The shock of the view

Something as tasteless as the Jerry Springer show couldn't happen here - could it? Jennifer Rodger talks to the man himself

A young Satanist with an extensive vocabulary of bleeped-out swear words, a gothic couple imitating wax dummys, and a woman who, after an uncomfortable length of time, you realise is tonight's good guy - yes, it's The Jerry Springer Show.

This mix of "trailer park" Americans, bizarre stories and an audience which acts as a "moral barometer" - plus the brief "No subject too indecent, no individual too pathetic for THIS show" - prompts up to 3,000 calls a day and has given Jerry's American ratings a 145 per cent boost. His detractors damn it as everything from dumbing-down to dangerous voyeurism. To which he replies: "We are so used to an upper middle-class perspective from the media."

In Britain, it hooks young ITV viewers, and, because it shows twice daily in a primetime slot on the cable channel UK Living, digital television detractors parade it as what's in store for British television. BBC executives aren't replacing Esther quite yet, but how will the culture stalwarts of British television react?

This week Jerry tested the water with a lecture for the L'Chaim Society, a Jewish society which organises lectures at Oxford, Cambridge and London universities. A polite question-and-answer session in front of Oxford professors and students turned into a scene not unlike those witnessed on the show.

"You know what? People are the same all over," offers Jerry as a confident plug to any executive wanting to take the risk. "What's different here is television, and British television is evolving. I could do the same show in England, and get exactly the same stories."

Cashmere jumpers, weighted speech and a cigar at hand, failure doesn't figure in Jerry's appearance or his CV. A lawyer and aide to Robert F Kennedy, then one of the country's youngest mayors (spin doctoring his way out of a prostitute scandal), to political reportage and seven Emmy Awards. His Jewish family fled to London and then America from Nazi Germany, so to boot Jerry also represents the American dream.

It is a background that helps him to weather the controversies, such as when Jonathan Schmitz murdered a homosexual who declared a "secret crush" on the Jenny Jones talk show. The case trial pointed the finger at talk shows and many were cancelled. But Jerry survived, choosing to become even more outrageous as other programmes tried to be less controversial.

Jerry's defence is to play the populist card like a true politician. "It's perfectly OK for famous people to talk about infidelity, or promiscuity. As soon as you get people on TV who don't speak the Queen's English, who didn't go to the proper schools, and aren't famous or powerful, just regular people talking about the same things and responding as they respond, it's suddenly oh-so-distasteful. And that's such elitism.

"The truth is the best shows are when the guests are so good that you don't hear me."

A quintessential Jerry show contains punching, screaming and shattering revelations. "I make it clear, even when they call to be on the show, that you are not coming on the show to get problems solved. We trivialise serious problems if we ever say to people: go on television and get it solved. It's like George Clooney from ER giving out prescriptions. But we don't create it. If I have a guy here, and his girlfriend, and I bring out the guy who stole her, the normal reaction is not to say, 'Oh dear, how could you do that. No. What they'll do is go, 'You sonofabitch'. I promise you, if an Oxford professor comes home and finds his wife in bed with the next-door neighbour, he does not say, 'Forsooth what have I found?' "

And how does the captain of the ship avoid all-out mutiny? "I do believe that if I was in my twenties I couldn't do the show, but I am beyond that age where kids find me competitive. I am harmless to them. So that's easy, that's my part.

"Why do they do it? I am guessing, there is not much of a leap to say, you know what, if Princess Di goes on and talks about her bulimia or whatever, it's OK. In fact I may even have people cheering me, everyone in the neighbourhood is going to see this - it'll be great. They just want to be on television. Let's face it, most of the things we talk about on the show are not life- changing."

Jerry Springer doesn't appear like a man who sleeps uneasily at night. His karma is intact. "I would never ever say to someone, 'I don't like your point of view.' I mean, I put neo-Nazis on the show - they killed my family. I don't have any sympathy with people who come up and say, 'Please don't put that person on the show, I don't like their attitude.' "

Jerry Springer on UK Living, 3.20pm and 6.10pm, Monday-Friday. Saturday and Sunday, double bill, 9pm-10.50pm. ITV Sunday, 2.35am.

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