If you saw him in the street, you might not notice him. You might not even give him a second glance. For Jeremy Kyle is non-descript now; a grey, withered middle-aged man somewhere in his fifties. But he is also centuries old. In him we detect all the things we thought we had left behind. The hunting of witches. The pelting of vagrants in stocks. The ritualised and public persecution of the poverty-stricken and wretched. The rising miasma of age-old medievalism, carried by shrieking, puritanical rants, belted out by a sinister figure, and set against the backdrop of a baying and enflamed mob. Jeremy Kyle is part of our modern cultural landscape, it is true; he is a symptom of austerity Britain, and its class hatred – the visceral loathing of ‘chavs’ and ‘benefit scroungers’ and single-mothers, the vulnerable and the isolated. But he is also a product of something much older.
The witch finder general of yore was a specific and fascinating psychological proposition. A rigid ascetic with a military bearing, someone whose austere protestant morality was only ever capable of registering the one emotional tone, that of self-righteous rage. And yet, there was something else at work, something more. Behind the layers of righteous indignation and the religious spiel about preserving the community from the sinful and the wicked – behind the whole philosophy of purity and purification – one could always detect a long submerged sensuality. Deep down, always that repressed, sexualised demand whose energies had been sublimated into the furious drive to lay sin bare, to strip someone of all their defences, to reveal the guilt and corruption which lurks within.
Watching Kyle berate his ‘guests’ – the beetle-browed host, his puckered face swollen in a sneer of contempt, barking out raw recriminations; behind all that manufactured moralism – all that contrived shock and outrage – you can’t help but feel he is enjoying it all a little too much. Look past his military-drill-style hectoring, and you can glimpse a strange, dark pleasure in the dull shine of Mr Kyle’s glinting, beady eyes. A modern day Matthew Hopkins, albeit one who has exchanged pulpit for TV studio.
Kyle’s relish in his job – that obscene pleasure, strange and unformed – lurking beneath the surface, was perhaps the only authentic thing in a spectacle which was otherwise dedicated to a contrived and tawdry theatre of the absurd. As time has gone by, the behind-the-scenes mechanics and devices of the show have more and more been unmasked. Most recently one of the shows guest’s talked about his experience. Dwaine Davison appeared on the show and was later dubbed ‘most hated guest ever’. His life at that time was on the skids; unemployed and angry, possessive and controlling – he had become convinced that his older and more worldly girlfriend had been cheating on him. Davison contacted the show as a way of some kind of redress, not just against his girlfriend perhaps, but against life itself and the way his own seemed to have spiralled out of control.
In his appearance he came across as belligerent, swaggering and fundamentally unlikeable. But, said Davison retrospectively, that wasn’t the whole story. Looking back, the person on the screen wasn’t someone he fully recognised. It was an image the producers of the show had carefully cultivated. Davison was ‘blindsided’ by the speed at which events took place; within one hour of acceptance, there was a taxi at the door to whisk him off to the show’s base in Salford, the pleas from his family not to do the show still ringing in his ears. His physical appearance was then manipulated; the producers coaxed him into wearing a tracksuit rather than the jeans he was originally decided on (the tracksuit being the emblem of the tasteless vulgar ‘chav’ as mercilessly lampooned by ‘comedy’ shows such as Little Britain). He was then isolated for most of the day in a single room. The little contact he did receive was from staff who went to work on him, drilling him on how Kyle ‘hates people who don’t talk’. By the time he entered the TV studio he had been wound up so tightly he was ready to explode. And the programme got what it wanted; the exposure and humiliation of a caricature who was not quite human – a leary and aggressive ‘chav’ who was finally receiving the dressing down in the name of good, morally upright people (exemplified by Kyle) which he so richly deserved.
Staff who worked for the show have confirmed the same depressing backstage manipulations many times over. An anonymous producer revealed how guests were given booze, how relatives were kept apart and fed ‘lies’ about one another; on one occasion, the same producer reveals, they heard a member of staff tell a guest their girlfriend had called them ‘a slag’. Of course, such lies tell a deeper truth. How reality TV is really about unreality; the artificial creation and depiction of an ‘underclass’ which is made to coincide with the worst stereotypes their ‘betters’ project onto it. Those preening executives – the media professionals galvanized by privilege, wealth and public-school savvy, curling their manicured lips in distaste as they cherry pick the bewildered, the volatile and the most desperate, from the ranks of a group of people more broadly who are – more often than not – just managing to keep their heads above water.
For all his aggression, combativeness and swagger, Davison never had much of a chance. The cards were stacked against him from the start. He played into the hands of the same people who had approached him with synthetic smiles and an offer of help, of resolution, of hope. Once the humiliation had been enacted, once the studio lights faded, he was alone again. Not completely however. Now the soundtrack of his life had become one of relentless abuse from strangers in the street, comments on social media laced with acid, while the show itself did everything it could to prolong his pain by uploading clips of him onto YouTube with loud, inflammatory captions for the outraged delectation of millions. By this point the desultory ‘aftercare’ Davison was given – the odd phone call to check his ‘well-being’ from some distracted producer – seemed like little more than a way for the show to tick a particular box; in fact, according to Davison, it felt more like someone stabbing you ‘in the back multiple times’ and then asking if you are okay. Things eventually reached a head. In 2018, he decided he’d ‘had enough’ and took an overdose. His girlfriend found him and alerted the paramedics, and though Davison had stopped breathing, they were able to revive him.
