Trisha Goddard: ‘People always use the word cancelled. My show wasn’t cancelled.’ Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Guardian
The one-time queen of British talkshows blames producers for the genre’s toxicity, which has led to deaths and the axing of The Jeremy Kyle Show – while she has suffered as many upheavals as any of her guests
In the mid-00s, Trisha Goddard saved a fellow diner from choking. The woman had been eating steak at a nearby table in a Norwich restaurant when she got into trouble. Goddard calmly went to her aid, helped her cough it up, then got on with her meal. It’s fitting because the one-time British queen of the chatshow is exactly the sort of person you would turn to in a crisis. Cancer, emotional abuse, depression, family suicide, racism, career highs and lows – Goddard has been through it all, and is seemingly unflappable in a crisis. “Mmm,” she says. “Well, I hope if I’ve taught my daughters anything, it’s resilience. Look, shit happens!”
Patricia Gloria Goddard, 61, is speaking to me on the phone from Connecticut, where she has lived since 2010. Her time in the US hasn’t affected her accent, and her voice remains as warm and familiar as it was during her heyday on British television.
Our conversation comes in the wake of an intense few months for those working in reality TV. Following the deaths of former Love Island contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, the genre is in the spotlight like never before, with the aftercare of participants being called into question. The debate kicked into another gear this month after the suicide of Steve Dymond, a former guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Dymond, a 63-year-old construction worker from Portsmouth, was found dead days after appearing on the ITV show. Since then, many other participants and family members have shared similar stories of possible exploitation and manipulation. Producers of the show have previously spoken out about the ways they stoked the anger of guests.
Does Goddard think that Kyle should bear any responsibility for the suicide? “No,” she says firmly. “I’d say he was hired, you know. It’s like hiring a bear to growl at people and then complaining that the bear’s growling at people.” But she is not disputing ITV’s decision to cancel the show after 14 years on air. “The Kyle format was pretty formulaic. It worked, it ticked boxes, but I think it was a bit stale.”
It seems probable that the era of such TV is drawing to a close. Ofcom is investigating whether the use of lie detectors on these shows is ethical, and MPs have launched their own inquiry. Does Goddard have any regrets about her decades-long role as a titan of the genre? “I’m not ashamed of it, but equally I’m not necessarily proud,” she says. “It was a job I loved. I enjoyed talking to people.”
Shouldn’t there be a more rigorous screening process, to prevent further deaths? Goddard disagrees, pointing out that one in four people will struggle with their mental health at some point in their life. “Rule out people with mental health problems then you’d get nobody on TV.”
Watching Trisha reruns, I can see it is a more sedate affair than Jeremy Kyle. But that’s not to say that subtler forms of misery weren’t wreaked on the show. Most early Trisha is basically good-natured fun: in one episode, a wife berates her husband for his karaoke addiction, before a segment featuring mid-00s pop sensations Liberty X. An episode titled You Can Be Fat and Sexy! is more troubling. In it, a woman criticises her friend for not losing weight, despite the fact that her friend has a history of bulimia.
When the show relocated to the US in 2012, things took a darker turn. Probably the best example of this is an episode of NBC’s The Trisha Goddard Show featuring three guests – Warren, Keyana and Latesiah – in a love triangle. Keyana claims that Warren is the father of her four young children, but he denies it. The women snipe at each other, before Warren is brought on stage. Latesiah is told Warren will leave her if it turns out the children are his. Backstage, the children smile and wriggle in front of the cameras. DNA results confirm the children are Warren’s. “Jackpot. Four out of four,” Goddard says. Keyana stares silently into space.
When I bring this up, Goddard becomes defensive. “Well, that would have been a one-off. The children wouldn’t have actually heard that was going on. Yeah, look, some of the programmes I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with.”
After I press her, she admits: “I used to be quite shocked.” Later episodes of the NBC show, she says, were more responsible. She implies that the show’s producers were responsible for some of its more tawdry theatrics. “You inherit the same producers, the same showmaking thing and it takes a while to turn it around and, you know, put your mark on it. So we did move the show on from that, but initially, when you’re a new person in a new country, people think you’re all-powerful. That is why I said I don’t blame Jeremy Kyle, because he was hired because of who he is – he’s not a producer.”
She is referring to headlines from this month accusing Goddard of being an absent parent whose negligence contributed to her daughter Billie Dee’s drug addiction. Billie Dee had spoken positively about her mother in an appearance on Good Morning Britain, but a throwaway comment about Goddard being absent while solving other people’s problems was spun into a bigger story. Goddard is annoyed. “I paid the mortgages, I paid the school fees, you know, I did the traditional male role, but of course when a woman does that you also do the female role. So I did 99% of the shopping, all the cooking, the dog walking, the looking after finances. I was running as fast as I could to keep my family afloat financially, so yeah, I wasn’t around as much as my daughter [wanted].”
