Jeremy Kyle: the Man, the Show, the Dickhead
Does Britain's angriest uncle deserve more respect? It's his name on the sign, not yours.
Nobody pops a threatening squat like Jeremy Kyle. You know he's getting riled up when he gets down on his haunches: a little pick at the front of his trousers, hoisting them lightly around the knees; one foot firmly at the top of the studio stairs, the other squatting down beneath it; hem rising, socks flashing; black shiny shoes twinkling in the studio lights. Jeremy Kyle is leaning forward now, his voice dropping with him. Threatening, measured. "Listen here," he says, "you little maggot."
And the man with the teeth in front of him says: "You what?"
And Jeremy breathes through his nose and turns to him and says: "You heard me, sonny Jim."
And that's when you know it's about to go down.
The format of The Jeremy Kyle Show is: Jeremy Kyle gets to shout at you for six minutes. There is more nuance than that, but at its core – at the dark, dark, dark-like-the-bottom-of-the-ocean core of it – The Jeremy Kyle Show is about Jeremy Kyle shouting at you for six minutes. There are, broadly, four things Jeremy Kyle can get mad at you about:
i. You have a baby but you do not know for sure whether the baby is your baby, a doubt amplified by a new mum in a hoodie with folded arms who keeps saying "it is his baby, I told him" while her mum, who has won in excess of 60 pub car park fights in her life, keeps yelling;
ii. You are accused of stealing something from your family that has great sentimental value to them but next to zero actual financial value, which is why nobody, for example, phoned the police, instead waiting anywhere between six weeks and ten years to settle it all via a televised lie detector test, at which point TJKS becomes a sort of brightly-lit Making a Murderer, accusation over accusation, families pitted at war, and everyone has their own theories that are ultimately half-proven by a medically doubtful lie detector test;
iii. You have cheated on your partner or your partner has cheated on you, "because how else would I have got gonorrhoea then, Jeremy?";
iv. You are on drugs;
There are also inspirational stories, where bald kids in caps come on and tell Jeremy falteringly about their pain, but he cannot shout at those children, and so he is cut off at the knees; he is toothless, neutered. Kyle is not a bull designed to live his life in chains: he needs to run on the hot, red sand; he needs to smell fear in the air. He fundamentally needs to be able to shout "MY STAGE, MY SHOW" at a lost-looking man from Wakefield.
You think Jeremy Kyle is about the guests, but it isn't: it's about Jeremy, purring and padding around the studio, a complete master of his domain. There is not a square inch of the laminate-wood-and-purple-uplighters arrangement that he does not know. His peripheral vision is honed to know at all times where the thick, sausage-like security guards are lurking around him. Kyle is less a man with four kids and a thing for licking his phone, and more a shark in the prime of its life, pupils tight and eyes wide as a litre of blood tips into the ocean. He wriggles and leers. He clucks and preens. He is half-man, half-animal. And he contorts his face from something human to something a half-inch not, something primal, something monstrous, the thick lines of his face filled with backstage bronzer, and he gets up close to you and he snarls, he snarls like all the animals of the jungle snarl in howling unison; he snarls like a star is exploding inside his body; he snarls with the last jolt of energy conjured up by a dying man:
Well. Put. Something. On. The. Bloody. End of it. Then.
That fight-or-flight animal impulse trickles through the silt down into his guests, too. When it's good – as in, when it's chaotic – TJKS is an exemplar of the British fighting style: gabbling over each other, large-chested threats, come-on-thens, shouts of "LEE YOU DON'T KNOW NOTHING", women marching into frame, simultaneously pointing a finger and pulling their trousers up. It's a 3AM fight outside a kebab shop cleaned up and put in comfortable clean jogging bottoms. It is the purest form of rage you'll ever see turning suddenly placid and guilty the second it punches through a plasterboard wall. It's a man built like two Jeeps welded together around a bull sweetly saying "sorry, Jeremy" when he gets called out for swearing. It's simple, lash-out anger and sexual accusations overseen by your hardest science teacher, a bonanza detention at the roughest school you've ever been to. It's Graham, the "Vegas hypnotist fallen on hard times" of the TV psychiatrist world, soothingly telling a young mum that he'll help her get off the gear. You are watching lives fall apart while you sit at home with a sweet cup of tea and three biscuits. Men living the most searingly painful moment of a paternity case in front of a studio audience of 150. People crying those deep tears, those horrible tears – tears so ceaseless there's no time to breathe, tears that don't so much stream as pool, crying like you can't inhale, you can only strangle out something akin to a hiccup – while Jeremy leans in and goes, "Now you go home, and – listen to me – you go and you love that child."
You would think this central contempt Jeremy has for the people he subjects to television would lead to conflict, but there are a few curious cases where he takes a shine to a guest. There is a "good victim" in the Jeremy Kyle universe: those who admit their flaws, the mistakes that have bought them here, show contrition, show love for their children. These are the attributes Jeremy admires. "I like you," he tells one young mother, who cries a single tear and tells him how, yes, she used to shoplift, but now she's turned her life around and loves her son. "I think you're a good person. Right: BRING OUT HER MOTHER."
There are exactly four types of people Jeremy hates: people who use Facebook; people who have a mild cannabis habit; men with children who do not have jobs; people who wear hats indoors. They will be told to twist in their chair and look up. "My name on the wall: not yours." They will be told "quiet, you" and "keep schtum" and "oh, leave it". Respect, on The Jeremy Kyle Show, is rare and hard-earned. We all turn to the emperor and pray at his alter. We all prostrate ourselves on the floor and beg for a merciful death.
