Why the nation fell in love with Leon from Gogglebox: a tribute and call for more ‘ordinary’ older people on our screens




 

Leon Bernicoff had starred in Channel Four’s Gogglebox, along side wife June, since the show first aired in 2013. It was on Twitter yesterday evening that I spotted the headline stating that Leon had sadly passed away aged 83. I’ve been a big fan of Gogglebox from the start and particularly loved watching Leon and June with their witty and often blunt commentary on the week’s television. And as a social psychologist with an interest in social representations of older people, I also hold a particular type of appreciation for the part that Leon played in the popular Friday night television show.

The population is ageing. There are more people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s than ever before, yet the coverage of older people across the media is rather skewed if not limited. Older people are definitely not absent from the media or even from prime time television. The late Sir Bruce Forsyth was a favourite of the Nation for decades and just one example of how older people can and have taken center stage in recent years. Alternatively, we see images and stories of old age as a period of decline, illness and steady retreat from society. Stories of malpractice in care homes and the increased prevalence of illnesses such as dementia are common place in on screen discussions of later life.

Everyday ‘ordinary’ older people, their lives and stories, opinions and daily routines are notably absent from this picture of later life that the media present to us; figures for which neither fame and fortune nor death and decline are the focal narrative. Leon Bernicoff and the sincerity of his character that a show such as Gogglebox was able to portray, defied these otherwise polarised images of old age. From calling David Cameron a “fat-faced Tory knob” and Jamie Oliver a “dickhead” to the endearing conversations with his wife June in their living room in Liverpool, Leon was, what many would describe as an ‘ordinary’ man, loving, witty and opinionated.

Gogglebox – albeit an edited reality tv show, is a show that allows a closer insight into the ordinary, the everyday routine of watching television with friends and family. And it is this insight into the ordinary that promotes understanding and a sense of personhood rather than abstract objectification of old age as one thing or another. In this sense, I would argue that Leon Bernicoff was extraordinary in failing to fit neatly into existing media narratives.

I feel that there could and should be more attention devoted to individuals such as the late Leon Bernicoff and others who are ‘ordinary’ but simultaneously resist the polarised representations of old age that currently dominate the media.

Personally, I found Leon and June a real delight to watch on a show that made you feel like you really got to know the people on screen and judging from reactions across social media in the last twenty four hours, it is clear that the nation fell in love with Leon. My thoughts are with the Bernicoff family at this time.

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