‘It was a ticking timebomb’: Inside the rise and fall of The Jeremy Kyle Show

Two years after the TV show was taken off air, former staffers reflect on a toxic work culture

The Jeremy Kyle Show ran for 14 years. Photograph: ITV

The Jeremy Kyle Show ran for 14 years. Photograph: ITV

 

In 2017, Kane Manning wasn’t in a good place. He was worried about his brother, Craig. Craig’s ex was claiming he was the father of her baby. Craig wasn’t sure if he was; Kane was convinced he couldn’t be. It was a difficult time for the family: Kane’s father had been murdered, and the man who killed him had only just been convicted. The doubts over the baby were causing unnecessary heartbreak.

Then he got a call from a producer at ITV Studios who offered to make the problem disappear. Craig’s ex had called in to The Jeremy Kyle Show, asking for a DNA test. Jeremy Kyle would reveal the result on UK daytime TV in front of the studio audience. They wanted Kane to be on stage to hear it.

“They were very keen to get me on,” Kane, now 23, tells me over the phone from his home in Brighton. “They said they wouldn’t do the show if it was just the two of them, but my story made it different – I’d add the drama, because I didn’t believe the baby was his. They explained it to me – that’s how they spice the show up, they said.”

I did make it clear about the trauma I went through with my dad, and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll take that into account, we understand.’ But I don’t think they fully understood

Kane used to work as a cleaner, but has been unemployed throughout the pandemic. “If you pay privately, a DNA test is expensive, but if you go on the show it’s free. I’m really close to my brother. I just wanted to know the truth. That’s why I agreed to do it.”

As soon as Kane said yes, gears went into motion at breakneck speed, he remembers. “I had the phone call, and the next minute it was: ‘I’m going to book you a taxi to pick you up at six o’clock.’” Kane says he was on his way from Brighton to Manchester that evening, and so was Craig, but they had to travel in separate taxis and stay in different hotel rooms so each of them “could have our own story”, he was told.

While Kane made the 4½-hour journey to Manchester, the production team at ITV Studios were still at work trying to find other stories like his, or – they hoped – more lurid, more sensational, to fill the running orders of about 250 episodes a year. Former production staff have told me that researchers would have been working late into the night on Kane and Craig’s story, grooming their different narratives for maximum dramatic effect, knowing that they were pitted against their colleagues.

They said that the episode would be classified the next morning, graded on the level of conflict, emotion and confrontation. And, just as it took a toll on those who appeared on stage, some of the people behind the scenes would also pay a heavy price for being part of The Jeremy Kyle Show.

It was so intense. The producers try and get you hyped up for the show. They were, like, ‘Walk in there, be fiery. Talk really loud.’ Because apparently Jeremy Kyle has a hearing problem, and if you speak quietly he doesn’t like it

Of course, Kane didn’t know any of this. The next morning, he was backstage in his smartest clothes: tweed trousers, a double-breasted jacket and a dark polo neck. He says he was confined to a small room for hours, alone except for sporadic visits from producers and researchers. “It was so intense. They try and get you hyped up for the show,” Kane says. “They were, like, ‘Walk in there, be fiery. Talk really loud.’ Because apparently Jeremy Kyle has a hearing problem, and if you speak quietly he doesn’t like it.”

On stage, Kyle complimented Kane on his clothes but quickly switched to mocking his trousers, his crossed legs, his mannerisms, his turns of phrase. He asked Kane whether he’d “tried it on with [his brother’s ex] outside a pub” once, shouting in his face. The DNA result showed Craig was the baby’s father after all, and Kane felt as if he was there to be humiliated. As he saw it, he was being cast as an awkward loser who was willing to deny the legitimacy of his own brother’s baby just to get back at a woman who had rejected him years ago. “They set me up to be laughed at.”

After the journey home, the process of dealing with the fallout of being a Jeremy Kyle guest began: trying to navigate the awkward relationship with the woman he now knew was the mother of his brother’s child, and worrying about how he was going to come across on television.

