In 2007, when The Jeremy Kyle Show was still in its infancy, a judge was in charge of sentencing a man who’d attacked a fellow participant. Seizing the opportunity to denounce this most egregiously classist of programmes, he declared it “a human form of bear baiting”. Kyle et al, he added, “should be in the dock with you”.
Shortly afterwards, a former producer on the show publicly condemned it, too. “Jeremy Kyle, face up to the fact that you peddle heartbreak and pain,” wrote Charlotte Scott, who worked on the show when it first began in 2005. “ITV: admit the fact that you broadcast a show that damages people’s lives. In this new age of moral responsibility on television, it is time to bring the curtain down on shows like this.” Neither ITV, nor Jeremy Kyle, listened. It would take 12 more years, and a death, for that curtain to finally come down.
This week, news broke that 63-year-old Steve Dymond had been found dead, having apparently taken his own life just 10 days after appearing on The Jeremy Kyle Show. During his appearance, a lie detector test (a device the show presents as infallible, despite it being widely discredited by people who actually know what they’re talking about) indicated that Dymond had been lying about his infidelity. According to a member of the audience, when the result was read out, Dymond “collapsed to the ground”. His son, Carl Wooley, told press that Kyle had “ripped into” his father. In the wake of this tragedy, the show was taken off the air, and has now been axed for good. Good riddance – but it is too little, too late.
For over a decade, The Jeremy Kyle Show wheeled out feuding family members, partners, friends and spouses, and had them hash things out in front of a jeering studio audience. The intention, supposedly, was that they resolve things. But you didn’t have to watch more than a few minutes (which is now quite difficult to do – the show seems to have expunged its entire YouTube content) to see that conflict resolution was very far down the show’s list of priorities, below humiliation, contempt and mockery. We were invited not to root for the guests’ reconciliation, but to sneer at them from the comfort of our sofas – relishing in a feeling of superiority with a side of schadenfreude. Kyle exploited people’s genuine problems (which were frequently mental health related) for entertainment, using faux concern and cod psychology to give a paper-thin veil of respectability to the nastiness.
Kyle, for his part, was vicious – a pugnacious troll with a God complex. The 53-year-old presented himself as intellectually and morally superior to his guests – who were often from underprivileged backgrounds – and frequently unleashed more diatribes at them than they did at each other. A few of his pearls of sagacity: “Call yourself a mother? You’re a disgrace, love.” “She has a reputation. She is 17 and you lot reckon she has slept with 33 men.” “Who pays for your beer? Do you? No, you don’t! I pay for your beer! Me and every other taxpayer.”
There was, in case it wasn’t obvious, a frequent tone of classism to Kyle’s tirades. He seemed to view financial disadvantages as moral failings, and relished stirring up a fear, even a hatred, of “benefit scroungers”. It was a circus of snobbish cruelty, and Kyle was the besuited ringmaster.
It was, thankfully, the last of a dying breed. Tabloid talk shows peaked in the Nineties and early Noughties, with shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Trisha leading the charge, but have seen a decline in popularity in recent years. This is partly due to the rise of reality TV. Those shows have come under fire, too, for their inadequate aftercare (former Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon died by suicide last year) but they at least lack the inherent vitriol of shows like Jeremy Kyle’s.
“If your neighbour’s house is on fire,” writes Professor Vicki Abt in How TV Talkshows Deconstruct Society, “you are motivated to help put it out, or at least interested in having it put out, because you care about your neighbour and the fire is a threat to your own house. Television talk shows create an ersatz community, without any of the social and personal responsibilities that are attached to real life.” Programmes such as Jeremy Kyle’s, she says, “are not interested in adequately reflecting or representing social reality, but in highlighting and trivialising its underside for fun and profit”.
Thank heavens, then, that The Jeremy Kyle Show will no longer darken our television screens. But the circus should have left town long ago.
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