Goddard credits her work ethic to her parents, who “worked their guts out”. Born in London to a Dominican mother, Goddard grew up suspecting that the white man who raised her was not her biological father; all of her sisters had lighter skin than her. It wasn’t until after her mother died that she was able to confirm it. “Finding out that Dad wasn’t my biological dad was actually in many ways a relief, because I thought I was, you know, mad, bad or sad. It was weird; suddenly loads of things made sense.”
Growing up, racism was routine. “I remember my mum sticking up for us when we were kids. We were eating fish and chips and surrounded by some skinheads threatening us, just Mum and my three sisters, and my mum standing up and having a go at the chief skinhead, saying: ‘What big man comes threatening a woman and her kids?’”
Cutting her teeth as a young reporter in Australia in the 80s, Goddard became a national lightning rod for racist abuse: members of the public would leave abusive voicemail messages at her office; the KKK symbol was spray-painted on her front door. As the first woman of colour to present a current affairs show, Goddard’s appointment made headlines across the country. “The racism in Australia, oh gosh! It really came to the fore … By and large, it was very, very racist. I mean, the shock jocks on radio were openly discussing whether I should be there.”
Goddard’s personal life has always been an open book, which makes sense: how could a woman who has spent her life prying into other people’s business be anything less than transparent when it comes to her own? She married the Australian politician Robert Nestdale in 1985. He was emotionally abusive and she later learned that he was gay. “He would ‘accidentally’ lock me in the house,” says Goddard. “He didn’t like me wearing a white shoe, because it made a woman’s foot look big. It was very, very damaging.” Nestdale would phone Goddard’s friends, asking them for information, which he would drop into conversations to show he was keeping tabs on her. “That freaked the hell out of me.”
“I hate going into details now,” she says. “But I ended up in hospital under suicide watch. It was the final straw.” Goddard went on to campaign for better mental health awareness and has worked with the charity Time to Change. Suicide prevention is understandably an issue close to Goddard’s heart: her sister Winnie killed herself.
Nestdale died in 1989. In 1993, Goddard married the TV producer Mark Greive, with whom she had two daughters, Billy Dee and Madison. After they split, she married the psychotherapist Peter Gianfrancesco; Goddard divorced him in 2017 after almost 20 years together. “My biggest mistake was hanging on for too long,” she says. As Gianfrancesco was in Australia, and she was in the US, “I had to FaceTime him the day before he was about to be served out of the blue with divorce papers, and I had to tell him: ‘Look, I’m divorcing you and the papers are coming tomorrow.’”
It seems a brutal way to end a marriage, but Goddard suggests it was not as sudden as it seemed. “I should have done that a lot earlier. I didn’t really tell my daughters what was going on, I tried to keep it between us … they saw me literally disappear before their eyes. I mean, I just caved in on myself.”
Goddard’s career has followed a downward trajectory since leaving ITV. Her big break stateside ended with a whimper. Was it tough having the NBC show cancelled? “It wasn’t cancelled,” she says. “People always use that word: cancelled. It wasn’t cancelled.” After the second series ended in 2014, it did not return.
But Goddard has had bigger things to worry about: she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, at the age of 50. She is now cancer-free, but has only recently come off medication. “Once you’ve faced a life-threatening illness and what have you, things like the end of a show … you don’t sweat the small stuff.” Having cancer “does change your view on life, let’s put it that way”.
Goddard still works in broadcasting, doing live reports for Good Morning Britain and appearing on talk radio. She is also filming a true-crime series. She won’t be drawn on rumours that she will make a return to British daytime TV. How would she go about making an ethical chatshow in 2019? “There are strands you can do of a talkshow that automatically make it more ethical – a less tabloid or populist way of pursuing the sort of topics that tend to be discussed on BBC Radio 4 or Question Time.”
Perhaps more so than any of her guests, Goddard’s life story is a tale of graft, talent and suffering. It is hard to square Goddard’s genuine empathy with accusations that the programme trivialised the struggles of vulnerable people for entertainment. But even if we accept that her show was exploitative, Goddard’s impact on British TV is undeniable. She says she still gets messages from people who grew up watching her on TV. They tell her that “they may not have come across people of colour in their private lives much, but when they did they had good feelings about them, because they’d grown up watching me”.