Last month, the UK’s version of Jerry Springer, The Jeremy Kyle Show, was cancelled after a guest suicided post-recording.
Steve Dymond — accused of infidelity by his fiancée and thrown out of his flat — volunteered to take a lie-detector test live on air to ‘get everything sorted’. Unaware that claims for the polygraph’s accuracy are pseudoscience on par with homeopathy, Dymond failed the test. Although the programme was never aired, other panellists have since come forward describing how he cried, became distraught, and collapsed in front of ITV’s studio audience. Shortly after filming, he was discovered in bed with opened packets of morphine surrounding him, along with apologetic letters to his son and estranged fiancée. His death and circumstances surrounding it are now the subject of a coronial inquiry.
I’m not usually a fan of shutting down popular things just because some people believe they’re in bad taste, but I always thought The Jeremy Kyle Show was wretched and cruel. It was on daytime telly in hospital when I was recovering from a karate injury and it was like a 21st century version of the Flavian Amphitheatre (colosseum), throwing poor and working-class people to the beasts figuratively instead of literally.
We humans have never really lost our taste for public humiliation as entertainment, and in the wake of The Jeremy Kyle Show’s cancellation, it emerged that a number of similar shows have led to suicides. Love Island, for example, has two dead former contestants to its name, while reality programming across the English-speaking world as well as in Japan and France has exacted a terrible emotional and professional toll on those who — for want of a better phrase — ‘volunteer as tribute’.
My use of a line from The Hunger Games is not idle. This sort of amusement has a terrible, dark history — it’s part of humanity’s ‘shadow self’ to use Jordan Peterson’s phrase — and I think both the history and our attempts to ameliorate widespread fondness for it is a story worth telling.
The narrative is complicated by the fact that those from the demographic featured (going back to Roman times) are the most devoted fans; it’s a form of ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. Opponents, meanwhile — in pagan Rome they were led by the Stoics — have always been people like, probably, you and me. Educated, aspirational or upper middle-class, imbued with a sense of noblesse oblige however misdirected; it should go without saying that the impulse to save people from themselves must be resisted. Paternalism was the author of Prohibition, ‘blue laws’ of every stripe, and the criminalisation of homosexuality. It still animates the War on Drugs and failed policy initiatives like cigarette plain packaging.
Given the broadcast media doesn’t generally reflect their lives very well (or even at all), this was a solid overture to a big and loyal C2DE (lower socio-economic) audience. The Jeremy Kyle Show was ITV’s most popular daytime offering, regularly pulling in a million-plus viewers. As in pagan Rome when it came to violent entertainment, there’s a huge disconnect between those who want the show off-air (they generally don’t watch it) and those who do watch it (and feel they can relate to it).
These fans might proffer a liberal, even Whiggish argument: people who go on are informed and consenting adults and know what they’re doing. In the show’s 14-year history, thousands of guests have appeared — if not without incident, at least without death.
Yet the closest modern approximation to ancient Rome’s editor — the showrunner or executive producer for a gladiatorial show — is the individual who, on The Jeremy Kyle Show, ensured contestants were ushered on stage through separate, colour-coded corridors after being told lies about their opponents’ views so they fought (sometimes physically) for the cameras, not backstage or in makeup. We no longer kill as Romans did because we are Whigs and heirs to the Enlightenment, but our morality is still disordered and the desire to be amused like this has never gone away. In the UK at least the use of animals for entertainment is regulated in ways reality television featuring people is not. It’s a peculiar incident of Britishness that the RSPCA won its Royal Charter long before the NSPCC (its children’s equivalent).
Modern scholarship has also disclosed that upwards of 50 per cent of the people who fought as gladiators in Rome’s arenas were freeborn volunteers. When I was a classics undergraduate 25 years ago, it was always easier to cope with this atrocious historical appetite if one assumed its victims were all slaves. But no. In Roman society as in ours, people were willing to die for their fifteen minutes of fame.
At the same time, suicide is never monocausal. People who kill themselves after appearing on a telly show that goes badly awry never do so for that reason alone. They were already broken before they went on air. The Jeremy Kyle Show or Love Island was merely the proximate cause.
That said, just as the Roman editor was a middle or upper middle-class figure, Jeremy Kyle went to Reading Blue Coat School while his father was Secretary to the Queen Mother. When posh people (both then and now) aren’t complaining about a diet of humiliation and death as public entertainment, they (we) do have a worrying tendency to exploit those who are lower down the social food chain.
Ironically, ancient Rome’s gladiatorial ‘editor’ came — by 1803 — to mean ‘person who exercises senior authority at a newspaper, publishing house, or magazine’. Although this process of linguistic development was slow and tortuous, it’s a reminder that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is built into modern journalism, too. And for all that ‘respectable’ media outlets decry fake news and conspiracy theories, we, too, are well capable of killing people with what have long been wholly mainstream offerings.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, has been shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction. She lives in London.