`No one else knows about this, but ...'

Whatever happened to our great British reserve, asks Genevieve Fox, as the secular confessional of the talk show grows more popular by the day

Since Talk Radio UK went on air last month the phone lines have been jammed with callers eager to talk. About anything. Sport, leisure, trivia, pain. But perhaps its most popular programme is Nancy Roberts' three-hour agony slot. Loosely termed a health show, this is the station on which listeners can really bare their souls. And they do.

During her first Sunday on air one woman rang to confide that that very morning she had suffered her third miscarriage. Too frightened to contact her doctor, who had recommended sterilisation which she feared he would now insist upon, and too distraught to tell her own husband and family, she told Nancy instead.

Another called to say that the stomach cancer from which she had been suffering for the past two years, and which she had kept hidden from her family, had now become terminal. She was too frightened to tell her family because she believed they would be angry with her.

There was a time when dark revelations and private pain were reserved for the confessional box or, for an lite few, the therapist's couch. The vast majority of the population, meanwhile, kept their private thoughts private or discussed them within their own homes. Not so today. We now readily reveal our innermost thoughts, confront our partners with our grievances, confess our dreadful longings and murky misdemeanours to an audience of millions.

Our talk show hosts make it so easy. Oprah - illegitimate, raped, abused - has confessed everything. The entire Western world is her friend. Ricki Lake, tissue-wielding fat survivor, whose expertise in tear-jerking confrontation now puts her ahead of Oprah in the ratings war. Vanessa, the plump but sexy, caring, sharing Jewish housewife who speaks on your level. Chrystal Rose, like Ricki Lake a mere 26-years-old, sold everything to make pilots for her Channel 4 show, so convinced was she that we needed her.

Then there's Nancy, self-confessed hypochondriac, therapy veteran, breast cancer survivor, telling us about her nightmare former boyfriends, her health problems, her hopes. And finally, Esther. Older, wiser, earnest Esther, the nation's greatest listener. Glamorous, rich, attractive, larger than life yet one of us, they all tell us everything about themselves and they invite us, lull us, into doing the same. And maybe, one day, we too could be glamorous, rich, attractive.

The British have never been particularly good at talking intimately about their feelings, so this sudden desire to talk on air appears anomalous. What has happened to the renowned British reserve, promulgated within the bastions of our culture: the educational system (remember the admonition always to be concise), the forces (stiff upper lip, chin up), society's rules (speak when you are spoken to, children should be seen and not heard)? What has happened to our dismissal of going public with emotions as vulgar? How could we have allowed the secular confessional, aka the talk show, to become a cultural obsession?

Living in a commodity culture in which advertising plays a leading role is partly to blame, according to Professor Patricia Aufderheide, a Guggenheim fellow in Washington DC, who is researching the ritual of intimate revelation on television. "Mass media is now experienced as a very private commodity," she says. "People imbibe it in domestic situations in which they are completely at home."

Justin Sampson, of the Radio Advertising Bureau, says: "People regard radio as their friend. They have a one-to-one relationship with their radio, which is why they can tell it what they don't even tell their closest friends." What he does not point out is how lonely, vulnerable individuals are egged on by mother substitutes offering nuzzling warmth and unconditional love, undiluted either by penance or moral judgement.

It appears that British reserve, salt of the Empire, has fallen prey to Americanisation and technology; a traditionally reticent nation has been transformed into a happy-blabby mob. But "Big Mouth" Nancy Roberts, as she cheerily describes herself, is convinced British reticence is a myth. She started working with British audiences in 1979, when she set up Spare Tyre Theatre Co to spread her message that "dieting makes women crazy".

"At the end of each performance we had a discussion with the audience. It was during those discussions that I became convinced that there is no difference between the British and Americans' ability, and desire, to express themselves. It is a question of feeling safe to open up." This particular audience, raised on feminist consciousness-raising, was hardly representative of the British nation. But here Nancy is today, getting thousands and thousands of regular punters to talk about things that 15 years ago they wouldn't even have told their real-life best friend, let alone a radio audience of thousands. Feminism, whose slogan "the personal is political" encouraged public intimacy, has certainly eased us along the confessional path.

