Kilroy’s Kingdom

Daniel Stour on Kilroy

First published August 2001

In the aftermath of the recent General Election, it is worth remarking upon the increasingly symbiotic relationship between politics and the media. The reduced turnout at the polls suggests a widespread belief that modern politics is entirely detached from real life. A glossy, bourgeois entertainment seemingly conducted entirely through television, it is well on the way to becoming just another digit on the remote control; and easy to switch off. As the dropping percentages of votes cast were revealed on election night, presenters and politicians alike (and they are so alike) shook their heads like disappointed parents, concerned that their offspring were slipping away from them.

“Reality” television, however, is now the true barometer of the nation’s consciousness. Forget the Commons, who do you want to evict from that other, infinitely more representative house? Vote now … but of course, in the end the advertisers and ideologues have the last laugh either way, and Big Brother always wins. Television edits its reality as carefully as any drama, makes it as opaque as any mainstream political manifesto. Perhaps the rising tide of TV polls, docusoaps and debates mark the beginning of a new culture of convenience politics, with all the difficulty removed and replaced by a catchy theme tune.

It is predictable, therefore, in this looking glass culture where reality and fantasy are identical twins, that former politicians find new opportunities in the media; as soon as they find themselves outside the public “big tent” they are crawling straight back in under the flux. The BBC is a haven for these characters: for instance, ex Tory MPs Edwina Currie and David Mellor regularly use their dubious talents for communication to patronise radio callers into submission. The ineptly fenced area of public service broadcasting is seething with weeds; however, these tawdry tendrils exist in the shadow of a towering figure, the denizen of daytime who long ago claimed this particular patch of waste ground as his own domain.

Upon his election as a Labour MP In 1974, Robert Kilroy-Silk announced to the nation that he would be the next Prime Minister. By July 1985 he’d given up his Knowsley North seat (blaming the activities of Militant Tendency) and moved into television. His dreams of leadership would not be suppressed; as a determined child might shape a length of tin foil, he improvised his own crown, and arranged his own miniature kingdom in a TV studio. Since then he has presided over this Little Britain, his awe-struck subjects sitting passively while he strides over them, periodically lowering himself to listen, to touch, to grant an audience. Compared with the ragged formality of party politics, it seems he has discovered in television an altogether more satisfactory and lucrative way of imposing his moral authority upon a certain sector of the population.

Kilroy was first broadcast on 24 November 1986 (albeit then under the guise of Day to Day) and created as a British response to The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, it lacks the theatrical, Vaudeville aspect of Oprah or Ricki Lake, and the show does not rely on bawdy humour; even in the more light-hearted debates the jokes seem somehow compensatory and strained. There is not the maternal atmosphere of its British contemporaries, Esther and Trisha – signified by companionable female first names. In contrast, Kilroy is cold and serious, its lethal weapon of a surname penetrating with brutal banality into the most profound, awkward corners of people’s lives.

The mechanics of the show are simple: The host introduces a topic with a short speech to the audience at home, guiding the content a certain direction, and then an opening guest is asked to tell their story over five to 10 minutes. At this point the theme of the show is displayed in a caption on the bottom left corner of the screen, where it remains for the duration. (The casual viewer can switch on at any time and instantly assess the potential of the subject: “Traded In For A Younger Model” – all right I’ll leave it on for a while … “I Don’t Like My Looks” – erm, no, sounds a bit dull …) The discussion continues with other, more brief contributors, and Kilroy-Silk moves around the group, usually shifting position every 15 minutes or so. The key guests are wired up with microphones and they dutifully chime in, comparing their situations with earlier speakers. Particular individuals take on assertive positions and become established contributors as the show goes on. The narrative momentum tends to quicken towards the end, with shorter interactions and more movement around the group, before the host finally returns to the screen and summarises the main points of the day’s lesson.

The format does not allow for individuals or couples within the studio to be physically set apart in any sort of panel, a frequent device in other discussion shows. Therefore, the group has no external focus an is in continuous conflict with itself. The group is rarely cohesive, and sporadic alliances between strangers have the appearance of survival tactics, as the individual is always alert to the possibility of coming under attack (significantly, as all the participants face in the same direction, they are constantly having to look over their shoulders). The studio amasses a collection of vulnerable, isolated individuals, looking for a leader. This sets the stage for the star.

Kilroy the host, the character, the man, the well-oiled engine of Kilroy the programme, shifts on high performance gears between the roles of orator, arbiter, therapist, Panopticon. Standing above his disparate subjects, he creates the needs, problems and arguments which he can then step in to resolve.

Kilroy-Silk is skilled in transferring the group’s attention onto himself as a narrative strategy; this is often done in order to oxidise a debate that would otherwise die out. The dramatic core of the character he plays in his own show consists of a kind of adaptive omniscience, whereby he keeps the audience in their place by constantly assuming the most effectively controlling persona. It is perhaps this deliberate switching between extremes, from Kilroy the caring listener to Kilroy the overbearing bully, that is the source of most irritation towards the host, but for many it is surely the source of his lasting attraction, setting him up as a sort of pillar of unquestionable male authority.

