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Music

Exploring the cultural oddity of the Ricky Gervais Show XFM phenomenon

A while back I was chatting to one of our twaddle talking editors, Jack Whatley. We were discussing an article about songs with a story. When I asked for clarification about whether it was narrative songs or tracks with a backstory, he responded, “Narrative songs, like ‘The Killing of Georgie’ or ‘Babushka’.” In that moment I knew he had outed himself as a fellow Ricky Gervais Show XFM fan. 

This has happened a few times in my life—those little eyebrow-raising moments when a specific quote is casually strewn into conversation like bait, and respective eyes bulge at the imagined riches of the conversation ahead. We are out there. There is a silent legion of us—all unable to take David Gray seriously, and, like a family who are sick of living on Butt Hole Road, slightly embarrassed of the cultural domicile where we spent so much of our time.

This is a cultural oddity like no other. Although we might downplay the absurdity, like a man trying to convince you that sitting on a pork chop for years on end isn’t that mad, a mass of people all endlessly listening to the same rotating slew of episodes from a 20+ year old local weekly radio show is utterly bizarre. It’s the behaviour of – and I don’t know the PC term for this – oddballs. 

In fact, if you had told Ricky, Steve Mitchell and Karl Dilkington back when they were sat in a tinpot studio, handing out Ladder 49 DVDs and playing The Rice is Right, that they would defy critics like Paul ‘The Party Animal’ Parker and launch a cultural phenomenon, then you would’ve been told to play a record. Nevertheless, from humble beginnings, they undoubtedly launched the most successful radio show of the century (I daren’t say ‘of all time’ in case Archers fans threaten me with a strongly worded telegram). Moreover, it’s a show that defines much of modern culture, it prognosticated the future, it tells us an awful lot about the zeitgeist… and it all seems to have happened almost mystically by accident. 

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One prominent mystic element is where exactly it comes from. I mean, obviously, it comes from XFM, but who was going through the hassle to record and compile every single episode of this dog dirt when it was first being broadcast? Who are these noble heroes who seem to endlessly shuffle the best bits for a constant stream of new YouTube videos? And how, despite the fact I must’ve listened to every single second a thousand times over, do they seem to unearth new unheard moments all the time? Something weird is going on there. 

Secondly, the show exists in its own isolated world devoid of other external influences. Ricky Gervais, for instance, recently launched his new stand-up special. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the outrageously indoctrinated XFM fans would be a banker audience for the show, but that isn’t the case. We are the sort of fans who go on Mastermind and have expert categories like ‘Whitesnake between 1978 and 1984’ and you wonder what happened when Slide It In came out? 

That is not to say we haven’t followed the journeys of our tinpot heroes after they handed the reins over to Zoe Ball or Adam and Joe or whoever filled their shoes when they flew the nest – I’d wager that we all love Idiot Abroad too – but there is a distinct sense that the radio shows are a separate entity. That same singular sense applies to the show itself too. It’s just there to put on. It’s a comfort blanket for adults of the daft variety. But ultimately, we’re all just normal folks… except for a little bit of eczema and a boil, enjoying something that has inadvertently been copied in recent times. 

Take, for instance, the new Peter Jackson documentary The Beatles: Get Back—it’s nine hours long, and it’s about a 35-minute album. In the 20th century that would’ve been an obscene premise. Now, however, it occupies a weird liminal cultural space whereby people are content to just pop it on in the background when they have ten spare minutes. The same applies to the XFM show. We are content with the familiarity, like Kirsty and the chimp, and it can still make us chuckle and toss up the odd surprise forgotten moment all the same. 

Amid the bombardment of modern culture, this is such a refreshing thing. Within the endless stream of ‘Must Watch’ content, it is satisfying to hear about another monkey who has gotten married. Podcasts provide something similar, an aimless meander of slack personable entertainment. Likewise, YouTube’s scattered scatological stream of positively mind-numbing distraction flows on similar tangents to the fractured feel that breaking up Karl’s drivel with a bit of Aqualung provides. 

The Ricky Gervais Show XFM came before all of these, but it lived by the same principles. The reason for this is because it had one key similarity: Podcasters, YouTubers and streamers have to answer to nobody in reality. The same went for Ricky, Steve and Karl. They barely had to answer to the radio authority, and they certainly didn’t answer to XFM.

They were footloose and clearly just doing it for the fun of it. We’ve been basking in the beauty of that tangential twaddle ever since and presumably will be forevermore with quotes, insults and rockbusters solutions pop-riveted to the scarred bonnets of our mind like downloaded memories to the silicone brain of a crab. Play it again!

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