The backlash was real. In a way I was vulnerable, because of what I’d gone through in the past, the trauma, and then I had to cope with this. I regretted it, big time. I coped with it. But it was 50/50

The producers had asked Kane about his mental health when he first spoke to them. “I said I was okay. I did make it clear about the trauma I went through with my dad, and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll take that into account, we understand.’ But I don’t think they fully understood … They just rang me up three weeks later and said it was going to be on TV. They said, ‘How do you feel about the show?’” But it was still too early. “I just went along with it,” he says. “It hadn’t been on TV yet so I didn’t know what it was going to be. I was just normal.”

After the programme was broadcast, Kane received a barrage of abuse on social media. “The backlash was real. People were taking the piss out of my clothes, criticising me, making comments. In a way I was vulnerable, because of what I’d gone through in the past, the trauma, and then I had to cope with this.” He pauses. “I regretted it, big time. I coped with it. But it was 50/50.”

Kane’s story might have been splashy enough for The Jeremy Kyle Show to put it on display, but in one sense it’s completely unremarkable: there were 3,320 episodes of the programme, broadcast over 14 years and 17 series, and Kane is one of thousands of guests to have taken a seat on Kyle’s stage.

Some of them didn’t know what they were getting into, but many did. Most were offered access to services they believed they desperately needed but could never afford in exchange for taking part: family counselling, rehab, DNA tests, lie detectors (even though the polygraph tests aren’t very good at determining whether someone is telling the truth).

Steve Dymond wanted to prove he wasn’t cheating on his fiancee. He failed a lie detector test, and was jeered by the audience. A week after the episode was filmed, Dymond was found dead. He appeared to have taken his own life

The final person on that production line went on stage less than two years after Kane: 63-year-old Steve Dymond, who wanted to prove he wasn’t cheating on his fiancee; he failed a lie detector test, and was booed and jeered by the audience. Kyle knew Dymond had been on antidepressants, a lawyer for the Dymond family said later. Yet he branded him “a failure”, saying he “would not trust him with a chocolate button”. A week after the episode was filmed, Dymond was found dead at his home in Portsmouth. He appeared to have taken his own life.

The last episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show aired on May 10th, 2019, the morning after Dymond’s body was found. The episode featuring Dymond was never broadcast. Kyle said he was “devastated” by the news. On May 15th, Carolyn McCall, ITV’s chief executive, announced the show would be permanently axed, “given the gravity of recent events”.

Like Jerry Springer and Trisha Goddard before him, Jeremy Kyle had built his appeal on a model pioneered on 1980s US talkshows by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue: the promise of chaotic people thrown together in confrontational scenes.

After Dymond’s death, the programme dubbed “a human form of bear baiting” by a judge in 2007 was now roundly condemned as dangerously exploitative, seen as the prime example of how television producers were failing in their duty of care.

The tragedy was a catastrophe for ITV, but it was by no means unique. Dymond was one of several people to have died after an appearance on a programme in which members of the public are put under pressure and scrutiny for viewers’ entertainment. There were 26-year-old Mike Thalassitis in 2019 and 32-year-old Sophie Gradon in 2018, who took their own lives following their appearances on ITV’s Love Island.

Across the world, contestants on The Bachelor, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, The Voice and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares have all ended their lives after their episodes aired. Since Dymond’s death, at least five other Jeremy Kyle guests have come forward to say they attempted suicide after appearing on the programme.

People were working there a long time. It’s their whole lives. It feels like a betrayal for a lot of people to tell the truth about the show

Still, Dymond’s death was a tipping point. In the days that followed, the cross-party digital, culture, media and sport select committee announced it would launch an inquiry into the treatment of vulnerable people on reality TV, and took evidence from two former Jeremy Kyle guests as part of its investigation.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, launched a review of protections for programme participants, and in 2020 it announced that its broadcasting code would be expanded to ensure broadcasters looked after the welfare of people “who might be at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in a programme”.

