I'm a Celebrity: still the kangaroo’s bollocks
While Big Brother survives on life support, ITV’s ratings winner thrives by deftly mixing meanness and niceness.
Damn you, Dorries! Damn you to hell! Of all the things that the Conservative MP derisively nicknamed ‘Mad Nad’ has done, this is indisputably the worst. Well, okay, not indisputably. Probably far from the worst, although her constituents might have grounds for complaint. But of all the lowdown and dirty things she has done, to put I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here back on the cultural agenda feels like a personal slight.
Not that I’m A Celebrity… ever truly disappeared from the entertainment firmament. Since it launched in 2002, the reality series has been one of ITV1’s few surefire hits down the years. Its set-up is, of course, very simple: plonk a mixture of washed-up celebrities, wannabes and unlikely public figures in an Australian jungle for two weeks, film their antics and subject them to humiliating tasks. Its very genius lies in that simplicity.
The result has been an endless succession of the water-cooler moments which are the lifeblood of such shows. There was the crude humour of watching Princess Diana’s weirdly obsessive ex-butler Paul Burrell gibbering at being made to touch insects; classically trained musician Myleene Klass resurrecting her failed pop career with the help of a white bikini and a waterfall; Johnny Rotten getting intimate with ostriches; and the awkward courtship of glamour model Katie Price and kitsch pop muppet Peter Andre. Through moments like these, the series has cemented itself at the heart of celebrity culture. While its main point of inspiration, Big Brother, ploughs an increasingly insignificant and sorry furrow over on Channel 5, and even ITV’s other big brand The X Factor shows signs of wear and tear, I’m A Celebrity… still continues on solidly: the unlikely venerable statesman of reality TV.
Part of its appeal is a surprising niceness, which appears firmly at odds with the Japanese gameshow-style humiliations of the endurance tests. Yet from the moment that naff Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn and Christine Hamilton (the notorious wife of disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton) emerged from the first series with their reputations and popularity enhanced, rather than shattered, it was clear that this was not quite the radical departure it seemed.
Celebrity Big Brother, its closest rival, was initially fuelled by a similar sense of pseudo-sociological experiment: this was not simply cheap entertainment, Channel 4 was keen to stress, but a postmodern reflection on the rise of the cult of celebrity. CBB was supposedly the opportunity for the viewing public to drag the slebs down from their pedestals and make them dance for us in the raw, unmediated by image-conscious managers. Yet it also remained hopelessly in thrall to celebrity’s power, thrilling itself in its ability to make celebrity as much as destroy it - for example, by famously sneaking Chantelle Houghton – an apparently normal member of the public - into one series and turning her into a winner and a celebrity.
This mixture of cynical entertainment and intellectual posturing was initially intoxicating, but ultimately quixotic. The original Big Brother started to come a cropper when it discovered that even the most cravenly exhibitionist attention-seeking and supposedly freakish members of the public were simply too normal, decent and sensible to make rip-roaring 24/7 entertainment, and therefore went into overdrive in provoking tensions and conflict, shamelessly using contestants who would have been previously rejected as being of unsound mind. It made for a compelling freakshow until, of course, events spiralled out of the control of the producers and they hit the panic button after the funny rows turned into potentially vicious fights.
Similarly, Celebrity Big Brother never quite recovered from the racism storm between Jade Goody (one of BB‘s self-made celebrities) and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. The experience of Goody brutally exposed the show’s sense of purpose, with Channel 4’s attempts to leap from shameless tormenter of cultural vacuity to a high priest of anti-racism smacking of a particularly nasty moral hypocrisy. Yet more damagingly in the short term, a show which had carefully balanced the entertaining public breakdowns of celebrities, such as Vanessa Feltz and Les Dennis, with the therapeutic function of humanising their angst went from potential starmaker to outright starfucker. The show limps on, but now as a bottom-feeder of the celebrity market, rather than a trendsetter.
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Not so I’m A Celebrity…, which trundles on as a behemoth of light entertainment. Big Brother ultimately used its pop-theory credentials and claims to innovative reality as a fig-leaf to disguise its true function as a cheap-to-make ratings-puller. I’m A Celebrity’s fig-leaf is that it is a reality TV show which is degrading to its stars, when it’s really no such thing. It’s a conservative entertainment formula wrapped up in flashy packaging: drawing its contestants from experienced talkshow guests who know how to spin inoffensive but diverting conversation; buff boys just looking to meet the right girl (or, with an increasingly modern wink, boy); and pretty girls in small bikinis - all set to a gently ambient forest soundtrack. Which is very successful indeed for ITV but, after 12 seasons of sticking to what it does best, becomes a real nuisance for apparently serious-minded TV critics to write about.
Yet in a televisual climate dominated by ‘structured reality’, such as The Only Way is Essex, and soap operas addicted to bombarding us with hard-hitting social issues, I’m A Celebrity… stands out as a triumph of unpretentious craft: a reality show that has never cared much for trying to be all that real. Little wonder it attracted the attention of Nadine Dorries, a politician who has never seemed particularly troubled by reality but, based on her anti-abortion politics, seems to love the idea of making people go on pointless therapeutic journeys. In taking her away from Westminster and into her natural habitat, the venerable I’m A Celebrity… may have found a way of marrying light entertainment and genuine public service in a way Big Brother could only dream of.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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