Gavin & Stacey: what made the BBC sitcom so special
As a 2019 Christmas reunion is announced, we look back fondly at hit comedy Gavin & Stacey…
BBC Three gave me a lot of enjoyment over the years, and not just in the shape of nightly Family Guy episodes to fall asleep to punctuated by 60-second bursts of showbiz news. James Corden and Ruth Jones’ Gavin & Stacey is probably the BBC Three original that I love more than any other, and is one of those very rare shows that everyone in my family would gather around to watch. With news of a Christmas special reunion episode announced, here’s what made it such a hit.
The show began its life on BBC Three in May 2007, before transitioning to BBC Two and eventually BBC One as its popularity grew rapidly across its all-too-brief run of three years and 20 episodes. This is one of many examples of how BBC Three’s willingness to invest in a promising little comedy series resulted in a barnstorming success for the BBC at large.
The beauty of Gavin & Stacey is in its simplicity. The set-up is one that could happen to any of us; an engrossing love story spawned from the mundanity of office life. The show opens with a snapshot of ordinary existence: Gavin Shipman and Stacey West, both trudging through their boring office jobs with desks, phones and computers.
I’ve rewatched all 20 episodes before writing this, and I still couldn’t tell you what they actually do for a living. Something relating to computers – as Gav explains to Bryn after a lengthy tutorial from Rob Brydon’s Welshman about the importance of remembering ‘www.’ – is all the show tells us. Because of course, these day jobs aren’t really important. What is important? That would be the bond that the titular duo has formed over countless work-related phone-calls.
And so: a blind date. Again, this is something that happens to a lot of us over the course of our lifetimes. Taking a gamble, putting yourself out there, and putting hope in the universe that the potential romantic pairing will work out for the best. In coming to London in that first episode, Stacey does what all of us have done at some stage by putting her love life in the hands of fate.
And, of course, with every romantic leap of faith comes the best mates who won’t hear the end of it. Enter Smithy and Nessa, the unenthusiastic chums who are dragged reluctantly along to provide back-up should the date go awry. And enter Mick, Pam, Bryn and Gwen – the family members, ranging from sturdy to erratic, who wish them the best. Most of us have people like this in our lives; our nearest and dearest family, who, despite getting on our nerves regularly, always seem to pull through.
Gavin & Stacey’s pilot episode slots all these pieces into place within about five minutes. Most people who stuck around to watch all twenty episodes were probably hooked by this engaging opening, which set up a relatable-but-exciting and totally enduring comedy drama without wasting any time. This not one of those ‘stick through the first seven episodes, it gets good’ programmes that seem to be growing in number these days; it’s golden from the start.
Of course, the set-up wouldn’t work if the characters and the casting weren’t right. This is an area that Gavin & Stacey really excels in. It knows which characters need to be quirky and over-the-top, and it knows which ones have to play it straight. It’s a careful balance for the writers and the cast to have to maintain, but they pull it off consistently.
One of the show’s biggest strengths is that its title characters aren’t wacky weirdos played for cheap laughs. Gavin is one of the straight men of the ensemble, with Matthew Horne giving a level-headed and reliable everyman performance. Yes, he does the robot from time to time and joins in with the in-jokes, but he’s not the one bursting into every scene and cracking wise.
Likewise, Stacey isn’t a manic pixie dream girl or an over-the-top caricature of modern womanhood. She’s an ordinary likeable lass, with flaws and fears, played wonderfully by Joanna Page. These two well-balanced-compared-to-the-rest-of-them protagonists provide ciphers for the viewers. Regardless of your gender, in most episodes you’ll probably find something to relate to in Gavin and/or Stacey.
The wackier behaviour is left to supporting characters like Smithy and Nessa, portrayed by James Corden and Ruth Jones respectively, who also wrote the show. In creating these characters for themselves, Corden and Jones fashioned a bottomless pit of comedic potential. Without them, the show simply wouldn’t work.
Smithy is the iconic lad’s best mate: he has a nickname for everything and everyone, is constantly turning up unannounced at his mate’s parents’ house, and has a soft side that he’d like to think is hidden (but really isn’t). Whether he’s waking up in a bathtub on the job, jokingly chatting-up Pam and/or Dawn, lamenting the behaviour of his teenage girlfriend, nonchalantly acting like he hasn’t just had sex in the garden, crying because Gav’s left, or belting out bonafide tunes like World In Motion, Do They Know It’s Christmas? or American Boy, Smithy confidently gobbles up big laughs in every episode.
The same goes for Nessa (full name Vanessa Shannesa Jenkins), who gradually gets odder and odder as the series goes on. Ruth Jones’ show-stealing performance managed to make the barely-even-a-word line ‘oh!’ into a hilarious recurring gag. And that’s not to mention her collection of comedic jobs and hobbies (from trucker to Santa to palm-reader), ever-expanding list of celebrity romantic conquests (including Dodi Fayed, Russell Brand and a cameo-making John Prescott) and unseen-but-teased unconventional bedroom techniques (never mention toilet brushes to Smithy, and all that).
Less hard-working writers might think that two big comedic characters are enough, but Corden and Jones don’t stop there. Pam, Gavin’s mum, could easily have been a boring side-note. But instead Alison Steadman’s character is a bombastic force of nature, who’d pretend she was a vegetarian if it meant keeping the in-laws happy, mount a protest/BBQ against a pylon being erected, and happily start a race war with the Welsh contingent after a few drinks. She’s paranoid, overly-excitable and utterly hilarious.