The inquest into Dymond’s death is due to take place in July. The coroner has made Kyle an “interested person” who “may have caused or contributed” to Dymond’s death. Lawyers representing Kyle and ITV have argued that the inquest should not be a “detailed, top to bottom inquiry into The Jeremy Kyle Show, its selection, treatment and aftercare of participants”, and therefore evidence from the host “would not be required”.

In February 2020, there was another death linked to The Jeremy Kyle Show: that of 31-year-old Natasha Reddican, who took her own life at her home in Salford, nine months after the show was taken off air. She had worked on it for eight years, beginning as a runner and eventually becoming a producer. She wasn’t involved in Dymond’s appearance on the programme. Her boyfriend, a fellow former Jeremy Kyle producer, told the inquest into her death: “When the show was axed, it was something that weighed on her mind because she was heavily involved in the show as a producer.”

Natasha felt let down by ITV when she was made redundant. She wasn’t able to find work within the media circle because of the stigma associated with the Kyle show after it had been dropped. We deeply miss our beautiful daughter

Reddican’s death made few headlines. So far, the concerns over the duty of care owed by production companies have largely been confined to those who appear on screen. Her family didn’t want to be interviewed for this article, but Simon Law, the stepfather who raised her, sent me an email with permission to share it.

“Natasha felt let down by ITV when she was made redundant,” he wrote. “She wasn’t able to find work within the media circle because of the stigma associated with the Kyle show after it had been dropped. This was a contributing factor that led to her feeling depressed. We deeply miss our beautiful daughter.”

Perhaps a “detailed top to bottom inquiry” is needed after all. How was this programme made? What checks were in place to ensure the safety of vulnerable guests? And were the people who worked on the programme vulnerable too?

“Kyle was the starting point for a lot of people,” says Adam Letts, a former producer. “More than any show, it offered a way into TV if you weren’t necessarily from a middle-class background. You could come from Salford or Bolton and there would be opportunities for you as a runner to go in and work your way up.”

Letts is a Jeremy Kyle veteran who rose through the ranks on the show some years ago. Adam Letts isn’t his real name. The television industry is a small world of precarious contracts where no one wants to burn bridges if they can avoid it. “There is a culture of not speaking out and a fear of being pushed out of that circle of Kyle survivors,” he says. “People were there a long time. It’s their whole lives. It feels like a betrayal for a lot of people to tell the truth about the show.”

The pay is so bad, and the hours are insanely long, but people will keep working at it because they think it’s a real privilege to be there. They’re desperate to be there, and everyone is scared of losing their job

Nick Grant (also a pseudonym) had a more junior role on the programme. He was there after Letts left, and I interviewed them independently. Like Letts, he often speaks in the present tense, as if he’s still part of the team.

“Usually it’s the first job, or one of the first jobs, for people. The pay is so bad, and the hours are insanely long, but people will keep working at it because they think it’s a real privilege to be there,” Grant tells me. “They’re desperate to be there, and everyone is scared of losing their job.”

You could get promoted quickly, Letts says. “If you get a couple of big stories where there are big bits of conflict and they rate well, and the execs are really happy with the stories, you would find yourself moving up the ranks.”

There have always been rumours about how The Jeremy Kyle Show found stories, tales of researchers hanging around outside bookies or on council estates, offering desperate people fistfuls of cash. Grant and Letts tell me the truth is far more prosaic. Sometimes they followed up things they’d read in the tabloids, but the vast majority of the guests had simply called or texted the show.

“In the pre-titles or in the credits, it would say, ‘If you’ve got a problem, call this number… ’ You’d get a massive wad of numbers and sift through them, phone-bash and see what the stories were,” says Letts. “At the start of the series you’d have s**tloads and you’d be thinking, this is brilliant. But more often than not, you found yourself really struggling to get stories on board. It’s easy to get one half of a story to call or text in. The skill was to convince the other side to come on.”

The Jeremy Kyle Show: the final episode aired on May 10th, 2019. Photograph: ITV
The Jeremy Kyle Show: the final episode aired on May 10th, 2019. Photograph: ITV

They would try to persuade reluctant people by telling them about the services they’d have access to if they agreed to take part. Wrongly accused of cheating on your wife? A lie detector will set the record straight. Being unfaithful? Here’s some couples’ therapy for you.

