I’m a Celebrity…get me out of Brexit

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says the jungle reality show has become a reassuring British tradition

19 November 2018 08:52

Fading stars, washed-up divas, pointless trials of strength, humiliation on national television, the cruel law of the jungle…so much, then, for the Brexit crisis.

What a tonic it is, amid the collapse of the political system and the bedlam surrounding Britain’s future in Europe, to know that some things remain reassuringly traditional.

Where else would you see 71-year-old football manager Harry Redknapp, looking like an extra from City Slickers in a red neckerchief and ill-fitting khaki trousers, standing awkwardly in a field with X Factor’s Fleur East (‘go hard or go home!’), decked out in what appeared to be a jumpsuit made of luggage?

How has Torchwood’s John Barrowman managed already to position himself as the world’s most annoying person-you-meet-on-holiday? Who, really, is Malique Thompson-Dwyer, and are his phobias seriously of primetime significance? (The answers are: Prince McQueen from Hollyoaks, and yes, apparently).

The return of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! – now in its 18th series – is just the therapy the nation needs right now. Seriously silly television at its most polished, melodramatic and well-produced. God, I love it.

Despatched to a permanent camp in Dungay near Murwillumbah, in New South Wales, Australia, the ten contestants now face up to three weeks of Bushtucker Trials, Dingo Dollar Challenges, sleep deprivation, rice and beans, increasingly irritable conversation, unlikely alliances, and ill-disguised clique-formation. Depending upon the public’s votes, the celebrities will each emerge – least popular first – to claim that they have had ‘the experience of a lifetime’, until the winner is crowned King or Queen of the Jungle. After all these years, the average number of viewers is still 10m – a steady rating that few such programmes maintain.

When Bill Nighy’s character in Love Actually addressed Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly as ‘Ant or Dec’, he expressed a profound truth about British popular culture. The comedy duo has been inseparable for decades and the reliably-witty backbone of the show since its inception. So Ant’s absence from the show, as he continues with his recovery from addiction, has presented I’m a Celebrity with what television executives routinely call an ‘existential challenge’.

Dec, naturally, made a joke of his stand-in’s identity. ‘Yes, one of the most gorgeous presenters on British television…has been joined by Holly Willoughby!’ Mic drop – which, of course, is not very far in the case of the diminutive Dec.

Her riposte was worthy of the show’s tradition of badinage: ‘He’s loads of fun and he’s five foot one…’ The risk is that Holly will become the straight foil to Dec’s funny man, breaking the old pattern of carefully-calibrated cruelty that has made his partnership with Ant so enduring.

She was just a little bit too nice to the contestants in the opening episode: ‘You’re doing so well, guys!’ she told the Vamps’ James McVey and former Eastenders star Rita Simons, as they climbed up scaffolding hanging over a ravine. ‘Oh, well done!’

No, no, Holly: we need the presenters to be the sniggering representatives of the viewers, amused when the celebrities fall into the vat of liquidised mosquitoes or take a grimacing bite of wallaby testicle. This is the medieval ordeal for the digital age, or it is nothing. Let’s not pretend it is a team-bonding exercise on an office awayday or a Facebook page about ‘feelings’ (‘u ok hun?’). But let’s give her a chance. This is not an easy gig.

Redknapp showed early promise as the curmudgeon-who-will-turn-unexpectedly-into-an-avuncular-figure. When the victorious red team received its feat of emu at Croc Creek, the former Spurs and West Ham manager muttered: ‘I never even knew people ate emu’. As to the many rats that he would soon be facing he declared: ‘I don’t have the habit of taking them to bed.’

True, we can be sure, and admirably stern. But something tells me that Uncle Harry will soon be dispensing wisdom to the younger contestants about Life and How to Live It. Every series of I’m a Celebrity… has its unlikely Buddha.

Also one to watch is Emily Atack – best-known as Charlotte in The Inbetweeners – who showed commendable fury when not chosen by her fellow contestants for the top team. Honest emotions are always more interesting on reality TV than repression and fake civility. Her reward was to be chosen for the first trial tonight.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat – and the celebrities are getting hungry.

It amuses me that some still talk of reality TV as a new phenomenon. In fact, what the Columbia University professor, Timothy Wu, refers to in his 2016 book, The Attention Merchants, as the ‘Celebrity-Industrial Complex’ has been around for a great many years – its distant roots lying in a 1971 PBS series called An American Family, which followed the fortunes of a middle-class household in Santa Barbara, California.

At the time, the legendary anthropologist, Margaret Mead, defended the documentary vigorously: ‘It may be as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations: a new way to help people understand themselves.’ But it was the advent of MTV in the 1980s that energised the genre and laid the ground for the hundreds of shows that now fall under the increasingly-misleading rubric of ‘reality-TV.’

In practice, this form of television is about spectacle rather than reality. It was weaponised by the rise of social media and has become part of a global network of broadcast and digital content that enables anybody to become a star and – the flipside – forces stars on the slide to demean themselves as a career-saving strategy.

In which context: I’m a Celebrity… hails from a much more innocent time when it was considered wildly innovative to make contestants wear daft hats, pretend to be Australian, and eat revolting things in return for proper food.

In the age of Instagram, all this feels pretty mild-mannered: if 2018 had a zeitgeist, it was captured by the pitiless sexual Darwinism of Love Island, a dystopian vision of cutthroat humanity at least as frightening as Blade Runner 2049 – and one in which all the humans are digitally-contrived replicants already. Their only existence is their status. Now that’s chilling.

In comparison, I’m a Celebrity… is pretty tame and certainly harmless: the modern equivalent of panto, a means by which struggling stars can try to relaunch their careers and the rest of us can have a good laugh for three weeks.

There will always be an element of mockery and heckling from the cheap seats: that’s show business. But this show, once outrageous, now a hardy perennial, is at the kinder end of the spectrum.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat – and the celebrities are getting hungry. What more could you possibly ask? Noel Edmonds? Would that be greedy?