DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

The sanctity of the confessional undoubtedly upholds its mystique. Indeed, a clichéd plotline of many a detective drama is the frustrated copper trying to persuade a priest to hint at what was said between him and a suspect, despite the refusal repeatedly stressed by the man of the cloth. For the alleged suspect, knowing there is someone with whom he can share his demons safe in the knowledge the recipient’s lips will be sealed thereafter is evidently a rare comfort. But the confessional is more than merely an over-familiar trope routinely dredged up to embellish works of fiction. To anyone raised outside of the Catholic faith, the confidential confines of the confessional is perhaps one of the Church of Rome’s most alluring and attractive elements, though I appreciate the luxury of choice for non-believers is not necessarily something many chained to tiresome and intrusive religious rituals may view quite so benignly. Many years ago, a friend of mine confronted by a taxing personal dilemma that burdened her with more information than she could handle considered popping into the confessional just to get it all off her chest; but being utterly agnostic meant she too only knew the routine from the movies and bemoaned the fact there wasn’t a secular equivalent available – and an optional one at that.

Although some Anglican branches boasting Anglo-Catholic orientation have a similar set-up, it’s a wonder this particular aspect of Catholicism didn’t become a cornerstone feature of Protestant worship in Britain; it seems especially pertinent to the old British reluctance to wash dirty linen in public. A TV show such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ could never have existed half-a-century ago, for example, with the exposure of private family secrets used as a selling point completely alien to the traditional British character; a more fitting version of the programme produced at one time would have been more accurately titled ‘Mind Your Own Bloody Business’. How many of us grew up in families with shadowy figures on the fringes of photos whose names had been consciously forgotten, rumours whispered out of the ear-shot of children, contradictory evidence on clandestine birth certificates, a mysterious absence of a marriage licence and so on? The thought of all that airing on a primetime TV programme was anathema to those sensibilities. Yes, it is certainly an improvement that these secrets apparently can now be said out loud within families, but broadcasting them is still a step too far for some – though a lot seems to depend on which generation one belongs to.

Reading a description of the hotel facilities facing those forced to self-isolate at great expense upon returning to the UK from abroad, the inclusion of a TV set in the tomb – sorry, room – was clearly mentioned because it’s a given the item is as much a necessity as a bed. I haven’t been in a hotel room for a long time, but I can’t imagine a TV set would be much comfort in my confinement; it’d probably make me feel worse, receiving a horrifying premonition of a care home future in which I’m left to vegetate before endless gardening, cookery and antique exercises intended to extend inertia. Raised on seaside holidays in which the B&B boasted a communal ‘television room’ to serve that particular need, the novelty of a set in each individual room wasn’t something I encountered until my first visit to the States in 1980. I actually couldn’t wait to switch on back then, excited to see how different the service was. Looking back, I can see now that the dubious thrill of a hundred channels transmitting 24/7 was a glimpse into what awaited British viewers – as was the content.

One programme that stands out in the memory was so at odds with what I was used to that it almost seemed like a parody. I remember a weak steak of piss with a Gilbert O’Sullivan haircut sat around in a circle with maybe half-a-dozen people who were quite willing to discuss intimate problems and more than willing to burst into tears, leading to the inevitable ‘group hug’. My response to this conspicuous expression of emotions was laughter, but more so discomfort, feeling as though I was eavesdropping on something that I felt should’ve been conducted in private rather than public. It was probably some local PBS channel watched by fewer viewers than the number of people it took to produce the programme, but the apparent benefits those participating appeared to have received from the ‘therapy’ to me were outweighed by the very English threat of ‘everybody knowing their business’. I didn’t see the appeal for either participant or viewer. This was a new strain of television in which the confessional had opened its doors, a dream come true for that urban and suburban bogeyman (and woman), the nosy neighbour.

