“Some people go to the seaside to drink lager and eat chips” (Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale, Welcome to Britain – A Celebration of Real Life, 2005, p.66).
Introduction – Broken Men and Bare-Knuckled Boxing
The sitcom Gavin and Stacey (that is, a total of three series, and two Christmas specials, 2007 – 2010) is, for me, a televisual insight into young love – and, as a result, pan-UK family life – in the first decade of the new Millennium. Starring both Mathew Horne as Gavin and Joanna Page as Stacey, it co-starred James Corden as Smithy and Ruth Jones as Nessa (both of whom also co-wrote the show), and a whole host of other actors in supporting roles (Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb as Gavin’s parents, Pam and Mick, and Melanie Walters and Rob Brydon as Stacey’s mother, Gwen, and her uncle, Bryn). However, all actors and roles considered, this two-part article aims to, in the main, discuss the sitcom’s male characters – in particular, Gavin, his best friend Smithy (whose joint aim is to taste all of the world’s beers), Stacey’s afore-mentioned Uncle Bryn, and Stacey’s brother Jason – for evidence of what I term Great British Blokedom of the Noughties. For example, in Gavin and Stacey, blokish outsiders are ever-present, especially with Gavin as an Essex Boy in Wales, and, according to John Jewell (in Cyfrwng Media Wales journal, 2009), Dic – as the series’ sole Welsh speaker, and unaccredited actor – being an “outsider in his own country” (p.70).
In The British Television Location Guide (2008), Steve Clark and Shoba Vazirani, point out that, as well as being a highly popular sitcom, Gavin and Stacey “has also done much to put the Welsh town of Barry, a few miles from Cardiff, on the map” (p.104). Clark and Vazirani are also at pains to stress that, despite the series being jointly set in the Vale of Glamorgan and Essex, all location filming was conducted in-and-around Barry. So, as well as Barry’s main railway station and Town Hall regularly being glimpsed, Stacey’s home is a terraced house on Trinity Street, whilst Gavin’s parents’ house – instead of actually being in Billericay – is in Dinas Powys (a large Vale of Glamorgan village, situated between Barry and Cardiff). Furthermore, Gavin and Smithy’s Essex local is the Colcot Arms, Colcot Road, Barry, and the Burger King where Gavin’s sister works is not a Home Counties one at all, but is the one to be found at Culverhouse Cross (a district straddling the boundary between the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff, which is the site of both an extensive out-of-town retail park and a major traffic roundabout that links west Cardiff to the M4 motorway).
As a former resident of Barry – that is, the rough, working-class Barry Docks, and not the more up-market Island or the town’s West End – I used to bump into, on a daily basis, the real blokes of Barry. The grocers and garage workers, the bin men who reeked, and red-faced Posties. Landlords who don’t even look old enough to drink, German-speaking Turks who carved kebabs, and Chinamen who served up half-and-half (half rice, half chips, and all with a bland curry sauce). Broken men – both young and old – with walking sticks, wheelchairs, and amputated limbs. Angry and bitter men, who – high on steroids, speed, and piss-weak lager – were already tanked-up by the time the shops open. Hooligans and Chavs, these were the big men who strutted with a small-town swagger. You knew that, at all costs, you had to avoid their gaze, for they “Knows you, and they knows you dad”. Shouting with fury down mobile phones, I’ve seen them punch brick walls in rage. Yet, thankfully, I never saw them when they battered their girlfriends and wives black-and-blue…
Barry, by its very nature as a British seaside town, is a place of daily in-yer-face tension – tension that is generated by the jittery relationship between the out-of-work locals and those who, seemingly with money to spare, are just visiting: day-trippers, holidaymakers and migrant workers. John Betjeman, in his ‘Beside the Seaside’ broadcasts of April 1938 (available in the 2007 book, Trains and Buttered Toast – Selected Radio Talks), made explicit this historical aspect of British seaside life, suggesting that this edginess is something akin to “a boxing match”, poetically imploring “Who of us does not know that eternal struggle between residents and visitors which goes on from year to year round our wave-washed shores?” (p.95). For instance, whilst visitors may complain about high prices and have high expectations of the coastal beauty spots they visit, they – at the end of the day – are always able to return home. However, the proprietors of waterfront businesses suffer astronomical rates, and those that live all their frustrated lives in such seaside small towns, often feel trapped, when the realisation dawns upon them that, at the end of the season, they have nowhere else to go. However, visitors do indeed flood into Barry – and other British ‘wave-washed’ resorts each and every summer, of course, and it is to how they flood in – by both road and the rail – that we now turn.
Motorway Madness? Gavin and Stacey as Brit Roadcom
As if to update and swap the road movie genre for a Noughties’ TV audience, Gavin and Stacey – well, that is, the sitcom’s blokey, bestest mates characters of Gavin and Smithy – can be better understood as offering us a pair of Motorway Buddies: that is, to use the Wenglish (Welsh English, or Anglo-Welsh hybrid dialect) – Motorway Butties. Whilst we often think of the road movie as a particularly American form of film-making (due to that country’s sheer size, love of gas-guzzling cars, and tendency for open-top freeway freewheeling towards a never-ending vanishing point on the horizon), Britain has no real cinematic equivalent. However, Gavin and Stacey goes someway in attempting to establish a Noughties’ small-screen version. For, with its M4 and M25 sequences, perhaps Gavin and Stacey is a prime example of a UK-centric Motorway Sitcom – or, rather Brit Roadcom – writ small. Thus, the car journeys undertaken by Gavin, Smithy, Uncle Bryn and Dave ‘the coaches’ (the latter a holder of a PCV, or passenger carrying vehicle, licence – and, thus, the guy who drives the sitcom’s characters, collectively, from place to place) are devoid of any form of motorway madness or road rage incidents. Instead, they are (in the main) tranquil moments of extensive male bonding – that is, endless Jolly Boys’ Outings. As such, both the merged Barry-come-Billericay road atlas-style map to be found at the top of the Series 1 & 2 DVD boxset, and many elements of the spin-off book (2008’s Gavin and Stacey – From Barry to Billericay), reinforce an appreciation of Gavin and Stacey as Brit Roadcom. For the book both begins and ends with relief-detailed maps (covering, respectively, south Wales and south-east England, showing rivers, low-lying land, hills, mountains, etc., superimposed upon which are connecting motorway and A roads highlighted in yellow), its Lonely Planet-style mock-up that is ‘Bryn’s Travel Guide’ (‘Road Trip Guide – From Barry to Billericay’), and – and this is such a lovely touch – the road sign pagination (which counts up as mileage, between Barry and Billericay, as your reading progresses), and so on.
