`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."

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