They used to charge the public to come and watch the suffering and despair of the inmates – and business was depressingly brisk.
The original exponent of this particular type of family entertainment was an institution called Bedlam (an ironic corruption of the word ‘Bethlehem’).
I regret to say it is alive and well on ITV every Sunday evening and is now called The X Factor, which is produced by a company called SYCO (an even more ironic contraction of the words ‘Simon Cowell’).
The show reached its nadir last Sunday with the scandalous exploitation of a deluded middle-aged widow from Wales.
Ceri Rees had failed to get on the show at three previous auditions for one perfectly understandable reason – she can’t sing.
This makes her a potential figure of fun who should not be allowed within a country mile of any show purporting to discover new talent.
But this is television we’re talking about – where nothing is valued quite so highly as a cheap laugh.
Not only did producers not show her a duty of care, they actively encouraged the unfortunate woman to try once again with offers of free travel and overnight accommodation. Then morons in the production team compounded her humiliation by featuring it as the eight-minute climax of the final audition programme.
There are those who will trot out clichés about showbusiness being tough and about knocks having to be taken.
But Ceri Rees can’t be compared with the many deluded, over-confident, under-talented youngsters who strut on stage, perform badly, and then slouch off again five minutes later snarling their defiance at the world in general and the judges in particular.
This was a vulnerable woman who had placed herself in the hands of others and was deliberately and cruelly ridiculed in the name of ‘entertainment’.
If Cowell has anything about him, he should seek out those responsible, march them before the cameras and publicly sack them.
Let them see what it feels like to be made a laughing stock in front of millions.
* Our Kate’s not-so-winning way
I’ve never seen Kate Winslet give a bad performance in a film – and I’ve never seen her give a good one at an awards ceremony.
She was at it again at the Emmys – gushing and giggling and whooping and shrieking and generally giving the impression that winning an award was the furthest thing from her mind.
Ms Winslet has many talents – but the perception of irony is not one of them.
She seems completely unaware that – like Dickie ‘Darling’ Attenborough – she has now become a showbusiness caricature.
She is an emoting diva of legendary proportions who seems incapable of accepting any honour with grace or dignity. Nobody likes a bad loser – but a bad winner is even worse.