Thus, taken together, all of these add to the sense that watching Gavin and Stacey (whilst, of course, reading the TV tie-in hardback book) is akin to going on a modern-day charabang trip – whilst not leaving the cosy comfort of the arse groove on your sofa. Furthermore, though, the mid-book, double-paged panoramic shot of the Severn Bridge – in the true Welsh tradition of acknowledging the great cultural leap that is the crossing of the Severn River by either road or rail (think Raymond Williams’ 1960 novel, Border Country, and Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield’s 2006 album The Great Western) – not only makes obvious the differences between Welshness and Englishness, but underlines the difficulties of living on the other side of such a Wales-England crossing. However, in Gavin and Stacey, the so-called M4 corridor not only acts as a conduit for male-female love affairs and the resultant comedy, but it also makes manifest the actual geographical connections between the towns and cities to be found at either end of it. So, no surprise then – as John Jewell makes explicit – “the action shuttles between Barry and Billericay” (2009, p.62). Yet, Jewell also stresses that, despite ease of access afforded by the UK’s road network, distance always manages to also exacerbate social differences and cultural division: “At the beginning of Episode 1 a screen caption appears: ‘Barry Island, Wales’ and in the next scene we are told we are in ‘Essex, England’ so barriers are drawn and markers set for conflict very early on” (p.63). Yet, such geography-based, socio-cultural oppositions – that of, south-east Wales versus south-east England – only serves, ultimately, to place great emphasis upon the multi-faceted nature of Great British Blokedom, in all its contrasting (and, yes, often conflicting) varieties, that can be found amid Gavin and Stacey.
In 1997’s The Road Movie Book, the title of Steve Cohan’s chapter makes explicit that being on the road is, quite often, “almost like being at home”, whereby domestic comforts can be brought along and experienced – and, quite literally in Gavin and Stacey, consumed – along the way. As, in Gavin and Stacey, this aspect of the road movie genre is touched upon in, for Bryn, an epiphanic moment, in Series 2, when he is taken to the drive-through Burger King, where he is seen to be absolutely gob-smacked about the fact that he is able to have an on-the-go meal in a car. Indeed, the series’ adherence to the notion of it as Brit Roadcom – that is, as opposed to an all-American, male-male, buddy-ish road movie – ensures that blokish gender-bending is also thrown in the comedic mix. For example, across Episodes 1 and 2 of the second series, Nessa (driving Stacey’s belongings to Billericay in a truck, and insisting that they adhere to their CB radio user handles) enters into a full-blown Smokey and the Bandit-style, on-the-road, over-the-airwaves, conversation with Bryn. So, whilst Nessa is the über-macho “Robert Mugabe”, Bryn is the far more flouncy “Dame Judy Dench”. Indeed, to Bryn’s credit – or, rather, Rob Brydon’s credit – he repeatedly uses his ultra-feminine handle without the faintest flutter of an eyelid.
Gavin and Smithy – Seaside Mod versus Townie Chav?
Gavin’s masculinity, however, is brought into question from the very start of Series 1. As a nod to the so-called feminisation of workplace that has taken place since the early 1980s, he – relocating from Essex to the Vale of Glamorgan – performs a desk-bound, suit-and-tie job. Yes, once upon a time, clerical work was indeed the preserve of upwardly mobile male workers, but it was the feminisation of the duties of the clerk – that is, the move away from a printing compositors’ keyboard to that of a QWERTY keyboard of the modern typewriter or computer – which resulted in it being derided as ‘women’s work’. Moreover, Gavin’s role as a mere paper-shuffler is actually in keeping with historical aspects of ways of being male in-and-around a pre-Thatcher-era Barry. Despite Barry being a former major dockyard, and, as a result, many men having found docks-related, blue-collar employment there through the years, a considerable number of others found themselves carrying out far less physical white-collar work. A reading of local historian Jonathan Hicks’ Barry and the Great War, 1914 – 1948 makes obvious the varied nature of Barry’s composite male workforce at the start of the 1900s, as many of the local soldiers, all Barry born-and-bred (who were to fall upon Flanders’ fields) were just like “Private Charles D. Martyn … a clerk in the Gas and Water Department of the local council” (2007, p.70).
On a far lighter note, though, rather than being a one-dimensional, average kind of guy, Gavin’s multifaceted blokishness – especially when compared to the slovenly, over-weight Chav that is his best mate Smithy – is enhanced, through the entire series, by his sartorial allegiance to a unique subcultural style that I shall call ‘Nerd Mod’. So, more on this – over a beer, some fish and chips, and a stick of rock –
Part 2 Here