Gavin and Stacey and the Myth of the Apolitical Comedy

by Siavash Minoukadeh

With its cast consisting of a closely-knit ensemble of characters that are both completely ‘ordinary’ whilst also teetering on the brink of caricature, Gavin and Stacey draws on a long tradition of what can broadly be called ‘working-class comedy’, a tradition that stretches back to Only Fools and Horses and Open All Hours, by way of the Vicar of Dibley. Drawing in more viewers than any other scripted show in the last decade, James Corden and Ruth Jones’ cross-country comedy seems to contain something which is very highly in demand right about now: unifying power. 

The characters function as a contemporary Commedia dell’arte troupe, each acting as an easily-understood stock character representing a particular type of person in British society. Gavin and Stacey have something of the Innamorati about them, being in love with each other but doing little else. Pam has a touch of the gossipy Columbina. The characters can also be identified by their costume, be it Nessa’s leather jacket or Bryn’s knitwear. Relying on archetypes so heavily produces a show which will always be unchallengingly entertaining to a wide audience – the characters are developed enough to have a plotline worth investing in without being so complex to make them lose their familiarity. On the TV comedy spectrum, it occupies a strong middle ground between the weak slapstick of Mrs Brown’s Boys and the intensely personal story of critical darling Fleabag. Gavin and Stacey, it would seem, has something for everyone.

Comparing Gavin and Stacey to Fleabag also reveals a key aspect of its appeal, namely how it is rooted in class. Fleabag fits quite comfortably into the popular conception of the metropolitan elite: getting off on Obama speeches, going to feminist lectures and of course, living in London. While ostensibly a sharp, though still witty, critique of middle class liberalism, much of its acidity is counteracted by its sharp observations which evokes the pleasurable sensation of seeing aspects of your life represented onscreen, at least for the majority of the critics, a lot of whom were born into/gravitated towards that lifestyle.

In stark contrast, Gavin and Stacey doesn’t feature a single Londoner: Gavin, who is the closest to one, only occasionally goes there on business and is mocked for being boring. The show’s ‘ordinariness’, its reliability to people across the country, is a marked contrast from the pretensions of the media bubble so visible in shows like Fleabag. Wales and Essex are now centred, the stories of the people living there given a stage to shine. A concept which on paper may have sounded like a simplistic representation of these communities actually ended up being received as hear-warming and accurately observed. So, one could posit, Gavin and Stacey did so well because it reached out to the forgotten majority; it actually represented this country.

If that is the case its supporters want to make, then so be it. If they revere Gavin and Stacey’s portrayal of ordinary people however, it must be asked where they think the people of colour were, for every character on the show is white. Do they see ethnic minorities as another liberal elitist construct? The reality is that the British working class is the most diverse section of society. Corden and Jones can write an all-white show but doing so would makes it as representative of the average community in this country as Fleabag

The same applies to queer characters. Jason, the only queer figure, is sidelined, his character reduced to his sexuality. Though queerness is not used as a punchline in itself, Jason’s only real purpose seems to be create comic awkwardness, whether through the memory of his fishing trip with Bryn or Smithy introducing him as a “proud member of the LGBTQ community”. Of course, it would be remiss of me to discuss queerness in Gavin and Stacey without mentioning the fact that when singing ‘Fairytale of New York’, Nessa sings the line ‘you cheap lousy f****t’. Jones defended the inclusion of the lyric claiming that they would “have to remain true to the characters”. Yet there is nothing in Nessa’s character that implies she would or wouldn’t be comfortable using the slur. Unless it’s assumed that as a working-class character, she would inherently be tolerant of homophobic language – a dangerous and incorrect thing to assume. 

Of course, politics, of any sort, is also never brought up explicitly in the show. The lack of diversity is not addressed or acknowledged. Critiques of the show’s identity politics, such as those I have just made, are met with fans claiming that the show is just funny, there’s no need to insert politics into everything. Only, I’m not inserting politics into Gavin and Stacey, it’s there already, albeit unacknowledged. 

The politics of a comedy made about a marginalised community such as Man like Mobeen or Chewing Gum are clear: the very act of commissioning a show such as these required a decision to be made to include voices which wouldn’t otherwise be included. Regardless of whether any political issue is touched on, the show’s very existence is a statement about representation and diversity. Equally, should it not be the case that by not featuring marginalised voices in comedy, as is the case in Gavin and Stacey, a political ideology is at play?

This is where the insidiousness of ‘ordinary’ comedies such as Gavin and Stacey lies. By rejecting the fact that they, like any piece of culture, are commentaries on the society they were created in, these shows claim that they transcend politics, the stories they tell are the norm. In contrast, Fleabag’s fretting liberal Londoner is a consciously elitist show, Netflix’s Sex Education and its multi-ethnic queer cast of characters is edgy, experimental. This is especially the case in comedies where the veneer of humour is often used as a way to brush over issues of representation and politics.

It can be said that a show such as Gavin and Stacey is not popular because of its characters’ identities, but their personalities – reading any further into it would be fruitless. However, if that is the case, then it again raises the question of why none of the principle cast could have been played by actors of colour. A choice is made each time a character is written and conceived and having a character fit into the status quo is as much of an active political decision as bringing a new voice in.

So if no work is without its politics, what are Gavin and Stacey’s? Jones and Corden’s conception of this country is of a bumbling, white, heterosexual one though it avoids saying so explicitly: that would distract viewers from their fun. Viewers may relish seeing this fiction of the British population but they don’t like to be reminded of what they are endorsing by enjoying it.  Yet the Britain of Gavin and Stacey is not the real Britain, it has never been the real Britain and to claim otherwise is as ideological as anything a more ‘edgy’ comedy might put forward. 

The trick for both Gavin and Stacey is to mask this ideology – claiming, populistically, that their vision of the world is the norm. Politics only comes into question when you stray from this norm. The public do not like to be told that their choices are endorsing a white, heterosexual hegemony (see the response to Stormzy calling the country racist) and yet, that seems to be what many want. ‘Apolitical’ comedies present this vision without the label, catering perfectly to this demographic.

This was a guest contribution from Siavash Minoukadeh. Siavash writes about the intersection of art and identity. He can be found on Twitter at @SMinoukadeh.