Fame has taken us by surprise, reveal Gogglebox stars Leon and June
June and Leon Bernicoff settle down to another evening’s viewing, with Leon in control of the remote (Photo: Channel 4/ Jude Edginton)
Leon is putting out the bins, June Bernicoff explains as she answers the phone.
Her husband’s Scouse drawl can be heard in the background, his mutterings muffled under the clattering of dustbin. But for Gogglebox addicts, it is difficult to imagine the Bernicoffs anywhere other than seated in front of their TV, offering engaging, and in Leon’s case, often withering opinions on what they are watching.
The Merseyside couple are among the biggest stars of the hit Channel 4 series, which returns to our screens tonight.
Viewers have warmed to them, chuckling guiltily as Leon slates overweight X Factor contestants, admiring June’s restraint when her husband makes his more OTT remarks and feeling a tug on the heartstrings as the pensioners contemplate their twilight years.
First broadcast a year ago, Gogglebox had an inauspicious start, the first series running for just four episodes in a graveyard slot. Critics suggested reality TV had finally hit rock bottom. Why would viewers happily watch other people watching television?
“I didn’t think the show was going to take off,” admits June, 76. “It seemed such a simple idea. Leon was very keen to take part but I had to be pressed. After the first series I thought that would be the end of it.”
But series two was an altogether different thing, with an ever-growing audience of millions tuning in to watch larger-than-life characters like Brixton best friends Sandra and Sandy, Brighton boys Stephen and Chris, and the show’s other Jewish family — the Tappers from north London.
The retired teachers — who have two daughters and three grandchildren — have even become new media stars, with a big Twitter following. And they attract celebrity attention when out and about.
“We went to London to see the tennis and we were recognised all over the city,” June says. “I thought: ‘How do people know us?’ It was amazing. We get stopped in Marks & Spencer down the road or when we are in Costa having a coffee.”
As if to confirm their star status, Leon’s regular request to June to “bring me a cracker” has become a catchphrase. “Leon goes to Slimming World, but — I’m not being rude — Jewish people do eat well,” she says.
“Cutting down is very difficult for him. Halfway through the evening he needs a snack and I say: ‘You can’t have anything to eat.’ It was a joke about the cracker and now it has taken off. People see us in the supermarket and ask if we are stocking up on his crackers. It’s nice to have such a good response.
“The producers thought there might not be nice comments. As teachers you get the odd uncomplimentary remark from a child, but most people are just great. My granddaughter tells me not to answer people on Twitter, but there’s only been one unpleasant comment and that was about a political issue we’d raised on the show.”
The couple met at teacher training college in Liverpool. They have a strong marriage, now in its 54th year, but when Leon proposed to non-Jewish June, his family were deeply unhappy.
“Leon was an only son and that caused problems with his family. It was the 1950s. My parents were chapel-going in south Wales so it was not easy.”
“It was very difficult early on,” Leon adds. “But I loved June so much I couldn’t do without her. My father was in the army and was quite religious. He eventually came round to the idea of us.”
The couple weathered the storm, largely with the help of Leon’s Orthodox aunt. She accepted their marriage and welcomed them for Yomtov meals.
“I always think our girls had the best upbringing,” he says. “They went to shul with their grandparents and then went to the chapel in Wales.”
Involvement in Liverpool Jewish life now extends only to Leon’s sessions at a bridge club. Nevertheless, his use of Yiddish phrases in Gogglebox identified him to Jewish viewers. He has also been mildly critical of the strictly Orthodox, but the 79-year-old insists there is no serious ill-will.
“I have no animosity towards religious people — I just can’t understand how they live. I can’t take to them at all. It’s the same with Muslims. I can’t understand women wearing burkas.”
The Gogglebox families appear to watch endless hours of television, spanning all genres but with a particular focus on news, sport and reality shows. How do the Bernicoffs fit in all the prescribed viewing?
“Leon loves the television,” says June. “He comes in and he’s sitting in front of the TV all day. I have to drag him through at meal times. We enjoy most of it. I didn’t like Embarrassing Bodies and I actually walked out during one of the programmes.
"They showed my empty chair. There was a programme based in the toilets at a nightclub. We thought it was exploiting immigrants. Leon’s relatives were from the pogroms so that hit a raw nerve. That programme was scraping the barrel. A show based inside toilets?
“But we like the northern soaps and find they are bringing up important issues like Hayley’s cancer story in Coronation Street.”
The show’s success is unlikely to abate in series three, with a prime time slot for the next three months. And having unexpectedly stumbled into small screen celebrity, Leon is determined to make the most of it.
“We were among the first to sign up for it. Two pretty girls from the production company came into the bridge club and it started there. I’ve enjoyed all the coverage. It is fantastic how it has taken off. We cannot move in Liverpool for people taking photos.
“June answers all the tweets. It’s been incredible. Our grandchildren love it. We could end up with our own live show. Why not?” And typically he gets the last word in the interview, shouting: “June! When is it on? Oh, Friday nights — for Shabbos?”
Gogglebox starts tonight on C4 at 9pm and will be repeated on Monday at 10.50pm