What does ‘chat’ actually mean? (answers on a postcard) by Barbara Nadel

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When I was a young’un chat shows on television were hosted by Michael Parkinson or Russell Harty. They involved Michael or Russell interviewing singers, actors, rock bands, explorers and sometimes politicians and/or minor royalty. It was all usually quite jolly, sometimes interesting and, occasionally, borderline insane (as when Grace Jones beat Russell Harty about the head for allegedly ignoring her).

Chat was basically life stories back then. Jokes and songs could feature as could the occasional drunken outburst by Oliver Reed or Richard Burton. Some guests smoked – Peter Cook, Bette Davies – while some were clearly off their heads on who knew what. But whatever was happening, ‘chat’ in this context, was glamorous, fun and definitely not ‘like us’ in any way shape or form. That was why we liked it.

Last week, for various reasons I will not bore you with, I ended up in hospital. Given my recent bout of depression, I can assure you it was most certainly nothing to do with that however. So anyway, there I was in hospital, in pain, on a drip with nothing to do. So I turned on the television. Apparently a chat show called ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ was about to begin.

Now, I am not going to pretend that I didn’t know what the Jeremy Kyle Show was prior to my hospital admission. I’d heard of it, I’d even seen bits of it from time to time. Now trapped by pain, a drip and the prospect of either some smug sods on the property programme on BBC1 or BBC2s latest delusional, acid fuelled kids show, I opted for ‘chat’.

It was lively, I’ll say that for it. Jeremy Kyle, a middle-aged, middle-class man who likes to call women ‘darling’ and describe their insane desire for 15 minutes of fame as ‘brave’, did very well to control the family who all wanted to kill each other. A sixty-something man who was dressed like a fourteen-year-old skinhead objected strongly to his teenage daughter’s forty something thug of a boyfriend. Fists flew, legs drew back to kick and dentally challenged women screamed. I wish I could say that I’d never seen so much lycra clothing or so many white trainers in my life, but that would be a lie. A trip down any British high street (except perhaps Kensington) will reveal similar clothes and similar behaviour and attitudes too. Not everyone will conform to this pattern, but there will be a proportion who most definitely do.

The Kyle show’s ‘chat’ was shouty, in many cases it was about people being childish and making ‘something out of nothing’. There was no glamour, no humour, no empathy and most certainly no songs. It was, and is, eternally Russell Harty being hit over the head by Grace Jones – but minus all the glitz. When did ‘chat’ stop being about people who had the guts to climb Everest, and start being about some bloke with fifteen kids?

Personally I don’t mind if anyone wants to have fifteen or even twenty kids, it’s up to them. It’s up to individuals whether they want to fight, cheat on their partners or hate their siblings. The question is, are these things topics for ‘chat’? Hating your sister is hardly aspirational and do I, a total stranger to both parties, need to know about it? ‘Chat’ these days would appear to be a form of peering in through an endless succession of neighbours curtains. The petty rows, the stupid fights, the pitiful and tragic jealousies over children, partners and parents. There is an old saying about ‘not airing your dirty laundry in public’ which seems to have gone flying out of the window. Fame and money have seduced people into telling the world about their abortions, their multiple partners, their every prison sentence. And as time goes on and the media is flooded with ‘real life’ stories about ‘ordinary people in crisis’ it just gets worse. I glanced at a ‘real life’ magazine in the supermarket the other day. It advertises itself as the sort of magazine one can relax with and read over a coffee. It’s headline was ‘Evil Dad Raped and then tried to Kill Me!’

Relaxing? That? Maybe if your definition of relaxation is to have nightmares for the rest of your life? I repeat, when did ‘chat’ become this? When did it all get so bonkers and where, oh, where is Michael Parkinson when you need him?

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