The terrible truth about The Jeremy Kyle Show is that if Stephen Dymond hadn’t reportedly died by suicide, or the attempt on his life had somehow failed, the show would still be on the air. At best Mr Dymond’s experience would have formed the base of some sort of semi-moralistic “feature” for a tabloid website on a quiet day. The prime minister would not have felt obliged to comment on it.
The surprising thing is that The Jeremy Kyle Show, and its various imitators, has been on the air for so long without such a tragedy happening (so far as we are aware) or the killing of someone live on air. It goes without saying it was an awful freak show, a modern-day Bedlam, populated by people with plenty of troubles and not all of them their own fault. Yet here was Kyle, his lie detector machine and his incessant hectoring, like some sort of diabolical judge in the courtroom form of hell. Drugs, drink, infidelity, illegitimacy, abuse, broken families, petty crime, misspelled tattoos and obesity – it was all there, like a cordial of concentrated poverty.
Chavs, the underclass, yobs, the feckless and the idle, the workshy and the criminal: the show built into, and fed off, a notion that those who hadn’t managed to make it life were in some sense inferior, only capable of displaying any moral sense when bullied by Kyle and unable to utter a true word unless confronted with a polygraph. Kyle’s feedstock was what the Victorians used to call the “undeserving poor”. He treated them as such, and many of them acted the part. Is it pretentious to say that the collection of grotesques paraded before us was reminiscent of Hogarth or Brueghel the Younger? Well, it is – but, in imitation of the show, I’m not bothered.
Since 2005, The Jeremy Kyle Show has gone about its grubby business: the alchemy of turning trauma into light entertainment. And no one much cared about the damaging effect it was having, until now. Certainly not ITV, which must have been proud of the highest rated daytime TV show, and apparently not the regulators. Certainly not the viewers. How many, I wonder, of the many hundreds of Kyle’s guests found their lives ruined by the experience? And how many, by contrast, found it life-affirming and a memory they will treasure forever and certainly long after the fee has been spent?
Even without the lie detectors, even without the heavies on guard to prevent one family member assaulting another, even without the beeping swearing matches and without Lord Chief Justice Kyle himself playing moral arbiter, you don’t have to be some sort of fuddy-duddy Reithian to wonder how television got here.
And yet on and on it went, pushing the boundaries, mining for ever more absurdities, paying for a hotel room and travel expenses so they could come to a studio and be gawped at by a bored nation eating a tube of Pringles for brunch.
I have sometimes wondered where this TV adventure into the unknown would end. Maybe the producers would have persuaded the Palace to a Jeremy Kyle Royal Special, have Harry and Meghan, plus kid, and Wills and Kate on to talk about how they don’t get on with each other any more? Or if they ever did, and it was really all just a cynical sham? Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II could be sat in the middle, trying to keep them apart, before Kate slips her leash and jumps on Megs, screaming: “I saw that [beep] [beep] dress first, you slag.”
The Jeremy Kyle Show made Trisha, which it replaced, look like an episode of Panorama, and The Jerry Springer Show, on which it is seemed to be modelled, like Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Watching the Springer Show one day, sometime in the mid-1990s, I recall smugly thinking to myself that of course those brash Americans would have a show like that, but not us, not the reserved, undemonstrative, polite British.
For all the outrage about Kyle and the death of a former guest, the debates around it seem a little misplaced, a bit dated. Traditional television is slowly dying on its feet, and we now live in a world where mass murderers can live stream their atrocities on YouTube, where a few clicks can bring you a wealth of Isis beheadings and violence perpetrated by, and on, virtually any living creature on planet Earth. Banning Kyle is a mere gesture in such a context.
Jeremy Kyle himself may not be back, but something very scummy will crawl back on to our screens to leave a tidemark. In time it might become even more vicious, given the growing need to compete with the unlimited horror shows available on the web and social media.
The solution? Why not read a book.
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