The apparent suicide of a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show means reality television will never be the same again, says tabloid TV reviewer KEVIN O’SULLIVAN, who has chronicled the exploitative genre since it arrived 20 years ago.
The red tops could sense weakness. They were moving in for the kill. Dastardly doyen of daytime television Jeremy Kyle was on the ropes and they knew it.
“Theatre of Cruelty”. “Twisted Tricks Of Torture TV”. “Kyle on Trial”. “Kyle Ripped Into My Suicide Dad”. As the shock, horror headlines piled up the pressure mounted. How much longer could ITV’s corporate executives justify a crazily confrontational programme that had been accused of plunging a mortified participant into such profound despair he committed suicide?
In three days that may well change the face of British television for ever, the tabloids had their man. ‘Vile Kyle’, the king of conflict, was gone. Out of his £2 million-a-year job as the roaring ringmaster of a gladiatorial free-for-all that millions of transfixed viewers hated to love. Including me. Watching The Jeremy Kyle Show was all guilt and very little pleasure. But it was undeniably darkly compelling.
As a gathering storm over his programme’s dubious behind-the-scenes techniques engulfed him, the beleaguered presenter was caught by photographers furtively darting into his Windsor home hunched up in a hoodie and a baseball cap. The picture was clear. After 14 years, the show was over. But the raging controversy most certainly was not.
As the TV critic for the Sunday Mirror and Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff, I charted Kyle’s rise to the bottom of the barrel right from the start and the only thing that surprises me is that it took so long for tragedy to strike. Ahead of their ordeals – DNA tests to establish parentage, lie-detectors, frenzied clashes with love rivals and the like – most of the show’s participants stomped onto the stage in a frothing fury where they immediately began screaming at each other while Jeremy strutted around baiting them at the top of his voice.
If you extract the morality factor, objectively, his performances were quite brilliant. If the atmosphere was already febrile, by the time shouty Jeremy got stuck in, it was explosive. Huge shaven-headed security guards dressed in menacing black hovered nearby ready to break up the regular physical fights.
Into this tinderbox of just-for-telly emotion stepped digger driver Steve Dymond, a 63-year-old grandfather who was hoping that taking one of the famous “all-important” lie-detector tests would prove he hadn’t been unfaithful to his fiancée. Sadly, he failed and the resultant showdown between him and a contemptuous Kyle was said to be humiliating. A few days later, Dymond apparently took his own life.
For the record, the lie-detectors used have a 62% success rate. Not much better than pure chance. Which is why they are inadmissible as legal evidence and why when Dymond protested his innocence he could well have been telling the truth.
In the fall-out since The Jeremy Kyle Show was abruptly taken off air last Monday and all episodes were wiped from the ITV Hub catch-up service, there has been much defensive talk of the production’s duty of care to the people who had been artfully persuaded to turn their personal turmoils into raucous entertainment. But the question is: were the counsellors and psychologists really there to help the guests? Or were they there to enable the programme to pretend it gave a damn? You decide.
Yes, Kyle’s guests were adults who took part voluntarily. And, yes, much of the odium that has descended on this unashamedly downmarket programme is down to middle class snobbery. But the real problem wasn’t what was happening on screen. It was off screen. It was how nervous neophytes in vulnerable states with no experience of television were being treated before and after they entered the fray. And this is a problem that extends way beyond The Jeremy Kyle Show.
While ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall swiftly swung the axe on Kyle – whose oeuvre she is said to have personally loathed – she is steadfastly standing by ITV2’s smash hit Love Island, despite the fact that two of its previous contestants went on to kill themselves. In fairness, both Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon were suffering distress unrelated to the romance competition. But their deaths sparked a volley of complaints that, after the series ends, contestants get little help in dealing with the difficulties of instant stardom.
The truth is that too many reality TV shows have been riding roughshod over the sensibilities of naive media novices for too long. People are this exploitative genre’s merchandise and shameless manipulation is the name of the ruthless game.
The warning signs have always been there. Even at the birth of reality in the first Big Brother nearly two decades ago, housemate Melanie Hill felt she was thrown to the lions after viewers pilloried her because of her on-screen flirtations. She said the experience almost destroyed her life.
In 2004 criminologist professor David Wilson quit as one of the advisors to Big Brother because he was appalled by the low quality of care available to the contestants. During series five, the police had to be called after a bad-tempered punch-up erupted in what the delighted producers dubbed ‘Fight Night’.
In the cauldron of the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent live semi-finals, 10-year-old Hollie Steel ran from the stage in floods of hysterical tears when she forgot the words to her song. It was a truly disturbing spectacle. Afterwards, Simon Cowell insisted that everyone deserves their chance and imposing an age limit would be unfair to little kids. In essence, there was no problem with televising an overwhelmed little girl sobbing. On, of course, ITV, where with more than a million tuning in, The Jeremy Kyle Show was prospering as the channel’s most popular and profitable daytime programme.
Since then we have seen the advent of shows like MTV’s Geordie Shore, in which fame-hungry wannabes are encouraged to get blind drunk before fighting with each other or, better still, having sex while the cameras roll. Its gutter-trawling Welsh equivalent The Valleys – now thankfully defunct – defied belief.
So for the television industry to project an image of shock and dismay over Steve Dymond’s suicide, as if no one could have predicted it, is, to say the least, disingenuous. Everyone knows The Jeremy Kyle Show was an accident waiting to happen. And everyone knows that reality TV producers can be little more than string-pulling puppeteers choreographing contrived dramas in the craven pursuit of theatrical footage.
Ironically, as they celebrate Kyle’s demise, the tabloids have pretty much cleaned up their act. Chastened by the phone-hacking debacle and humbled by the Leveson Inquiry, the unconscionable practices the pop papers once thrived upon have been curtailed. It is the Wild West antics of the television business that will now be put under the microscope in a parliamentary inquiry by the Culture and Media Committee.
But in the end, it will be neither a damning verdict from politicians or an attack of conscience that will bring about a fundamental change in the way reality TV programmes operate. It will be an unspoken admission that for 20 tawdry years TV channels have turned a blind eye to the excesses of producers who treated human beings like commodities. What a terrible shame it took a man’s death for a blinkered industry to finally see the light.
Kevin O’Sullivan is a former TV critic for the Sunday Mirror and Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff. He is now a presenter on TalkRADIO