These are the tropes that make up a show that is built on repetition. Fundamentally, Jeremy Kyle is about ticks and routines, the same hands played to the same conclusion, into infinity. A guest admits he doesn't work and Kyle's eyes flash white – his face pulls back, he licks his teeth. Seven people at once shout "I'm her cousin" despite not being biologically related to the mum at the centre of a paternity case, and he touches a finger to the crowd of his skull, tilts his head for a moment of quiet. A man in a triple-XXL oat-coloured zip-thru tries to step to Kyle and is immediately flanked by two security guards called Steve, and Kyle gets hard now, harder than ever; Kyle knows exactly how close he can get without being clawed at, a toddler antagonising the animals at the zoo, and he clucks his neck forward and says "oh LEAVE IT OUT". Jeremy Kyle knows the rules because he defined them. He is the referee of a game he invented and owns. He is Pierluigi Collina and Sepp Blatter rolled into one, telling an approaching Lee Cattermole to "button it".
This is a TV show with two main characters: Jeremy Kyle, and "the overriding feeling of misery". The guests wax and the guests wane, they come and they go, but the only two players who step to the plate every single day are Jeremy – with his haircut like a disgraced-in-a-sauna MP, with his ASDA-issue navy suit, with his shirt-no-tie – and misery. There is so little hope on The Jeremy Kyle Show that, in less artful hands, the misery would become a miasma. With Kyle at the helm, it becomes something else – characterful, textured misery you sip on like a fine, aged whiskey. Kyle's brand of misery has complex notes: not just played for shock or schlock, not just played for laughs, not played for pure despair: misery that floats and skips between all four, something new entirely. Jeremy Kyle takes darkness and hurt and moulds it in his hands into something Other.
The unchewable question: is Jeremy Kyle, the man, a dickhead? The short answer is: yes, he is. But it's more complex than that, more intricate. We're very good at looking at dickheadery in black and white terms in this, the year of our lord 2k16. One bad tweet renders an MBE recipient public enemy number one. A misjudged word on Newsnight makes you a racist, a sexist, bigoted. We've reached a social judgment high fever pitch where one perceived slight, one error, one toe out of line, and that's it: forever tossed into the furnace of dickheadery to burn alive. But Jeremy Kyle is somehow heatproof: he's a dickhead, yes, undoubtedly, but there's a weird duality to his prickishness. He shouts until his make-up comes off in a plume of dust, then pats the kind of man who thinks a smart-casual dress code involves a Manchester United shirt on the back and offers a fatherly "off you go". He deplores mild cannabis users – "well maybe you should stop smoKING SO MUCH FLIPPING DOPE, THEN" – but offers up Graham and his aftercare team to severe drink and drug addicts. Saint Jeremy giveth and he taketh. He is darkness and he is light. If he had you locked to a radiator in some sort of Lebanese hostage situation, you'd fall in love with him. He is the cock-walked embodiment of Stockholm Syndrome.
It's sort of weird that such an angry uncle is approaching something akin to national treasurehood. He's one of ITV's golden gooses, despite the fact that, if you take him out of the warm shallows of TJKS, he flounders. ITV have variously tried to make Jeremy Kyle work the evening crowd: he does half-hardhitting documentaries where he goes to Magaluf and gets maced; he co-hosts primetime Friday night charity fundraisers; he wears a big scarf and a Burton pea jacket and marches around London at night investigating Benefits Britain; he goes to America and shouts at Americans. But none of it quite works: Jeremy Kyle's level is watching people cry and admit they conceived a child outside ASDA. He lives to watch men with a thousand eyebrow piercings try and fail to kick his security guards.
This is why we must treasure him. Jeremy Kyle is one of the worst mediators on Earth because he keeps shouting and judging, but he keeps his cool when a large family squabbles over the theft of a porcelain horse. Contempt for Facebook is a central tenet of his personality. He cites his age and says he finds things difficult. I'm a 50-year-old man, alright, slow it down for me. His version of couple's therapy is literally just shouting at them. The most offensive thing you can do to Jeremy Kyle is wear a hat in his presence. He reacts curiously to human emotion: crying inspires either scorn or a sort of distant sympathy, anger inspires a sort of cool, lethal calm. Your son can't be mine because he's ginger. He swirls and bobs like a standing cobra. He ushers Graham in with a card in his hand. His 100 percent foolproof way of knowing a woman is lying is if she stops crying abruptly when confronted with a lie detector test. Prove you didn't throw eggs at my girlfriend's hostel. His main tactic of asserting control is telling people which direction to leave the stage from: Rory's here, ladies and gentlemen, over there; you, that way, you, that way. He holds his palm over his mouth while a young mum slowly explains sexting to him in careful pre-watershed safe language. He wants to know if you slept with Carlos. Do one. He has a vein of self-defeating sweetness running through him like a stick of rock. He fundamentally thinks family comes first, that kids deserve a future. He cannot exist elsewhere: he does not work in America, only in the UK. He is designed to shout the results of paternity tests at men while sitting on laminate flooring. Claire denies threatening to burn Aaron's mum's house down. He is light and he is dark; calm and the storm. Guests come and guests go, but Jeremy remains. Jeremy is ours. Jeremy is ours and he turns to the camera with a wry twinkle in his eye, a little bronze-faced wink, and he says softly – all the rage dissipated into the soft furnishings, all the cue cards thrown on the floor – and he locks you with that gaze, and whispers, "That's all for today." And the crowd roars around him and he pitches up to match them and he says, "SEE YOU NEXT TIME." And then come the trumpets, and the squiggly synthesiser, and you know he'll come back tomorrow. He always comes back tomorrow.
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