Steve Dymond, however, was not so fortunate. Accused of cheating on his fiancée on the show, a week after he took his own life. Dymond’s appearance was typical in as much as it featured a much vaunted staple of the programme – the lie detector test. The use of the lie detector was the endeavour to provide the show with some kind of scientific veneer, to gild the whole ghastly process of public condemnation with the tinge of a higher objectivity and truth. Kyle made much work of the idea that the results were in the lab, that they were being evaluated by a group of professionals, that this was a serious and tested means by which truth could be yielded. Of course this was not truth, but only its sick parody. Kyle claimed that the test was 96 per cent accurate but an extensive survey which featured the findings of over 400 psychologists suggested that it was around 60 per cent accurate, or to say the same, little better than chance. But the lie detector had a highly symbolic function to play in the febrile and hysterical atmosphere of Kyle’s cruel, kangaroo court; it became the pseudo-scientific equivalent of the witches ducking stool, the means by which the inner sin could be conjured up and exhibited before the baying audience and Mr Kyle himself – his face set in its rictus grimace of puritanical triumph, his eyes lit with otherworldly fury.
One of the truly tragic things about Mr Dymond seems to have been that he bought into the whole hysterical pantomime, into the spurious pseudo-science of the show and its wafer-thin facade of moral purpose. A close friend said that Dymond was certain the lie detector test would clear him of any question of infidelity: ‘I’ll come up with flying colours, I’ve never cheated on her.’ But it didn’t. His girlfriend left him. And the rest is history. As the news of Dymond’s suicide has been disseminated through the mainstream media, inevitably new stories are already starting to emerge – more families whose lives have been torn apart in this most public of forums. More deaths which have taken place in the aftermath, when the cameras have stopped whirring and the shouts of the audience are no longer audible, except as the resonating echoes played out in tormented heads, over and over, baleful and cruel. One can expect many such more stories to emerge.
The Jeremy Kyle Show has been cancelled. But why was it allowed to run for so long? The programme came of age in an epoch of economic crisis and austerity, and a political climate in which the prevailing ideology sought to shift the focus from the banks and financiers who had facilitated the crash (receiving over a trillion pound bailout for their grubby efforts) – to those at the bottom; benefit claimants, immigrants, the unemployed and single mothers, all of whom were relentlessly demonised by mainstream politicians. Media culture followed suit in facilitating such a political vision. Young, cutting, avant-garde comedians, with elite backgrounds and private school educations, brimming with patrician derision, dressed themselves up in bodysuits and cheap makeup in order to give life to the absolute hilarity of things like an impoverished teenage girl (Vicky Pollard) who was loud and crass and pig-ignorant, and most hilariously of all – was sexually promiscuous, having had multiple babies, all of different colours, all by different fathers.
Such comedy accentuated the visceral repulsion which the elite harboured for the poor but it also carried a coherent political vision; Pollard, one of a whole string of such ‘chavvy’ characters, provoked the sneering laughter of her betters with her barely literate diatribes and her callous self-interest – revealed most profoundly in the way she milked the benefit system, purposely getting pregnant so she could pursue a maligner’s existence courtesy of the free housing provided by a credulous state. What programmes like Little Britain did in terms of fictional farce, however, much of the mainstream media carried as fact – with papers like The Daily Mail week after week reporting on benefit scroungers, booze-happy and belligerent, accruing vast sums of state allowance, while sticking a drunken two fingers up at the responsible and worthy citizens whose tax contributions they were leeching away.
Austerity Britain, then, was able to summon up the chimera of a parasitical underclass, teeming with drunks and drug addicts – indolent, aggressive, and breeding like flies – ever more of a drag on the economy, spilling out into the streets in a boozy, vomit-stained profusion of ignorance and swaggering entitlement. And it was in this context that Jeremy Kyle truly came into its own. Kyle became the figure who performed an act of redress for the respectable; in him was concentrated not only the elemental disgust of the wealthy for the poor, but through devices like the lie detector, through his brutal belittling of the cowed, diminished and desperate – Kyle gave the sense of somehow putting the ‘animals’ back in the box. Kyle would lash out against his guests, time and time again, taking his revenge on them in the name of their betters, brow-beating them with the hectoring morality of a respectable middle-Englander who is no longer prepared to foot the bill: ‘Who pays for your beer? You do? No, you don’t! I pay for your beer! Me and every other taxpayer.’
But while the whole cynical performance of The Jeremy Kyle Show rested on the fantasy creation of a parasitical underclass, most significantly it calls into question the notion of a parasite itself. In nature, the truly effective parasite is one which goes undetected by the host, one which is able to deplete the host’s energy and resources, surreptitiously, in the pursuit of its own self-interest. Kyle was a self-appointed prosecutor who styled himself in the guise of a reputable citizen whose hard-earned cash was being whiled away by the greedy, undeserving poor. In the aftermath of the suicide of Dymond, a person who had very little in life, Kyle received a pay out of three million pounds. It is enough to make you wonder who the true parasite really was.