I know you’ve seen an episode. Even before the show was cancelled, blacklisted, we knew it was a malignant animal – shameful to consume, easy to disavow. How to wriggle out of the awful truth, that it hit every trigger in your reptile brain for conflict, schadenfreude, moralising certainty? ‘Oh, I’ve caught a bit at other people’s houses’; ‘someone sent me a clip once but I couldn’t watch it.’ You’ve watched it. No points will be awarded to commentators who dodge the bullet meant for all of us, responding with excuses or proclamations of superior moral character in abstaining. Whether you watched it or not (you did), the Jeremy Kyle show is worth thinking about very carefully. That’s because it was much beloved by Britain. Love-to-hate is love nonetheless – something in Kyle’s smug, facile character assassinations of vulnerable people resolved a collective discomfort with struggle and difference which we still cannot look square in the face. As austerity bites, political turmoil intensifies and right wing/identity politics square up to each other, there is one comforting thing to be identified in Kyle’s angry-toddler world view: at least it’s simple.
Don’t pity drug addicts – it’s their own sodding fault for being so stupid and selfish! Broken families are easy to fix – THINK OF THE KIDS. Abusive partner? Leave, you idiot. The persona built up by Kyle and into his eponymous talk show cast some of humanity’s most complex issues in the starkest moral light possible. The black and white of JK Land offered solace in an ethical ocean, otherwise grey as far as the eye could see. Echoed in the programme’s reliance on a yes/no format of drugs tests (only bad people fail those) and lie detectors (ditto), Kyle represented a moral touchstone amidst impossible knots of pain, poverty, abuse and subsequent self-medication. I’d venture – don’t @ me – that it’s a similar appeal as that held by Brexit rhetoric and Trump’s ascendance: ‘I’m a straight-talking guy. I call it as it is’ tends to mean the opposite, but it’s clearly hitting as much of a chord now as it ever has.