AS IS the case with anyone (everyone) who has better things to do, I’ve never watched the Jeremy Kyle Show. Tell a lie, I tuned in once for about thirty seconds (it seemed longer) out of curiosity and found whatever was happening with the poor devils on the sofa so repellent that I jumped channels quick. We don’t have to do something we’d rather not do in order to know enough about it to form a view. We don’t have to wade in a sewer to know that it wouldn’t be great.
As of late, this piece of televisual so-called entertainment for the masses has been suspended.
Steve Dymond, a 62-year-old grandfather, apparently took his own life after an appearance on the ITV show in which he failed a lie detector test. So humiliated did he feel afterwards, so distraught at the disastrous ramifications within his personal life, that he no longer felt life was worth living. By all accounts it’s a sad tale. We can probably give Kyle himself and the show’s producers the benefit of the doubt; they are human and it’s hard to imagine they feel anything except wretched and shocked by the tragedy.
So how has it come to this? How did we get to a point where society’s most vulnerable people are persuaded to parade their fragile selves, their difficult and chaotic lives, for goading ridicule and gawping voyeurism in this modern incarnation of a Victorian freak show? Maybe there are bright young things out for the glittering prizes once they land those competitive, lucrative jobs in telly and who want one day to be behind a big hit money spinner where the mentally ill can be tipped over the edge into a premature grave. Let’s hope not.
Let’s believe instead that this is simply what you get, inevitably, when you have a race to the bottom in mainstream TV. Channel Four’s been up to it for years, of course (Big Brother, Benefits Street and the appalling Naked Attraction), egging on the exhibitionists, the narcissists, the confused, the plain needy, the body haters, all manner of motley disrobers, to bare all for the nation on evening telly. It’s not pretty and you probably wouldn’t want to be eating while you’re watching it (you wouldn’t want to be watching it at all). ITV too has found itself with duty of care questions to answer. Love Island, the popular ITV2 reality programme where relationship-seeking, oiled and polished twenty-somethings totter about and preen semi-naked by a kidney-shaped pool in an indeterminate part of southern Spain, has also had its brand death-marked. Does telly care? Does the industry care? Not really, it seems, even if they do pay lip service to therapy. At the BAFTAs the other day, not even a few seconds in the tributes could be found to mention Mike Thalassitis, an ex-contestant who was found dead in March. They were all too busy clapping and smiling at Killing Eve to think about what had been killing Mike.
Those putting themselves forward for TV shows all think it’s the way to a better life: fame, fortune, fast buck, easy money. But they also want love. To be liked. To be popular. For some it turns out OK. They are the ones that make it, make a little go a long way in the lives they can construct afterwards for themselves when the music stops and the cameras finally stop rolling. Others can’t and don’t. For them, the casualties, it wasn’t worth it at all, that shot at 15 minutes of fame, and that shot at love. They don’t find love. What they find instead is indifference and despair and loneliness. It is that which takes them to an ending rather than a new beginning.
During the next week, thousands of 16-year-olds in the UK will be called upon to think about the suicide of one Eva Smith (also known as Daisy Renton). That’s because they’ll be writing GCSE English Literature essays on J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. The play, written in 1945, is a powerful exploration of the theme of responsibility, collective as well as individual, for actions that have consequences. In his final speech, the Inspector urges the other characters to understand that we ‘are members of one body’ and although ‘one Eva Smith has gone’ there are ‘millions . . . still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone.’ The reason the play earns its place time and again on the exam syllabus is because it still has something relevant to say today; certainly, it appears, to the reality TV crowd.
Those who have ever watched (let alone been part of a Jeremy Kyle-whipped up, salivating audience) any show that is about exploitation of the desperate and the sad must, as the Inspector declares, ‘share our guilt’. It’s not too late to abandon hope, though, to start over. A good start would be, as Conservative MP Charles Walker suggests, the axing of the Ugly Telly that is the Jeremy Kyle Show. And for the rest of us to turn our backs as viewers on anything else that smells even a bit like it.