Previously better known for her small (but effective) role in ‘The Colour Purple’ and soon to become better known for the merry-go-round of her Liz Taylor-like weight loss/weight gain routine, Oprah Winfrey’s day-job was the host of a TV chat show specialising in audience participation. This wasn’t ‘The Generation Game’ or ‘That’s Life’, however; members of the public weren’t present to compare carrots to penises or make fools of themselves on the potter’s wheel; they were there to share things that had previously only been shared with intimate confidants and trusted friends – not only with everyone else in the studio but with millions watching at home. It would’ve been easy to write this off as an alien ‘Americanism’, but the sheer strangeness of such an approach to personal problems naturally gave it a car-crash cachet with British viewers, and British TV decided to have a crack at it.

Suddenly, from the mid-80s onwards, we had ‘Kilroy’ on BBC1 and ‘The Time, The Place’ on ITV. Then we had ‘This Morning with Richard & Judy’, ‘Trisha’, ‘Vanessa’, and probably numerous others long-forgotten in which people were encouraged to confess every sexual or mental hang-up in public. As Brits were making use of extended broadcasting hours by waiving rules on subjects that could and couldn’t be discussed before the watershed, the Americans were taking the format into extreme areas with the grotesque bear-baiting of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’; and, as had happened with the Oprah brand, we copied the format, lowering the bar way beyond anywhere the bar had ever sunk before by installing Jeremy Kyle as the gatekeeper of Bedlam so everyone could poke fun at the freaks. By now, reality television had already shown the narcissist and the exhibitionist that a lack of shame was no impediment to fame and fortune; but running parallel with this was the supposedly more dignified one-on-one interview conducted in earnest tones, a way for established celebrities to beg forgiveness for their misdemeanours and salvage their careers. Every household name from Frank Bough to Michael Barrymore followed in the footsteps of Princess Diana by adopting a faux-reserved manner to confessing their sins in public

Which brings us full circle, to the summit meeting of a woman who could lay claim to instigating this pernicious trend and a man who married his mother; the latter isn’t to be taken literally of course – after all, Jeremy Kyle has now been banished from the small screen; but you know what I mean. Considering areas where this here blog has ventured on occasion, I nevertheless deny it is also a symptom of such a trend. As a writer, I regard myself as operating in a particular tradition whereby the artist informs the art. Every novel has a sizeable slice of the novelist in it, ditto the poem and the poet, ditto the polemic and the polemicist – and I do all three. No cards are being played to elicit sympathy in the process, and there’s a world of difference between self-expression via the written word and holding out the emotional begging-bowl whilst sat in a Californian garden large enough to host gymkhana events. But this is an age in which the cameraman is closer to gynaecologist than priest and the confessional operates an open door policy in the arena of social media.

© The Editor

3 thoughts on “DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

  1. Call me an uptight, boring, old fart if you must, but I never cease to be amazed at the range of ‘freaks’ who are prepared to expose their innermost and intimate secrets in such a public forum as a TV show. Indeed this view also extends to the terminally thick-as-pigshit who volunteer to appear on TV quiz shows, their fundamental lack of any breadth of knowledge guaranteeing that they will not walk away with the apparently life-changing prize of a few quid or a mantelpiece ornament.

    When Joe Public insists on volunteering for such public humiliation, I can only think that it confirms Andy Warhol’s dictum that everyone needs their 15 minutes of fame, or infamy, it seems not to matter which. Some of us, however, remain the rule-proving exceptions, immune from that urge.

    It is different, of course, when ‘celebrities’ seem to open up in the confessional studio of some over-rated, high-profile earner, as they usually have an agenda in play, either a product to promote or a score to settle, or sometimes both. I suspect we may have recently become aware of such a case, but I somehow don’t think a mere mantelpiece bauble would have bought them off.

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    1. Re Warhol, it’s interesting that the creatures of the night he rounded up and put on camera 50-odd years ago acquired a certain cultish mystique because they seemed so strange and exotically decadent. Yet ever since those whose 15 minutes would once have been restricted to one of his entertainingly bizarre underground movies have grabbed the mainstream spotlight, they’ve become just as boring and tedious as all the other celebs out there. I think I would have to be strapped to a chair and have my eyes wedged open ala ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to sit through half-a-minute of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ or, for that matter, anything with the Duchess of Windsor…sorry…Sussex in it. Mind you, there’s probably someone pitching just such a show as we speak.

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