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Bad romance: Love Island turns TV toxic

Amy and Curtis in the 2019 series of Love Island. Photograph: ITV. - Credit: Archant

With the demise of The Jeremy Kyle Show still fresh in the memory, is ITV making the same mistakes with its latest favourite, asks KEVIN O’SULLIVAN.

Former Love Island contestant Sherif Lanre. Photograph: ITV. – Credit: ITV

Arguably, in these turbulent times there are more important things to worry about than reality television. But after the suicide of a man whose guest appearance on ITV’s tawdry bun-fight The Jeremy Kyle Show left him distraught, the possibility must be conceded that lives are at stake.

Nevertheless, while it features prominently in news bulletins and on newspaper front pages, the Commons inquiry into the controversial genre that brought us enduring hits like Big Brother, The X Factor and The Apprentice, is a strange spectacle.

Despite the undeniable seriousness of the exercise, the bizarre sight of stern-faced MPs grilling squirming television executives about what happens behind the scenes on Britain’s favourite light entertainment programmes is faintly laughable. Certainly not something I ever expected to see at the mother of all parliaments.

But as I suppressed my inappropriate giggles, the strangeness of it all got stranger still when members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee asked Jeremy Kyle’s executive producer Tom McLennan if he knew the accuracy rate of the show’s fabled “all important” lie detector tests.

Yewande Biala.

Photograph: ITV. – Credit: ITV

He explained he was not an expert on lie detectors and, as such, indicated that he did not know. Which, to me, was extraordinary because three weeks earlier I had written in The New European that the accuracy rate was a substantially unreliable 62%. If I knew, why didn’t the programme’s executive producer?

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Steve Dymond, the 63-year-old construction worker who took his own life with an overdose of morphine he’d been prescribed for arthritis, was plunged into a state of despair after failing a Kyle lie detector. He’d been banking on passing to prove to his fiancée he hadn’t been unfaithful to her.

So, given that more than a third of the tests delivered results that were flat out wrong, when Dymond protested his innocence there’s a strong chance are he was telling the truth. An unedifying saga that ended in tragedy.

After refusing to testify, Kyle himself was conspicuous by his absence. Especially when the inquiry heard from psychologist Graham Stanier – the show’s head of aftercare in charge of tending to the wellbeing of the guests who were often subjected to searing admonishments by the roaring host.

Arabella Chi. Photograph: ITV. – Credit: ITV

When quizzed over whether he was concerned about the impact Kyle’s theatrical contempt had on his guests, Stanier insisted he wasn’t responsible for the presenter’s behaviour. So are we talking about a duty of care that didn’t extend to caring about how Kyle loudly attacked nervous neophytes with no experience of the pressure cooker of being on TV? One of the regular refrains of the raucous daytime production was an outraged Jeremy rounding on people and shouting: “You’re a liar!”

Next up in the inquiry hot seat was ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall who stood by her decision to axe The Jeremy Kyle Show and pledged that the channel would never again broadcast programmes trading on contrived emotional drama fuelled by lie detectors and DNA tests.

Dame Carolyn stressed that ITV’s new favourite cash cow Love Island is a model of propriety, showering its contestants with care throughout the series and then providing continued help and advice on how to cope with the perils of instant fame when their brief period in the limelight ends.

Call me a cynic, but I find it hard not to draw a comparison with the way ITV reacted back in 2007 when a judge accused the Kyle programme of “human bear baiting” after security guard David Staniforth was fined £300 for headbutting bus driver Larry Mahoney during a raging row as they squared up to each other on the studio stage. Judge Alan Berg added that in his opinion the producers should also have stood trial.

At the time, Kyle was the king of daytime television pulling in more than a million viewers every weekday morning and earning a fortune in advertising revenue. Perhaps that is why the channel’s then bosses barely acknowledged the judge’s devastating broadside and – basically – kept calm and carried on regardless.

ITV will be anxious to play down any similarities. But while Love Island may not seem so explosively exploitative, there can be no denying that ITV2’s romance competition (a must for those who despise the #MeToo campaign) manipulates the participants and deliberately choreographs contrived emotionally-charged melodrama.

In the garish Majorcan mansion they call Casa Amor, the scantily clad beautiful young things are made to ‘couple up’ and encouraged to kiss, cuddle and – hopefully – fornicate for the cameras.

The situation is as artificial as it gets. But thanks to an intoxicating cocktail of sun-kissed Mediterranean days, candle-lit nights and the promise of lucrative celebrity status, relationships are undoubtedly formed. Only to be abruptly broken up in raunchy games requiring the players to swap partners, or by predatory new arrivals who swiftly become relationship wreckers.

So far in the current series, Sherif Lanre was thrown out by producers for kicking a girl between the legs (accidentally, he insisted) and calling her the worst name in the female-insulting book. And domestic abuse groups have slammed the alleged controlling behaviour of Joe Garratt, whose instruction to his partner Lucie Donlan to steer clear of the other guys had her in floods of tears. Unimpressed by this uncomfortable interlude, viewers voted Joe off the island. For the record, after his eviction he vehemently rejected the suggestion he was in any way abusive or controlling towards Lucie.

Then there was Irish scientist Yewande Biala who fell for the improbably muscular model Danny Williams and, through their excruciatingly awkward declarations of mutual attraction, a kind of affection developed. Until the statuesque bikini-clad Arabella Chi teetered in on her skyscraper heels and, when challenged to make the choice, Danny unceremoniously dumped Yewande in favour of the new girl. Yewande’s hurt and humiliation was painful to witness. But this is what Love Island does. It deliberately upsets the few for the entertainment of the many.

In fairness, ITV is not the only channel that stands accused of effectively using members of the public as commodities to service the relentless production line of reality TV formats. Channel 4 and Channel 5 were responsible for the now defunct Big Brother.

The BBC still produces The Apprentice, the comedy business contest that turns wannabe tycoons into national laughing stocks. And MTV’s long-running Ex On The Beach – which pitched former lovers against each other – was pulled from the airwaves in March after contestant Mike Thalassitis (also an alumni of Love Island) killed himself. He was, it should be pointed out, distressed over the passing of his grandmother.

While ITV is making all the right noises about this year’s new, improved duty of care on Love Island, might there one day come a time when the television industry faces up to the elephant in the studio? If counsellors and psychologists are required to deal with the trauma of the members of the public who take part, maybe this is a programme that shouldn’t be made?

Just as, 12 years ago, ITV turned a blind eye to the dubious antics of The Jeremy Kyle Show, the channel appears anxious to ignore the inherent potential dangers of Love Island. After sobbing fits, a man expelled for an alleged violent attack on a woman and charges of emotional abuse, is this really a safe format? Or is it, like the Kyle programme always was, an accident waiting to happen? Watch this space.

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