sunday 13th May 2007 and starred Matthew Horne and Joanna Page as the long distance love birds trying to cope with the bizarre behaviour of their future in-laws. There aren’t many sitcoms that are brave enough to adopt an ensemble cast without the presence of an overall linchpin to steer the series in the right direction. Yet a stellar cast of veterans of TV drama with some of the most promising performers in Britain meant that this unique style of sitcom wasn’t an issue.

Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb were experienced hands to steady the ship and were absolutely perfect in their portrayal of Gavin’s parents Pam and Mick. Typically middle class and ardent royalists, the pair enjoyed a healthy and happy marriage in a comfortable family house provided for by breadwinner Mick. Meanwhile Pam occupied her time with martial art lessons, Pilates and protests against the erection of masts in the area which could give people “tumour brains”. Not forgetting her failed attempt at the Atkins diet which consisted of three steaks at once which was ironic following her fake confession to being a vegetarian through fear of upsetting her potentially vegan future in-laws the first time they came to stay. Of course Pam learned very quickly that the Wests didn’t have any dietary requirements, the lie was too deeply rooted and she had no idea how she could get out of it. It took until the Christmas special of 2009 for Pam to come clean but by this time everyone had already outed her as a regular meat eater and became a running joke.

It was clear from the outset that this would be a different kind of sitcom to anything that had gone before and that extended to the making of the series. Filming predominantly took place in South Wales which meant both cast and crew were forced to stay in tight confines of each other for a few days per week for three months. This was a unique technique used by the director Christine Gernon and writers Ruth Jones and James Corden for ease of getting everyone in the right place at the right time. The other benefit was that it brought the whole cast together and created natural chemistry between all of them. One could argue that some of the show’s success is down to this unique process as in such a conducive environment it was hard not to become the character you were playing. So for five days per week the cast decamped to South Wales where they lived and worked together which had a very positive impact on the overall production. Therefore instead of merely portraying the characters for their scheduled scene, all actors inherited the spirit of the sitcom throughout the whole week. Such a unique technique had a very positive effect on filming as you could argue that they weren’t acting at all, they were merely being.

Matthew Horne was no stranger to TV comedy, appearing as long-suffering grandson Jamie to Catherine Tate’s outspoken Nan in her award winning self-titled BBC2 sketch show. Corden and Jones cast him as the ever loyal but slightly naive Gavin Shipman, a telephone operative for a company called ICB in his mid twenties who still enjoyed the same social life as he had done for the last decade surrounded by friends from school lead by best mate Smithy. This relationship was so easily relatable with the audience as everyone has enjoyed a close friendship with someone who they become inseparable from and Gavin’s close relationship with Smithy was something that we all desire. Each weeknight was planned and mostly consisted of frequenting The Rose and Crown. Weekends were reserved for foam parties or going up west with their wider circle of friends including Budgie, Fingers, Dirtbox and Chinese Alan (who wasn’t remotely Asian but just loved takeaways).

Everything remained the same until Gavin decides to go to Barry Island to finally meet Stacey who he’s been talking to inside and outside of work for the best part of a year. For moral support, he brings Smithy who is already aggrieved at the thought of being set up with Stacey’s mysterious best friend. They all meet at a coach park where we are introduced to Stacey’s best friend Nessa (played by Ruth Jones), probably one of the most ridiculous characters in sitcom. Devoid of age and femininity, Ness has been everywhere and done everything and regularly reminisces about affairs with John Prescott, being dropped as a member of All Saints, a former housemate of Noel from Hearsay and enjoying the title as South Wales’ bowling champion. It appeared that she had lived a fruitful life but still lived in a caravan park working as an attendant in an amusement park.

As soon as they saw each other, Gavin and Stacey fell head over heels in love which meant Smithy and Nessa would be forced to get acclimatised. This resulted in a meaningless bunk up in a public toilet which was the first of many liaisons which ultimately resulted in baby Neil. In fact you could argue that the story arc of Gavin and Stacey isn’t really about the namesakes at all, it’s more about the complex relationship between Smithy and Nessa which we find so intriguing. Never before have two sitcom characters had such utter contempt for each other but still find themselves in bed with both of them instantly regretting it. Of course this becomes complicated when Ness gets engaged to the slightly sinister Dave Coaches who also takes on baby Neil as his own. Yet in the last episode on New Year’s Day 2010 we see Dave being jolted at the altar as Nessa chooses Smithy.

Rob Brydon had already written and starred in a successful comedy Marion and Geoff in 2000 before starring alongside Julia Davis in Human Remains later that year so he was already a sitcom stalwart. Having attended the same school as Ruth Jones, Brydon knew the things that made her laugh and instantly related with the character of Bryn. Stacey’s unexplained single uncle with a worrying fascination with young men and keeping fit. An innocently naive soul, Bryn was a simple individual who would become excitable about the most mundane things including gnocchi, satnavs, James Blunt and Online chat rooms. Forever upbeat, Bryn was the life and soul of any party as he had the unrivalled positivity to get on with everyone apart from his nephew Jason who was involved in a mysterious thwarted fishing trip which we never got to the bottom of but remained a very controversial subject throughout the series. As Stacey’s only male influence following the death of her dad, Bryn was a father figure always on hand for support and to hand out pocket sized rape alarms.

There’s so much that we need to find out about the dysfunctional family in the decade that they’ve been away: are Gavin and Stacey still together? Are Nessa and Smithy still together? Is Gwen still making cheese and ham omelettes? All these questions and more will be answered this Christmas Day on BBC One when the two families from Billericay and Barry Island for what will potentially be the very last time. In the age where the British sitcom is going through a turbulent period, it’s good to know that there are still a handful of shows that still have the power to excite and captivate the nation. So Christmas 2019 here we come as we prepare to see “What’s Occuring…”

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