The Jeremy Kyle Show was once a guilty pleasure of mine. Or at least it would have been, had I felt any guilt at all about the visceral pleasure I felt when I watched Kyle setting the world to rights. In the series Kyle supposedly tried to resolve a family or romantic dispute between two guests, calling out philandering partners or neglectful parents. But now I see that ultimately he goaded people into a fight (often physically). Back in the early 2010s, when I was in secondary school, The Jeremy Kyle Show was standard viewing when we were ill and off school: the sick thrill of seeing the private dramas of others play out on screen was the natural accompaniment to our own sicknesses. Kyle was “daytime TV” personified — indeed, his show was ITV’s most popular daytime television programme while it was broadcast.
So I cringed watching the new Channel 4 documentary The Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime, which looks at behind-the-scenes footage from the show (which was cancelled in 2019 following the suicide of a man shortly after he appeared on it). It seems obvious now that the show was nothing more than poverty porn — in one scene in the documentary, Kyle refers to his largely working-class guests as “thick as s***”. My grammar school classmates and I might have thought of ourselves as worthy, left-wing intellectuals, but students would fling about insults such as “he looks like he belongs on Jeremy Kyle”. Age-old class discrimination, the sort that wrinkles its nose at Poundland and Luton Airport, was foundational to the show. This feels even more grim knowing that Jeremy Kyle was made in a society with few community resources for families, mental health or addiction. Many former contestants have suggested that they felt the only way to get help was by going on the show and offering their trauma up as entertainment.
My go-to on a sick day is now Queer Eye, a makeover show where five LGBTQ+ men teach a troubled person to love themselves. I view it as the antidote to Jeremy Kyle — unhappy people are helped to connect with their own family and community, rather than being pitted against each other in a Hobbesian manner.
But I wonder whether these days, Twitter is the closest thing we have to Jeremy Kyle. We love to see people have public breakdowns on social media, tweeting while they are clearly in a place of great mental distress (just look at the mocking response on the platform to the writer Laurie Penny’s experience of Complex PTSD). Just like on Jeremy Kyle, the audience quickly take a black and white stance on who is “right” and who is “wrong”, a consensus reached depending on whichever tweet prominent users rally around first. There is nasty language, cheap shots – in particular on both sides of the transgender debate. And there is constant shaming, all under the guise of being principled. “You’re disgusting,” Kyle once said, sternly towering over cowering guests as though he were the arbiter of all morality (in the documentary he’s described as having a “God complex”). “I would say we were a cult,” said one producer who worked with Kyle. With all the pile-ons and death threats I’ve seen on social media, I wonder whether our culture has progressed as far as we think. Are we really so different today?