TV UK, 12 September

I'm a Celebrity…: a great cultural achievement or the end of civilisation?

Dolan Cummings

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I’m a TV critic… Get me out of here!

One of the unfortunate consequences of being a TV critic is that people expect you to watch a lot of TV, and not even just the good stuff. Never mind that you might have other interests. Maybe you’d like to go to an exhibition or a concert, or just take a walk in the park. TV is an all-consuming beast.

The latest must-review TV phenomenon is I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (ITV), which has just concluded. Even if you managed to miss it, you get the ideas: celebs survive in the jungle and the audience votes them out until only the winner is left. Veteran DJ Tony Blackburn finally beat troubled aristocrat Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, I believe.

There are a number of rather dull ‘positions’ to take on this kind of thing, but I don’t think anybody really believes either that programmes like this are a great cultural achievement or that they represent the end of civilisation. Instead, the done thing is to insist enthusiastically that such programmes are rubbish, and then pretend to like them anyway. I’m discerning, but I’m not a snob. See?

As part of this savvy posturing, there has been much pooh-poohing of the calibre of celebrities involved in I’m a Celebrity…. But to talk derisively about B-list, D-list and Z-list celebrities is to miss the point of celebrity. I mean, I’ve been trying to think of who might be on the A-list. Madonna, David Beckham, Osama bin Laden? Maybe that would impress the smartasses, but the fact is that just appearing on a ‘loveably tacky’ Reality TV show like I’m a Celebrity… would lower anybody in the popular estimation.

Being a celebrity isn’t about earning anybody’s respect, and indeed self-respect, as opposed perhaps to self-esteem, is a positive handicap. Celebrities are often described as people who are famous for being famous. It would be more accurate to say they are despised for being famous: the success of contestants on I’m a Celebrity… was surely in inverse proportion to their popularity. The peculiar mechanics of celebrity were examined in Liz Hurley’s Brains (Channel 4, last Wednesday). Apparently it’s all about hard work and determination….

In any case, the important thing is to keep your public profile independent of any actual achievements, and the easiest way to do this is not to achieve anything in the first place. Like royalty, the easiest way into celebrity is by sleeping with someone who is already there. You then want a public bust-up, preferably with a hint of scandal. If you’ve done everything right, you will now be in a position to sire celebrities of your own.

Reality TV specialises in manufacturing its own disposable celebrities. Different shows do it in different ways, but the best example is probably Popstars, and now Popstars: the Rivals (ITV1, Saturdays at 7.15). This is ostensibly a talent competition, but really the focus is less on musical ability than on the character of the contestants, above all on their determination to ‘make it’.

The fact that they depend directly on the audience to do this highlights their desperation. I suppose that the fun of voting is similar to that of firing bullets at somebody’s feet and shouting, ‘Dance!’. Again, I don’t imagine anybody is under any illusions that this is a noble occupation, but the tackiness is surely part of the appeal.

It is odd, given the golden age in American TV drama, that British TV has developed its own anti-aesthetic in celebrity-driven Reality shows. It’s quite harmless, of course, but frankly I’m getting tired of saying so. So, the end of civilisation, anyone?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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