Robert Kilroy-Silk: The morning after

For the last 16 years the daytime talkshow host has been asking, 'Could you live with a transvestite?' or, 'Are you 30, single and desperate?'. Now he's contemplating his cornflakes and wondering, 'What is it with me and foreigners?' and 'Where did it all go wrong?'
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There's a website on which you can type in a name and it will search for associated epithets and rejoinders. Entering Robert Kilroy-Silk returned the following: "Robert Kilroy-Silk is in it for the viewers"; "Robert Kilroy-Silk is my nemesis"; "Robert Kilroy-Silk is the 'king' of the British talkshow"; "Robert Kilroy-Silk is a vampire"; and the shock news - surely mistaken - "Robert Kilroy-Silk is dead".

Then again Kilroy-Silk might just feel that his career is in need of the administering of the last rites. Comments that he made about Arabs in his column in the Sunday Express last weekend have led the Gilligan-sensitised BBC to suspend Kilroy, his talkshow that has gone out at 9am nearly every weekday morning for the last 16 years, with an internal investigation promised. And for good measure, Kilroy-Silk has been reported to the Metropolitan Police by the Commission for Racial Equality. Its chair, Trevor Phillips, described the article as "indisputably stupid" and as "trivialising one of the most important and difficult areas of international relations". Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council complained to the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, that the article was outside "all the norms of responsible journalism". (The brouhaha has been a long time coming: astonishingly, it seems that the Sunday Express printed an almost identical version of the column last April). Under the headline "We owe Arabs nothing", Kilroy-Silk asked, among other things: "What do they contribute? Can you think of anything? Anything really useful? Anything really valuable?"

The rhetorical question is a much favoured device of the TV host whose production team refer to him as "the man with the tan". His shows invariably begin with two such questions, something along the lines of: "Is it possible for a man to live in a woman's clothes?" And, "Why won't my husband get a job?" So let's pose a couple of our own. Can we ever really know what goes on in the mind of Robert Kilroy-Silk? And to what lengths will a man go to be able to bask in a spotlight of his own creation?

His origins belie the permatanned gloss. Robert Silk was born in Birmingham in 1942. His father Bill, a stoker, died on active service, and his mother Rose then married John Kilroy, her late husband's best friend. It wasn't an easy childhood: the family had to share an outside toilet with others, and young Robert didn't make the grammar school cut at the first attempt, though he did get there second time around. He went on to gain a place at the London School of Economics, at that time the UK's école supérieure of radical student politics. It was only then that he doubled his barrel, combining his father's and stepfather's surnames. Meanwhile he stayed firmly on the path to political achievement when, in 1963, he married Jan Beech, a shop steward's daughter with an uncle at the heart of the Birmingham Labour Party machine.

After graduating, Kilroy-Silk settled down - at least for a few years - to life as a politics lecturer at Liverpool University. Peter Kilfoyle, the MP for Liverpool Walton and a former defence minister, remembers Kilroy-Silk's days as a pedagogue. Kilfoyle, who went on to be Labour Party organiser on Merseyside before entering Parliament, applied to the university to become a mature student in 1969. His admission interview was with the chippy young lecturer. "My impression of him at that time was of a man who didn't like to be crossed in any way - a man who didn't take kindly to a countervailing view to his own," Kilfoyle says. While Kilfoyle didn't get his place, Kilroy-Silk was already plotting greater things.

He contested Ormskirk for Labour in 1970, finally taking the seat in 1974 and immediately proclaiming that he "wanted to be the next prime minister". Margaret Thatcher saw off that boast, but Kilroy-Silk did become an opposition home affairs spokesman, campaigning for prisoners' rights. But when boundary changes did for Ormskirk, and he became MP for the tough Merseyside seat of Knowsley North, the generally received wisdom goes that he lost the fight for reselection after a hard-fought scrap with the Militant Tendency.

Others would have it differently. Despite well-documented fisticuffs with a trade union activist at the 1985 Labour conference, it would seem that he had little stomach for the slow, attritional political battles of the time. "He never faced up to Militant at all," says Peter Kilfoyle. "He just packed his bags and went. He didn't tell anybody, he didn't tell his faithful agent or his supporters in the party, he just did it." Another veteran Merseyside Labour MP, asked about the time that he and Kilroy-Silk were colleagues, would only offer that as he "couldn't say anything positive, he preferred not to comment".

But by then the BBC had come calling. Unable (or at least unwilling by conventional routes) to rise to the dizzy heights of public office, Kilroy-Silk created a parliament of his own. There would be none of that namby-pamby Mr Speaker-sir right-honourable friend nonsense here. The lord of all he surveys could control his demi-panoptical chamber on the move, the speaker's wig replaced by a bonnet of grey steel, the symbolic mace substituted by a dinky stick microphone.

While the man of the people perfected glib moralising into a daytime TV artform, the more subtle permutations of his private life were becoming apparent. He may have told Hello! that the birth of his first grandchild "was always going to be special because he is my only son's first son", but it wasn't true. In 1985, an affair with a London art teacher led to the birth of a son. The mother was offered a settlement of £200 per month on the strict understanding that she never revealed the identity of the father (a tabloid paper spilled the beans in 1995). There was the former "Penthouse Pet" who alleged that Kilroy-Silk suggested that they book a hotel room after she had been a guest on his show. His (acknowledged) son Dominic served 10 months in Ford Open Prison for mortgage fraud, said to be an attempt to live up to his driven father's achievements, and then there's the matter of his "previous" with xenophobia. In the past he's had to apologise for calling Ireland "a land of peasants, priests and pixies", referred to politician Peter Hain as "foreign-born" (accurate, but not meant as a compliment) and is reported as having told an Iranian Kurdish guest on his show "this is England, wait your turn".

So what now for the man who once hosted a quiz show called Shafted? Maybe someone could write an opera about him. No, sorry, there's only one Jerry Springer. Perhaps a Jerry Falwell-like public confession of sinfulness? It's hard to imagine Kilroy-Silk on his knees in an act of repentance, for all that he has apologised for his comments about Arabs. Sources close to BBC management suggest the corporation is tired of his style and is looking for someone suitable to go head-to-head with ITV's Trisha. Even his old daytime nemesis Vanessa Feltz is circling. Her spokesman speculated that "she may be the natural inheritor for that slot in the schedule". Kilroy-Silk once said: "TV is just a job to me. I'm paid an awful lot of money, which is why I continue to do it, but it's not exactly brain surgery, is it?" Let's hope he's put some of that cash away for a rainy day. It looks like he's going to need it.