Operatic Passions

High Court Judges may not like it but The Jeremy Kyle show has a consistent underlying morality

Counterpoints Family Justice Media Modern Life Theatre TV

Last year, a man appeared in the Manchester High Court on a charge of assault after head-butting a “love rival” on ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show. Commenting on those unhappy spouses, siblings, parents, children and others who take part in this popular programme’s spiral of accusation, denial and confession, Judge Alan Berg told the court: “It should not surprise anyone that these people, some of whom have limited intellects, become aggressive with each other”. The programme, he said, amounted to little more than “human bear-baiting”.

Such sentiments echo those of many, if not most, members of the enlightened classes who, as the learned judge put it, may “have the misfortune” to tune in to The Jeremy Kyle Show. The programme is frequently cited as an emblem of the vulgar dross that is daytime television.

Kyle himself (a former radio DJ) is widely regarded as aggressive and patronising, while his guests appear to be promiscuous, work shy, violent, abusive or alcoholic — sometimes all at once. The show is, again in the carefully chosen words of Judge Berg, “a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil”.

But isn’t that a workable definition of many of the finest works of opera and literature? Of Rigoletto, with its base motives and crooked dealings; or of Tosca, with its jealousy and betrayal; or Don Giovanni’s monumental philandering; or the filial rejection and violence in King Lear; or the pain and injustice in Dickens — all so elemental, so visceral.

Of course, the music and the writing of these works ­elevate “morbid and depressing” events on to an artistic plane. But, in a very different way, the forthright Jeremy Kyle — aided by a skilled array of therapeutic professionals — also shines a light into the heart of darkness. The results are often intensely moving: the bravery of children bringing long-absent fathers to book is rewarded; overwhelming reconciliations are effected; the inarticulate are given voice; the desperate are offered a lifeline.

Occasionally, there are unforgettable confrontations. When a taciturn 16-year-old was forced on to the show by his grandmother to explain why he had joined a violent street gang, he found himself gently lectured, from amid the studio audience, by the extraordinarily dignified mother of a 15-year-old boy murdered by a gang as he ­cycled through a park.

Yes, the context is vulgar — obese, misshapen, foul-mouthed, amoral human beings exchange hostilities in between naff advertisements for the programme’s bingo-company sponsor. Yes, the drama is exploited — guests are kept in suspense, as if in a quiz-show, for DNA results to show whether or not some confused or wretched man is the father of an unacknowledged child.

Nevertheless, The Jeremy Kyle Show has a consistent underlying morality: amid the debris of the family relationships it uncovers, the interests of young children are unfailingly paramount; and those who are courting ­despair are always guided towards a constructive engagement with life.

So no, it’s not “human bear-baiting”. The show may not be to the liking of high court judges, TV critics and others blessed with more than “limited intellects”, but then there’s always the opera.