Paul and Jeremy
Bill Hartley enters darkest England
These days British television is full of what are called ‘Reality’ shows. One such programme is Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away. A new series has just started. The programme follows the adventures of some High Court enforcement agents – that’s Bailiffs to you and me. Their job is to evict or recover debts and given the endless repeats out in the wilderness of daytime television, the producers have got themselves a winner.
The way it works is that if a claimant is dissatisfied with the rate of progress through the County Court then they may escalate to the High Court, meaning that the process is quicker and the bailiffs arrive without warning.
Veteran watchers of the show will be as familiar with the excuses as the bailiffs themselves. Defendants may claim to know nothing about the matter, or that vital paperwork is with their solicitors. None of this makes an impression on the bailiffs who refuse to be deflected from their aim of either recovering a debt or evicting a tenant. Since they are paid by results it’s easy to understand why. Even so they use a high level of tact and diplomacy to deal with the angry, tearful, or sometimes just plain inadequate defendants.
One half of a two man team is Paul Bowhill a ruddy faced fifty something in a stab vest, with a taste for strawberry blonde hair dye. After each job one of the team members will give viewers a debrief on camera. Generally this is a matter of fact resume of what has just taken place. Unlike his colleagues, though, Paul has an uncanny appreciation of the opportunity he’s been gifted and is anxious to exploit it.
Although the only information he possesses is the terse wording of a High Court writ, Paul doesn’t let this stop him. He is the Reality TV director’s perfect stooge. Paul will let himself be filmed at the wheel of the firm’s white van, giving an opinion on an upcoming job, without any supporting evidence. Paul is prepared to air a view on culpability before he’s even met the defendant and further down the line will cheerfully revise his opinion once some actual information becomes available. For the benefit of the camera, Paul is willing to go above and beyond. He is the Man In The Pub but with access to a national television audience. Sometimes he’ll take a defendant on the brink of eviction out onto the street to meet the landlord. It achieves nothing of course and how could it? Thousands of pounds out of pocket in rent and legal fees, the claimant isn’t going to change his mind. But Paul instinctively knows that a bit of street theatre will make for good television. He’s a man starring in his own show and he wants as much time on screen as possible.
Paul has a view on the workings of local government. ‘It looks like you’ve slipped through the system’ he’ll tell some hapless tenant. Then afterwards he’ll give us his opinion on what local government/social services should be doing. Paul is out of his depth but like the Man In The Pub that’s not going to stop him. The thing is he’s a decent person who has been given the opportunity denied to most pub bores, to share his views on camera. Paul actually cares; he’s not a callous man.
Some defendants are clearly ripping off a landlord but show him say, a single mother with children and he oozes compassion.
Another long running programme is The Jeremy Kyle Show. Mr Kyle is a well-groomed individual whose researchers have been trawling the lower depths of British society for years. What his programme shows is where half a century of welfarism has got us. Any of his subjects who admits to being in employment belongs to a tiny minority. Kyle’s ‘guests’ routinely thieve from each other or commit infidelities that you’d scarcely dream of. Women are impregnated by men so useless that if they were a horse you wouldn’t breed from them. Their lives, dominated by routine drug abuse and idleness, are shaped by constant bickering reinforced via texting and social media.
After watching or perhaps enduring this programme for any length of time what becomes apparent is the prevalent lack of moral standards. Pregnant? Doesn’t matter. The state will provide. Someone has left money lying around? Steal it. The possibility of repercussions would require thinking ahead and Kyle’s guests tend to live only in the moment. Many shows are conducted like a mock trial in which the culprit is to be identified. Tension is maintained by pauses in the action for commercial breaks. Sometimes the issue is parentage and a DNA test is used to determine who is to be inflicted on an infant as ‘father’. In other cases, to identify the culprit, Kyle relies on the lie detector test. A brief message runs across the screen hinting that not all authorities accept the veracity of this device, which is a massive understatement. For example Aldrich Ames the worst traitor the CIA ever had faced such a test and asked his KGB handler for advice. He was told, ‘get a good night’s sleep and be nice to the questioner’. He passed. Kyle however treats the results as if they have been handed down on tablets from Mount Sinai.
Once the result is announced and the culprit identified Kyle begins screeching with simulated moral outrage. The audience know what is expected of them and join in with him emitting gasps of disdain. Sometimes before announcing the result he’ll seek an opinion on guilt or otherwise by asking for a show of hands. It’s worth observing the culprit at this point. Often they sit there showing little more than mild discomfort as their misbehaviour is exposed. They may persist with a denial that has the effect of encouraging Kyle to intensify his contempt. Gradually what becomes apparent is the sheer pointlessness of the exercise. Kyle’s guests may be vaguely aware of the cultural norms which say that we should aspire to decency and truthfulness but it’s quite obvious that these are alien concepts. It would take a social anthropologist to explain what has gone wrong. The only link these people seem to have with mainstream society is that the rest of us fund them. Kyle knows this, he’s not stupid but to repay the investment required to get these people into the studio they have to endure a tongue lashing and some humiliation. When you grasp that these people are probably incapable of understanding and acting on what Kyle has to say, then what we see is a form of bullying. Against the articulate and contemptuous Kyle they are hardly more capable of defending themselves than a small child. Because they lack the vocabulary there is a risk that a frustrated guest will resort to violence. Two burly bodyguards hover close by to forestall this. There was one hilarious episode when the threat emerged offstage. A friend or relative of a guest, seated in the audience, leapt up to confront him. A clearly shaken Kyle berated his guards for failing to provide protection.
An in-house psychologist is on hand to provide counselling. Given the cultural barrier, it’s questionable that his words will have any impact. Indeed when we see him at work he appears to be talking at rather than to the people. They respond with blank looks or nods of the head. Indeed given the emotions whipped up on stage is it likely that anyone would be in a fit state to absorb counselling immediately afterwards?
Jeremy Kyle presides over a carefully choreographed bit of theatre that often involves bullying people too inarticulate to hit back. In contrast Paul Bowhill, for all that he likes starring in his own TV show, is out there on the streets confronting the misery and sometimes showing real compassion.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire