There are certain things that a television critic should not admit. She’s only ever seen one episode of Breaking Bad (and, yes, she’s sure it’s brilliant but she wishes people would stop telling her about it), and that she’d happily retire so she can watch Homes under the Hammer every day for the rest of her life. And – this is the biggie – that she’s never watched an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show.
I know, I know, I should be sent to a remote mountainside where, in the company of wolves, I should be made to reflect on my folly. But come on, I work. I can’t watch daytime TV. And, more importantly, I am a massive snob. Of course I’ve read all about The Jeremy Kyle Show, and I’d decided that it’s not for me, because I’m too good for something so exploitative and worthless.
This was, after all, the show that gave the odious Mick Philpott a platform in an episode entitled “Father to 15… Wife and girlfriend pregnant again!”, before he killed his six children in a fire. This is the show that rejoices in its screaming titles, those little nuggets of borderline depravity that run along the bottom of the screen, such as: “Did you stop seeing our son because he really isn’t mine?”
But during a recent period of enforced idleness, when I was flat out on the sofa, sick and furiously bored and in no mood for Radio 4, I had a conversion. I started watching The Jeremy Kyle Show (Monday–Friday ITV) and I became obsessed. Kyle is a brilliant, even spellbinding showman. He perches at the edge of the stage, like a preying mantis but with the eyes of a panther, as he demands of his guests, “Look at me, look at me”.
What I love about The Jeremy Kyle Show is that everyone knows their part and how to play it. These are often vulnerable people, yes, but they have a certain strength in that they know what’s expected of them and they have learnt the right way to act on telly.
They know what we want and they know what they want. These, often, are not hapless people. They even know their dialogue because they speak like soap-opera characters. “This is redemption,” says an alcoholic as Kyle packs him into a car and off to rehab. “I got my soul back,” says a woman, a recovering alcoholic after a spell in Kyle-organised rehab. Guests talk about “wanting to be there” for someone or other; they claim to be in “a really bad place”. It’s not exploitation, it’s brilliant television.
The show’s strength is that it gives a megaphone to people who don’t have a TV voice. Just think about it. Television is run by a tiny intellectual bourgeois elite. We see everything through its prism, be it on the news, in television drama and in documentaries. But where’s the platform for the powerless with messed-up lives, the hopeless addict, the man who might or might not have a secret son, when Kyle rips open a DNA test result to announce after a dramatic pause, “Andy… that’s your dad!”
I love Kyle’s boldness, his refusal to patronise. It’s often a funny show too because, you know, people ARE funny. One member of a scrapping family accused another of trying to run over his kids with a Motability scooter. “It only goes eight miles an hour!” protested the highly aggrieved accused. This is Little Britain, this is what makes us great.