And Nancy may have a point. Londoners certainly didn't need much persuading to join in on LBC's 24-hour phone-ins when the country's first commercial radio station was launched in 1973. It may be that stuffy BBC radio programming has just held back our naturally wagging tongues and suppressed our salacious appetites. As Geoffrey Howes, a sociologist of religion at Cambridge University, points out, the British (with the possible exception of the upper classes who seem never to have talked to anybody) have always indulged in the voyeuristic pleasure of gossip: over the garden fence, in the pub, outside the church, around the village green. In the wake of the disintegration of community life, they are merely redirecting their chatter and their curious, voyeuristic natures. But - and this is where the transformation has occurred - they are now talking, intimately and at length, about themselves.

People used to talk within families and indeed some still do. But, like British reserve, the family always had one major drawback, as Patricia Aufderheide points out. "A sense of discipline and the fear of offending your family or local community meant you couldn't indulge your self-pity unchecked. Within mass media, however, there are no checks on how you can indulge yourself because there are no consequences."

The Catholic confessional always had a similar drawback - doing penance. All that was supposed to have changed since the early Seventies when confession was revised and renamed the sacrament of reconciliation. "Rather than owning up to sins for which we are then forgiven, reconciliation is about rebuilding bridges not only with God but with the people we may have offended," explains Father Liam Kelly, a Catholic priest in Nottingham. "There is a healing aspect. If you've gossiped about your neighbours, for example, a penance might be to go and do something good for your neighbour. You don't have to do that on a talk show."

So, in the absence of a sense of sin, of right and wrong, the barriers are down and people talk merely to be heard. According to Geoffrey Howes, "there is no longer any sense of shame". We have lost any inhibitions about going public with private concerns. "In a post-Freudian culture we don't talk about conscience and sin but about the role of the unconscious in determining conduct, about the necessity of letting it all hang out."

In our postmodern, psychoanalytic age, pop psychologists, electronic agony aunts and disembodied voices are our companions. "I present myself as a sympathetic ear, as a friend," says Nancy, "but more than that as someone who is there for you if there is something you need to say which you feel unable to say to anyone else. People need to be heard."

Which is why, over in New York, Mr Apology has no qualms about the voyeuristic confessional phone line he set up in 1980. People call up to confess to everything from sabotaging hamburgers with human spit to serial killing and bestiality. Mr Apology reaps no financial rewards. The calls are free, just as they are on Talk Radio UK. He just gets a vicarious thrill from hearing the confessions, as do the callers who ring up just to listen to recorded confessions.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, we may have become used to going public with private thoughts but we have yet to turn the corner to the gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, detailed outpourings that characterise American talk show audiences. It may, according to Chrystal Rose, who modelled herself on Oprah, be just a matter of time before that changes.

"British reserve is definitely on the way out," she says, "but, whereas American audiences will talk about absolutely anything, British audiences at present will only talk if they feel strongly about an issue."

Shelley Rohde, the show's producer and the one who has to crank up the audience and get them to clap and whoop and practise what they are going to say during the pre-show warm- up, takes a different view.

"British reserve is alive and well," she says, regretfully. "We would like the show to be really confessional - it makes great telly - but we have not been able to get the British public to do this. It is too embarrassing."

Yet we love listening in grim fascination to other people's problems, relieved if they outstrip our own, comforted if they resemble them, appalled by the participants' lack of shame but gripped by what we see as their freakishness.

"We all love to hear about other people's problems," says Father Kelly. "The tabloids are so popular because they pry into other people's secrets. There is something about that we all like, though we'd have to go to confession and own up about that, of course."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Project Coordinator

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

    Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

    £350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

    Embedded Linux Engineer

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

    Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

    £50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz