Who else, I wondered, is up at this time? It was 4am, an hour when reality seems disordered, disorientated and distorted, and The Jeremy Kyle Show was about to be accorded its first of three airings that day. On the screen an extraordinary fat woman was screaming at a sullen, shaven-headed man in a denim jacket. It was hard to understand what she was saying, partly because of her anger, partly because so many words were bleeped out.
Between them a smooth TV presenter in a shiny suit paced like an animal in a cage. "My jealous ex won't let me see my son!" said the label at the bottom of the screen. Later in the day we got "Mum, you need to know I'm in a gang" and, later still, "From bullied to bully, sister there's no excuse". Welcome, those of you who have to work during the day and who like to sleep at night, to the warped world of Jeremy Kyle.
And what a foul-mouthed intemperate uncontrolled world it is. Crammed into each 65-minute Jeremy Kyle show, which runs on both ITV1 and ITV2, and which has been on the air now for more than two years, is "a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil" – a judgement which is not mine but that of a British crown court judge, Alan Berg. At one point Kyle introduces us to a youth he says is an abusive and racist bully, and when the villain appears, the audience, bizarrely, applauds him.
But then, as Kyle is so fond of reminding his 1.8 million viewers, there are two sides to every story. Sadly in Kyle-world both sides are often equally unpleasant, and the man who purports to adjudicate between them is himself not much better as a role model. He mocks and goads and jibes at his victims, with a false mateyness, calling them "babe", "sweet" or "Davey boy".
"I don't mean to be judgemental," he adjudges. "I'm just trying to help you in the little time I've got, but you too are both as bad as each other." Minutes later he turns to one of them. "Do something about your anger issues," he says, evidently not realising he too is shouting.
But then this is why the audience likes Jeremy Kyle. He bills himself as a no-nonsense fellow who tells his guests the truth instead of what they want to hear:
"You're not a man!"
"Go out, get a job, and work like the rest of us have to!"
"This is pathetic. YOU are pathetic."
His shock-and-awe tactics invariably include pious assertions about how, if he had been in their position, he would have acted entirely differently. There is something insufferably self-righteous about the man.
But if Kyle is very pleased with himself his bosses are very pleased with him too. One critic may have disparaged Kyle as "the daytime drug of choice for people who cannot read" but his main 9.25am broadcast attracts 34 per cent of all those watching at that hour – a very high audience share figure for a daytime chat show. No wonder the presenter is said to be on a deal worth £1m.
But this week the consequences of his packaging of human suffering as entertainment hit ITV with a thud. A guest on "My wife ran off with our lodger!" was in court for head-butting his wife's lover on the show. But though the man was fined, the judge in the case found that he had been provoked by the makers of the show which was, he said, "a human form of bear baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment".
The programme-makers should also have been in the dock, he found, since "this type of incident is exactly what the producers want". It should not surprise anyone, he said, that the kind of people invited on to the show, "some of whom have limited intellects", become aggressive with each other.
Kyle's own past ought well to make him a candidate for one of the sensationalist melodramas in which his show specialises. Things began conventionally enough, with an early career which included cleaning cars, stacking bananas and selling life assurance before landing a job in the sales department of the West Country local radio station Orchard FM. Having been told he had a good voice, he put together a tape and applied for on-air posts. He worked at Kent's Invicta FM before joining BRMB in Birmingham in 1997. Initially a disc jockey, he developed a late-night agony-uncle chat-show format, fielding live calls on relationship issues. This he developed into Jezza's Confessions which he then subsequently presented on Century FM, Virgin and Capital in London, where ITV lighted upon him.
It was at Birmingham that Kyle came across the woman who was to become his second wife, Carla Germaine. She had been the winner of the station's notorious blind-date "Two Strangers and a Wedding" contest which had ended with Carla, 23, a model, marrying Greg Cordell, 28, a recruitment consultant, after they had been matched by a judging panel including station managers, relationship counsellors and a pop astrologer.
The first time the groom laid eyes on the bride was when she lifted her veil at the ceremony. The two total strangers received a luxury wedding, honeymoon, apartment and use of a Ford Puma for a year. Eight days after the honeymoon the groom committed adultery with a dental nurse. Three months later the couple were divorced and the short-lived bride went on to marry Jezza Kyle.
But then Kyle is proud of his colourful past. He is always telling viewers how "as any regular watcher will know, my brother had a cocaine addiction", that "my sister-in-law was a prima ballerina and weighed four and a half stone", that "I used to have a gambling problem" and that he regularly "used to drive through the night to see my kid". All of which qualifies him to pronounce authoritatively on drugs, gambling, eating disorders, child-rearing and divorce. (He split from his first wife Kirsty, with whom he has a teenage daughter Harriet, the child he drove through the night to see.)
Still, all of that is pretty unimpressive alongside the grand guignol of the pasty-faced, overweight, pierced and tattooed council-estate folk he invites on to his show. They are largely drawn from the social strata whose idea of a good time is to go out on the town beating people up while drinking Bacardi Breezers. One of Kyle's guests, accused yesterday of unhealthy eating and going to the takeaway four times a week, replied: "We only go twice a week. Other times we have deliveries."
The ads in the show's commercial breaks are a giveaway too. Many are for loans for people already heavily in debt. There are frequent ads for sofas, one of the items which even couch potatoes have to replace from time to time. The programme is sponsored by learndirect, the government body tasked with attracting those without qualifications into education. (John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has already received complaints from fellow MPs about public money supporting the Kyle show.)
Kyle and his producers insist that the show is therapeutic rather than exploitative, offering after-show support to guests from counsellors and a resident psychotherapist whom Kyle refers to only as Graham. "There's a lot more to it than people give us credit for," says Kyle. "Me and my team work hard to help our guests with the support they need."
Whether shouting at them and humiliating them on air is the best preparation for this is another matter. It is also questionable whether individuals as vulnerable as most of his guests can be said to give fully cognisant consent to what they undergo, and its potential repercussions.
The reaction of the audience is instructive here. They boo and cheer, jeer, shout and stamp, turning each event into a gladiatorial combat. Though Kyle tells them on air not to boo, insiders report that members of the production team encourage the audience to be vocal in their responses. Others egg on the guests before they move into camera shot. Girls from the team, one cameraman said, sit among the generating "oohs" and "aaws".
The way the programmes are put, Judge Berg found, is designed to heighten the levels of confrontation between the already emotionally fragile participants. Which is why many enter the set bawling things like "YOU ARE A LIAR!" or scream things like "I hope your mum dies of cancer".
The pop psycho-therapeutical asides of Kyle as the ringmaster to this grotesque freak show only add insult to injury. In the end it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jeremy Kyle is a slick and cynical pander to the basest instincts of the television audience. Of course people like it, but they used to like public executions. And there is a kitsch violence in the sentimentality and platitudes – "So you know who I feel sorry for? Your children" – as much as the ritual humiliation of this theatre of cruelty.
There is something even more distasteful. Kyle, whom someone described as the only man they know who can managed to wryly raise both eyebrows at the same time, patronises the participants in his show, deploying the skills of an education which most of his victims have so clearly lacked. He wants his viewers to watch these inadequates and then feel better about themselves. They may be, in Stephen Fry's words, the kind of individuals who might threaten you in the taxi queue on a Saturday night, or burgle your home while you are out, but here they are reduced to preposterous figures of fun.
The danger is not that one of them has now committed an assault in the studio. It is not even that in the United States two people have been murdered by guests who appeared on such shows. It is that the sensibilities of our society will become ever more coarsened. Jeremy Kyle may be moralising, priggish and smug but he holds up a mirror to our times and we do not like what we see.
A Life in Brief
Born: Jeremy Kyle, 7 July 1965, Canning Town, London.
Early life: Did a variety of jobs before his presenting career, including car cleaning and stacking bananas. Also had stint as a life assurance salesman. First job in broadcasting was in sales department of Orchard FM, Somerset.
Career: Begins broadcast career as a late-night radio DJ, first at Orchard and then moving to local stations in Kent and then Birmingham. Hired by national broadcaster Virgin Radio in 2002, presenting Jezza's Virgin Confessions. Switched to Capital FM, London, in 2004, before moving to ITV to present The Jeremy Kyle Show after the departure of Trisha Goddard. Now has a third of the audience in its time slot.
He says: "Some people will always think I've got the eyes of Satan. Others will think I'm a TV god. People have the right to criticise."
They Say: "It is for no more and no less than titillating members of the public ... a human form of bear baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment." District judge Alan Berg on The Jeremy Kyle Show
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