And on the Welsh side of the fence, Rob Brydon’s Bryn more than holds his own in the comedic throng. Whether he’s skirting around the fishing-trip-that-shall-not-be-discussed, developing his interesting relationship with technology (“that’s the beauty; after I’ve put all of mine on, I’ve still got room for 49,853 songs”), singing with Nessa, stressing out over the surprise party, working out with Smithy or interacting over-enthusiastically with all the lads, Bryn garners big laughs on regular occasions.
Even the roles that don’t need to be funny are funny: Mick is mostly a straight man, but Larry Lamb still gets laughs through pointing out Pam’s absurdity; Gwen raises a chuckle every time she offers an omelette; Pete and Dawn’s attempts to overcome their differences are always laugh-worthy; and, raunchy OAP Doris is good comedy value as well (“there’s the salad, now leave me alone!”)
Some shows are happy with having one or two really funny characters, with everyone else playing it straight to heighten the appeal of the main joke-makers. Gavin & Stacey avoids this pitfall, ensuring that every character between these two oft-warring families gets their chance to shine. Top stuff.
So yes, Gavin & Stacey has a strong premise, quotable lines, engaging characters and top performances throughout. But, truth be told, I don’t think these are the only reasons that the show was so popular.
After all, lots of shows have nice ideas and good actors, but very few of them ignite the nation’s interest to such a degree that two characters get to make a number one single with Tom Jones, while another gets to coach the England football team in a Comic Relief sketch. This is a show that almost everybody seemed to love, and I think a big part of that is the human drama at its core.
These characters, however wacky some of them might be, are constantly embroiled in relatable personal dilemmas. In the very first episode, for example, comedy was wrought from the fact that Stacey’s family were so nervous about her traveling to Essex to meet a boy. Somehow, the purchase of a rape alarm led to multiple big laughs. Moments like these are right in the middle of the Gavin & Stacey Venn diagram, where real human drama meets side-splitting comedy.
As the show progressed, it spent more and more time in this central section where laughs meet big topics. In series one, Gavin and Stacey’s relationship showed us the ideal romantic timeline of dating, engagement and marriage. Meanwhile, Nessa and Smithy showed us the less glossy alternative: one night stand with someone you don’t even claim to like, awkwardly trying to avoid each other, unplanned pregnancy.
Relationships can go any number of different ways, and Gavin & Stacey’s biggest strength is in showing us the whole gamut of possibilities. Not just in the contrast between Gavin’s love life and Smithy’s, but also in the romantic entanglements of the supporting characters.
In Billericay, we get Pam and Mick happily cohabiting through thick and thin, while Pete and Dawn constantly turn up to events and slag each other off. In Barry, Gwen is a widow who puts all of her energy into omelette-making, Bryn lives alone gets incredibly enthusiastic at the possibility of human contact, and Doris lives a promiscuous lifestyle with a range of suitors. From the start, Dave Coaches’ history of STDs is a common discussion point, too.
Gavin & Stacey doesn’t just show us these things and play them for laughs, either. Over its 20 episodes, it dug surprisingly deep in the inner turmoil of its characters. Series two, for example, showed Smithy running and hiding at the driving range upon learning that he’s set to be a father.
He doesn’t know what to do, and his first move upon returning is to propose. He hasn’t got a clue if this is the right thing to do, and promptly gets rejected. This is believable behaviour, allowing the show to explore dramatic areas without ever losing its comedic footing.
Smithy’s fatherhood arc is one of the strongest narrative threads of the show. Rarely is a comedy series brave enough to show something as real and sad as a father who can’t see his son half as much as he’d like. I’ve rarely hated a TV character as much as Dave Coaches, just because he’s the obstacle to Smithy’s happiness. The christening episode, in particular, is tough watch (but still funny: “why is he in a dress?”).
It takes Smithy until the final episode to announce his true feelings for Nessa, and even then he admits that he only truly likes select moments of their time together. Love isn’t black and white. Sometimes it’s impossible to make sense of. Again, how often does a show tackle a topic like that and stay funny (“it’s true, most of the time I find you repulsive”).
And life wasn’t easy for the title characters either. Their position as the idyllic alternative to Smithy and Nessa was short-lived. In series two, Stacey got seriously homesick in Billericay and resultantly moved back home and separated from Gav. Smithy was making jokes about the marriage being over and how awkward that would be for him, and at one point such an outcome felt like a serious possibility.
Things didn’t get much better in series three, with Gavin finding out about his low sperm count. This show wasn’t afraid to take risks and tackle serious issues. Now it was Gav feeling sad, in need of a poignant pep talk from his dad. And the jokes didn’t try up either (with a reference to ‘swimmers’ in the beach episode leading to a ‘Sorry, Gav’ from Pam).
This is why Gavin & Stacey has such longevity and captured audience interest so much: beneath the initial broadly comedic veneer (e.g. Welsh people marvelling over mint Baileys), there’s always an underlying web of real human emotions. Even if Nessa’s latest barmy backstory detail may have been what we all talked about week on week, it was the relatable dramas that kept us coming back next time.
Bravo then, to all involved in the show. Oh go on, all together now… “Meet me tomorrow, I’ll wait by the window for you…”!
A version of this article was first published in 2016.