The promise of mental health support was an important part of that persuasion, Letts says. “A lot of this came down to highlighting the aftercare. ‘We’ve got access to the best counsellor in your area to sort your problem out. We’ll make sure this issue goes away. We’ve got Graham here.’” (He means Graham Stanier, the consultant psychotherapist who would often appear on camera alongside Kyle.) “‘We can provide.’ That was part of the sell.”

But nine times out of 10, people would simply hang up when The Jeremy Kyle Show called. It was dispiriting work for the young researchers, Grant tells me. “It’s horrible. The pressure everyone is under is insane. You are constantly on the phone trying to get people on the show.”

Demanding conditions are not unusual in television. Still, the workplace Letts and Grant describe sounds like a factory, a production line feeding an insatiable beast. There were eight production teams, each expected to produce a show a week, with a producer and two or three researchers in each team.

They would work long hours casting and booking guests, getting them to the hotel, going through their stories with a fine-toothed comb once they were in their rooms. Then they would decide as a team how to present things on stage for maximum effect (Who should come out first? Which elements of the story did the guests need to be coached to emphasise?) and type up the notes for Kyle’s prompt cards in time for the studio recording.

The one-upmanship of how dedicated and how hard you’re willing to work for the show was a big thing. It was all or nothing. People who didn’t throw everything into it would find themselves leaving pretty soon

“Sometimes you get no sleep. There were occasions when people just didn’t go home. We were running on empty,” Grant tells me. Sometimes a team wouldn’t have found enough guests to film an entire four-part show. “Then you’d feel dark. Like you’d failed. Like your job was at risk. If you do well, you’re relieved. But then on Monday you start again. It’s a constant cycle.”

“The one-upmanship of how dedicated and how hard you’re willing to work for the show was a big thing,” says Letts. “It was all or nothing. People who didn’t throw everything into it would find themselves leaving pretty soon.”

Both Grant and Letts tell me that each episode was graded A (or later A*) to D by the series editor and executive producer. The grades were given out at the studio once recording had finished. “An A show would be a high conflict show – not physical, but something where it goes off, there’s lots of storming around the studio, lots of heightened emotions, lots of shouting, lots of what they called ‘really good entrances’.

“When they come on and they are immediately kicking off, nine times out of 10 you’re going to get an A show for that,” Letts explains. “A D show would be low energy, low conflict, poor talkers who couldn’t really express what they were trying to say properly or were too nervous, or their story didn’t stand up under scrutiny from Jeremy.”

Kyle liked guests he could have a bit of back and forth with, Letts says. He knew how to pull strings to get a reaction, and wanted as much detail as possible from his team so he could do it

Kyle liked guests he could have a bit of back and forth with, Letts says. He knew how to pull strings to get a reaction, and wanted as much detail as possible from his team so he could do it. The grading was both to incentivise the exhausted production teams, Letts says, and to decide how to order episodes in the schedule. “They would put an A show out on a Friday, when they get the biggest audience. A D show, they would shoehorn into the schedule at some point where you’d generally get lower figures.”

There was a leaderboard showing which production team had made the most A or A* episodes and which individuals were doing well at booking. “There’s four parts in a show, so if you book a story that goes across parts one and two, that’s a big story. You get more points than if you booked a two-person lie detector,” Grant explains.

At the end of the series there were rewards for those who came top: champagne, vouchers, prestige and job security. “If you didn’t get the stories and you were at the bottom of the leaderboard, come the end of the series or the end of your contract, you’re probably not going to get a new contract.”

Guests often made repeat appearances: they had a bank of regulars who could be relied on to take researchers’ calls at 10pm and were “willing to have an argument over nothing”, as Grant puts it, on stage the next day. But the perfect guest was new to the show, a “big personality” with a compelling story who could tell it loudly, clearly, passionately and immediately, and who had passed the mandatory mental health checks.

