To avoid accusations of virtue-signalling and generally being a hectoring bore, I have to admit something: I’ve enjoyed ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Sure, it was usually while in the grip of a merciless hangover and huddled in a duvet (not always mine) in my student accommodation, but I felt that in order to write with any authority on what has happened I should admit to having been a ‘Jezza’ fan myself.
ITV’s morning “dispiriting bellowing chamber”, as it was once described by Charlie Brooker, stood atop the channel’s daytime entertainment schedule for 14 years until it was pulled suddenly from broadcast and repeat (however, at time of writing, the show’s bulging YouTube channel remains active) following the death of a guest.
In the immediate aftermath of these tragic circumstances, two distinct sentiments have been widespread. Firstly, for what it’s worth, there has been an outpouring of condolences and sympathy for the guest’s family and friends and I am sure all of us echo those sentiments. Secondly, significant scorn has been directed at The Jeremy Kyle Show, and programmes like it, for failing to take proper care of the vulnerable people whose lives make their ratings.
However what there is not much of is surprise because, if we’re honest, the idea of someone coming from a reality television programme turning to tragedy has become alarmingly familiar.
But, as alluded to in the opening paragraph of this blog, what is also not surprising is the reason that The Jeremy Kyle Show has been such a success for nearly a decade-and-a-half. It panders to the lowest and oldest form of human entertainment that we have: the shameful thrill of watching someone else suffer.
Its defenders, including my former self, will hopefully have more grace than to launch into a full-throated defence of the recently cancelled talk (shout?) show. If they don’t, then expect to hear all kinds of arguments that seem convincing. They will, as I used to, argue that The Jeremy Kyle Show is a curious mix of tacky soap opera, real-life pro wrestling promo, and circus clowning that seems to lodge itself like sticky bubblegum in the lowest common denominator part of the brain.
For me, however, this should never have been a good enough excuse to enjoy what one judge called “a form of human bear-baiting” and is not the real reason it pulled in such reliable numbers.
No, the particular cocktail that The Jeremy Kyle Show pours its thirsty audience is much more unsettling. By offering apparent help and resolution to some of the most disadvantaged, troubled, addicted, and dysfunctional individuals, and their families, in our society in exchange for allowing the British public (or at least, from personal experience, its hungover student demographic) a good leer at them, the show draws on one of the most unpleasant aspects of British culture.
While we Brits have a lot to be proud of – our resilience, reserved demeanour, genuine charity, and sense of humour spring to mind. But we are also capable of taking a kind of sadistic, gawping, perverse glee in the misfortune of others reminding us that while things may be bad: ‘at least we’re not this poor bugger or his family’. It may be the Germans who invented the concept of schadenfreude but you need to cross the English Channel to see it at its nasty, reprehensible fullest.
No one should seriously pretend that cancelling a television programme, even one as high profile as The Jeremy Kyle Show, will change this grubby desire but at least with it gone, the temptation to enjoy this particularly obscene form of entertainment will be harder to indulge.
I’m also sceptical of the ability of any decision, even on a political or policy level, to have any significant impact on addressing the root cause of the show’s success, and therefore of the kind of horrific consequence that it was only a matter of time before it had. That kind of change requires a frank and honest look at ourselves as a society with decision-making capabilities – one of those possible decisions is not to indulge this kind of titillating smut and therefore cut off the demand for it.
While I, and everyone else who has enjoyed the show, can’t fix the damage we’ve been part of creating, we can, in our own small way, stand up, take responsibility, and cut of the cycle of abuse through making better choices. If we do that, then we might have gone some way to making amends for the monster in the blue shirt that we helped create.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.