His interventions are most of all aimed at protecting the format from its hovering enemy, of which all participants (producers, presenter, studio guests and TV audience), whatever their ideological perspectives, are ever watchful; this is the dread of uncertainty. Uncertainty could equal anxiety and chaos; it could kill the writhing, parasitic life form of the discussion show in a terrifying neutralising squirt of real life. It could lead to the intolerable scenario of Kilroy-Silk approaching the camera at the end of the hour for his summing-up speech (always a condensed epic of overblown patriarchal conclusiveness), shrugging his massive shoulders and saying “Well, I don’t know.”

This is something which is not to be contemplated, as not-knowing (or even worse, changing one’s mind), like silence, is a major hidden fear of television producers and political parties: To be sure of good ratings make your audience feel sure of themselves.

For example, during a programme about relationships between mothers and daughters, the general trend of hostile daughters letting off steam at absent mothers led up to an account from a woman whose daughter had died; she described herself as a failed mother, who had loved her daughter but not been able to show it. This was a dark cul-de-sac and “reality” looked like being ambushed by reality – the group could not bring themselves to go on criticising the woman, who was clearly suffering and blaming herself; but neither was this an “applause” opportunity. A guest reflected this uncertainty by remarking that maybe we don’t always know what love is.

Such existential indecision might be fatal (even more so if the word love in the question is replaced by hate); but whereas with a less experienced driver the Kilroy vehicle might have stalled at this dead end, the host revved up the “debate” by drawing attention onto himself, pronouncing loudly: “I know what love is! What do you mean you don’t know what love is?” The move worked, and the group latched onto the host and his well exercised “charisma” to lead them away from the site of danger. Certainty was safely restored and the mother’s terrible difficulty swiftly overtaken. The crisis had been averted and projective traffic was once more flowing freely.

Some guests, presumably driven to appear by some great personal need, then find themselves unwitting bait. In 1999 Kilroy was the subject of a complaint when an unemployed man participated in a show originally called “Life On The Dole”, which was actually broadcast under the title “I Want My Man To Get A Job!” Obviously, the discussion was steered in a particular direction by this change, and the individual felt humiliated. The programme makers stated that “the title of each programme is provisional and may be changed at a later date”. A similar twist could be detected in a recent show, trailed as being about discussing the “long term effects of being brought up without a father”, which turned out to be called “My Father Left Me”. Kilroy’s silky smooth introduction proceeded as follows:

“I suppose I’m really lucky, I get on really well with my son – always have – but some fathers and sons don’t always find it easy to be friends … some boys are even deprived of their father altogether, when he walks out, and dumps not just their wife, but them. Which is a bit like you Mike, you haven’t seen your Craig, who’s 15, for seven years. Why’s that?”

The host immediately puts an unreachable distance between himself and his group – he tells us that, unlike his guests, he and his son get on “really well”. The entire subject is then narrowed down to a specific scenario: fathers who “walk out”, and “dump” their sons. By the time this prologue is winding up and the host is approaching the group to begin the discussion, the aforementioned Mike is probably sensing a strong whiff of persecution. Even before being invited to tell his story, his role has been built up as a walking out, dumping father who is then asked, well why did you do it?

Nevertheless, Mike explained that his marriage had broken up, he had been stopped from seeing his children for a year, it had led to alcoholism and a suicide attempt … but none of this was relevant to the trajectory of the programme, which was only concerned, for the next few minutes, with knocking Mike around with his own sense of guilt for the gratification of the group and audience.

An unrelated young man who had not seen his own father since he was eight (“similar to Craig,” added Kilroy-Silk) put in a word about how he had “lost out”. So now Mike the father was faced with a representative image of the son he had supposedly carelessly abandoned. He was made an example by the group, hunted down and attacked in a polite, morally superior way as his pleas to be understood became more and more desperate. He said he hadn’t wanted to leave his kids, he was stopped from seeing them for a year, tried to kill himself and then couldn’t face trying to contact them – to which he was told critically, “you were thinking of you – your pain, your rejection, your humiliation”. Faced with this inquisition the man gave in and said what the group wanted to hear: “I’ve been selfish.” He was snagged, and Kilroy-Silk reeled him in, cheerfully shouting “Well stop being selfish you’re a father!” gleefully adding that now he had “confessed to being selfish” he had to change. The individual, no doubt exhausted by this trial, said that yes he would write his son a letter. There was a wave of applause as the group congratulated themselves on solving a problem that a man had agonised over for years in a matter of 10 minutes.