If someone’s got schizophrenia or bipolar, they are not coming on – you ask that in your first chat with them. If someone had been on antidepressants for, say, 10 weeks, it was probably all right

These checks were taken seriously, they both say, referring to a long document of questions that took 20 minutes to go through on the phone with each guest. “It was incredibly stringent,” Letts insists. “If people were on any kind of anti-psychotic, it was an immediate no. If people were taking particularly high doses of medication for depression, it would be a no. If they were taking anything that might affect them physically, like they had a heart defect, it could be a no.”

“If someone’s got schizophrenia or bipolar, they are not coming on – you ask that in your first chat with them,” Grant says. “Other mental health conditions need more nuance. If someone had been on antidepressants for, say, 10 weeks, it was probably all right. That would be different if they’d had a suicide attempt – then it’s probably a no. But if the suicide attempt was three years ago over something completely different, then maybe it’s all right.”

Graham Stanier and his aftercare team of four or five mental health nurses always had the final say on who was well enough to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show. “From my point of view, that was an added layer of difficulty,” Letts tells me, plainly. “You think you’ve found the perfect story, you do the health check, they speak to the mental health nurse or Graham, and they’d say, ‘No, sorry, they just can’t come on.’ That would be devastating.”

When I ask whether that left any of the production team tempted to obscure possible mental health problems contributors might have had, both Letts and Grant choose their words carefully.

“The battle between producers and the mental health team was a battle,” Letts says. “As far as I am concerned, no, that didn’t really happen. Did people bend the rules? Not generally, no. But there are always going to be instances where that might happen.”

“Everyone is trained that those checks, that form, has to be accurate. I wasn’t involved in anyone else’s form,” Grant says. “I can definitely understand, with the pressure people were under, that people may have not been honest. You’ve got to understand – the pressure was massive.”

The show was a bit of a ticking timebomb. You can only ‘test’ so many people before someone is going to snap and react badly. If you feel like you’ve been shamed on national television, sometimes people can’t see a way out of that

The sheer number of episodes the production teams were expected to churn out, and the number of guests required to fill those shows, combined with the competition deliberately fostered by management and burnt-out staff, resulted in a perfect storm. “I really think the problem lies with ITV,” says Letts. “They allowed that kind of working culture, and those practices, to go on.”

Neither Grant nor Letts were working on The Jeremy Kyle Show at the time of Steve Dymond’s death. “It was very sad,” says Grant. “I obviously felt sorry for the family. I also felt sorry for the people who booked him, because they would have had no idea that would have happened, and now they’ve got that on their conscience. There have been so many people on the show with similar backgrounds – with depression and mental health issues – that if it hadn’t been him, eventually that would have happened.”

Letts, too, was shocked but not surprised. “The show was a bit of a ticking timebomb. You can only ‘test’ so many people before someone is going to snap and react badly, because people are human and if you feel like you’ve been shamed on national television, sometimes people can’t see a way out of that.” Still, the aftershocks of Dymond’s death were unforeseeable. “It was so far-reaching,” he says quietly. “It affected so many people.”

Grant doesn’t want to talk about Natasha Reddican, the producer who took her own life. Both he and Letts knew her. “It is just so dreadful,” Letts says. “Being able to step back and think, hang on, what am I actually doing here, is so difficult on that show. You’re so wrapped up in it. It is such a tight-knit community. You feel like everything on the outside doesn’t matter. I can see that it affected Natasha so deeply that she just felt there wasn’t a way out.” He pauses. “It was completely shocking and out of the blue. And it says something about the culture of the industry that needs to change, that you work yourself almost to death.”

Jeremy Kyle has never claimed to be a therapist or counsellor. In the early days of the show, he cast himself in interviews as ‘an ordinary bloke’ who simply ‘tries to tell it like it is’

Jeremy Kyle has never claimed to be a therapist or counsellor. In the early days of the show, he cast himself in interviews as “an ordinary bloke” who simply “tries to tell it like it is”. He began his career selling life insurance and radio advertising, and then started broadcasting on local radio in 1996. He moved to Virgin Radio’s late-night slot in 2002, hosting a show called Jezza’s Virgin Confessions, during which people would call, in various states of emotional distress, to go through their personal crises with him. He took the programme to Capital FM, and Dianne Nelmes, then ITV’s director of daytime and lifestyle, happened to hear it just at the time when the channel was looking for a replacement for Trisha Goddard. Kyle auditioned, and the rest is history.

Nobody was forced to work on The Jeremy Kyle Show. The staff chose to put up with the pressure, the working hours and the grindingly exploitative content they were producing in order to get a foothold in the supposedly glamorous and exciting world of TV. Many decided the trade-off wasn’t worth it; there was a high turnover of staff, with plenty leaving the industry altogether.

ITV, for its part, says that it does “not propose to comment” on “unsubstantiated allegations” made by the former staffers. When asked about their claims and the death of Natasha Reddican, it pointed to its introduction of a duty of care charter and new guidance for producers. “ITV takes our duty of care to participants and colleagues very seriously, and we regularly review our duty of care processes to ensure they are fit for purpose in an ever-changing world,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, recent controversies over “inhumane” working conditions on Channel 4’s Gogglebox – where staff complained to the broadcasting union Bectu that they were being “screamed at for 12 hours a day” – show that this problem is not confined to ITV.

When the programme was axed, many of the team were simply made redundant. After so many series, it was a shock. There was no other show quite like Kyle’s

In the days following Reddican’s death, both ITV and Jeremy Kyle himself released statements. “I can scarcely believe this tragic news,” Kyle said. “Tash was such a talented producer, and an extremely popular part of our team.”

“As with all other former employees on the show [Reddican] was offered support and counselling by ITV during the redundancy process,” ITV’s statement read. “ITV also supports The Film and TV Charity, which has been set up to support those working within the industry, particularly freelancers, and helps fund its free, 24/7 support line offering confidential advice.”

Asked about her death now, a spokesperson reiterated ITV’s “deepest condolences” and added that it offered access to an employee assistance programme and training designed to help people find a new job.

When the programme was axed, some of the team moved on to another ITV Studios production: Judge Rinder, the reality TV arbitration show in the mould of Judge Judy in the US. But many were simply made redundant. After so many series, it was a shock. There was no other show quite like Kyle’s. “They found themselves in a world where that kind of show, the tone of the show, the style of the show, was suddenly so outdated,” says Letts.

Letts and Grant both moved on to other productions before the show’s demise. “It was definitely the most pressurised job I’ve ever done, or have ever heard of, in any industry,” Grant says.

His manager’s website declares: ‘After a year spent battling the unimaginable consequences of a devastating tragedy, Jeremy Kyle will be back soon to have his say. Watch this space!’

Of course, the true victims of The Jeremy Kyle Show are the unpaid members of the public who provided its content. ITV may have deleted all traces of the programme from its on-demand service, and removed whatever clips it can find on YouTube, but there are thousands of people still living with the legacy of agreeing to expose their personal crises on stage for public entertainment in exchange for a promise of help.

Kane Manning wishes he’d never appeared on the programme. He’s still close to his brother, but has no contact with the mother of Craig’s child. “It’s awkward, still,” he says. “I regret it.”

Kyle, meanwhile, is looking to the future. There are three separate Bring Back Jeremy Kyle pages on Facebook, with hundreds of thousands of followers, and more than 52,000 people have signed an online petition to get his show back on air. He has signed to Peter Andre’s management team, who have big plans for him. While he declined to comment for this article, a profile page on his manager’s website has a story to tell about a survivor making a comeback. “For 14 years, Jeremy Kyle dominated daytime TV with his hugely successful eponymous talkshow,” it says. “After a year spent battling the unimaginable consequences of a devastating tragedy, Jeremy Kyle will be back soon to have his say: WATCH THIS SPACE!” – Guardian

Samaritans’ free helpline is at 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.ie or jo@samaritans.org; Pieta’s free helpline is at 1800-247247, or text help to 51444

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.