The role of Kilroy-Silk, as both orchestrator and arbiter of disputes, can in this sense be compared to an older child who tricks two youngsters into a playground fight so that he can show off by stepping in and breaking it up. The rest of the class therefore looks up to him, potential rivals are vaguely intimidated and disempowered, and the bossy kid gets to choose which games to play. These playground politics are all empire-building tools for the media personality. Kilroy becomes Kilroy; in a spectacular act of hubris, even the production company is named after him.

The programme appears rather like a political chamber dedicated to relentlessly debating its constituents’ family lives, prejudices, disorders etc. The host, studio group and audience are all participating in a pretence that by the end of each session some decision will have been reached. It is here that the pomposity of Kilroy excels. It purports to be serious, in contrast to the stage-managed schlock of something like Jerry Springer. In fact, Kilroy is really about manufactured entertainment, just as much as Springer is. In the world outside entertainment, individual problems cannot be generalised, shattered lives are unsurprisingly not repaired over an hour in a television studio, and all the anger, once sparked there, does not dissipate into the ether, but remains. The real appeal of the show consists in the opportunity to see real people getting really angry and upset, without the danger of personal involvement. The moralistic narrative, neatly bookended by the host’s opening and closing lectures, gives the audience (both screen and studio) license to excite their propensities for “civilised” aggression while feeling secure about the apparently constructive basis of such impulses.

Occasionally, for a change of scenery, the programme deviates from its usual argumentative route. This detour occurs when the focus of anger cannot be physically brought into the studio. The show adopts the sombre postures of a group therapy session, where the host is the caring counsellor, and the group are united by their powerlessness. While this differs from the more common narrative of organised hostility, it provides a platform for the star/leader to widen his appeal, to add emotional “depth” to his character.

A show titled “Young Widowers” began with an account from a man about the death of his wife, and his difficulties in coming to terms with this and rebuilding his life. It was intensely moving and, as other men with similar experiences listened and shared their thoughts, I felt my cynicism wavering – as one man said, “This is good therapy for me.” However, as the show went on, the increasingly abbreviated accounts (a man whose wife had died six weeks ago was given 40 seconds) made me feel like a voyeur, watching a tape of continuous car crashes, momentary impacts featuring real victims, but carefully edited (Kilroy-Silk’s movement within the group and selection of interviewees are a kind of physical editing) to moderate disturbance while optimising viewer interest.

To its credit, the show raised issues about men expressing feelings, and for a viewer directly identifying with those on the screen, might have burst a bubble of isolation. The emotion shown by Kilroy-Silk in his summing-up speech also appeared to be genuine (an unusual occurrence in my experience of the show). However, why this sort of real life TV catharsis is necessary at all raises the question of how society is using, and being used by, television; is it easier to switch on the therapist in the living room than talk to a human being? Despite the message that talking to friends or counsellors is good (heavily emphasised in this particular show), are such programmes as Kilroy really challenging this impersonal culture, or perpetuating it?

The end of the show did not offer contact numbers for those viewers who wanted to gain support; rather the credits were overlaid with invitations to call the Kilroy number to appear in a future programme. “Are you in love with a widower? … Do you fear you are in his wife’s shadow? … Have you had a relationship with a widower in the past that didn’t survive?” This stream of questions, directed at the viewer like a market research survey, is perhaps the true voice of Kilroy; upbeat, scripted and corporate, calmly cataloguing the most traumatic and intimate aspects of people’s lives in order to design the perfect media product.

Kilroy is a marketing of misery, treating its viewers as consumers rather than producers of emotion. It is synonymous with the hypnotic world of daytime television, where fragments of reality drift by in a haze of sedative imagery, like hoovering on Valium. The prospect of desensitisation looms as issues are endlessly unrolled to be trodden over by viewers like bored tourists gawping at some place of tragedy. The show is meant to fit effortlessly between the forgettable moments of life; its stories of private devastation are not designed to be memorable, but rather to form part of a listless, debris-strewn daydream.

So, at the end of another instalment, as Kilroy-Silk bundles up yet another prickly problem like barbed wire concealed in a huge ball of cotton wool, over the soundtrack the soporific invitation drones on:

“If you’d like to join Robert in a programme about being abused as a child, call now … [am I really awake yet?] … were you abused as a child? [... was I? No. Oh well ...] was it by a family member, a carer or a stranger? [... maybe I'll make a cup of tea] … have you ever managed to come to terms with the abuse? [... what time is it?] … do you have problems trusting anyone or forming relationships? [... oh, it must be 10 o'clock] … call too if you successfully overcame the trauma of abuse … [this carpet needs hoovering ...]“

Kilroy needs Kilroy; the show is his instrument of power. If, by some collective effort of wakefulness, his audience were to question the myopic world constructed on the screen, to allow its underlying dynamic to come into focus, then it would surely collapse. Without his eponymous vehicle the host would be left stranded, a leader devoid of followers, his speeches unheard, his counsel unsought. The empty studio would hold only the memory of his imperious dream.