“I’ve never met anyone like Joey before in my life.” So said the snooker player Steve Davis, after watching the beauty queen Amy Willerton teaching Joey Essex to tell the time by drawing a clock in the dirt with a stick. Davis’s total bewilderment offers a clue to the enduring appeal of the annual celebrity hazing show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!. Today, it turns 20 (and later this year, it will be returning to the Australian jungle after its Covid hiatus in Wales) but, thankfully, it shows no sign of growing up.
Obviously, the 2013 scene is innately hilarious – Essex grapples with the concepts of the big hand and the little hand and tries to see past the confusion induced by “all the ticking” normally associated with clocks. Meanwhile, Davis and EastEnders actor Laila Morse look on, curious, and increasingly incredulous, as Willerton gently tries to furnish Essex with a new life skill. But there is something sweet about it too: as perplexed as they are, no one is laughing at Essex, or at least not with any spite. It is just an odd, singular moment where, on national TV, defences have come down and something of the human realities behind the celebrities is revealed.
I’m a Celebrity does this kind of thing all the time. If it didn’t, it would not have made it to TV adulthood. Davis had never met anyone like Joey Essex before – and if it weren’t for I’m a Celebrity, he probably never would have. These oddball culture clashes happen surprisingly often: you may recall EastEnders actor Joe Swash’s 2008 triumph, but can you remember who claimed the lesser podium positions? Tennis legend Martina Navratilova and Star Trek actor George Takei. The show is a gloriously incongruous celebrity tombola, in which no potential friendship (or indeed antagonism) is off the table. Kate Price living in close proximity to John Lydon? Who knows, it might just work? Only one way to find out …
As this show has developed, it has evolved into a precisely calibrated mechanism of celebrity revelation. Rather than thinking of it as a competition, it is probably more accurate to think of it as a long and unusually personal and challenging series of interviews, conducted by peers rather than journalists, where virtually no topics are off limits. Contrary to the claims of shows such as Made in Chelsea, it is the ultimate in “constructed reality”. Particularly in the celebs’ unconscious moments – the chores, the petty squabbles, the thumb-twiddling small talk – the show is revealing of character in a way that no sofa-bound chat-fest ever could be.
Every circus needs ringmasters, though, and this one is no exception. Ant and Dec’s annexation of huge swathes of the TV light entertainment awards of the last two decades may have become repetitive but there is a reason for it: their mastery of tone and their ability to welcome the viewer through the fourth wall underpins the show. In different hands, I’m a Celebrity could easily lapse into cruelty. Somehow, a line is negotiated and a balance maintained.
To look back at the trials from the early seasons of the show is to track a process of escalation. In season one, the former boxer Nigel Benn undertook a trial called Nigel’s Snake Surprise. But surprises were conspicuous by their absence. He had to retrieve some stars from a Perspex box with a few snakes in it. He could see where the snakes were and there was no massive time pressure. Sure, it was probably no fun for someone who didn’t like snakes, but it wasn’t the full mind, body and soul torment devised for later shows.
Does this speak of gathering cruelty? There is certainly an argument to be had about the treatment of animals and the wider attitude to nature: certain varieties of bushtucker trial could probably be phased out. But within the context of the value systems of the show and its treatment of its participants, not so much. It is just the establishment of the show’s limits, its lingua franca. The producers needed to find out how far celebrities could be persuaded to go – and it turned out, it was surprisingly far. Along with a new breed of micro-celebrity has come the understanding that these people have to sing for their supper.
The element of suffering – the hunger, the spiders, the grim toilets, the boredom – is, even if we don’t like to admit it, crucial. It speaks to a belief about 21st-century celebs – that they are pampered and ridiculous and, as much as we may love some of them, we are delighted to see them trapped in a box with a crocodile. It is just about nice enough but just about mean enough too: there is a purgative quality to the show and, in their gratuitously inflicted misery, these celebrities are redeemed. In that sense, there is something oddly pure about I’m a Celebrity. It accommodates different types of people (in bodily, generational and experiential terms) and any humiliation is childishly and amusingly physical rather than emotional. It is about teamwork, mucking in, getting down and dirty. It is never alienating or excluding.
In the end, this is the key to the show. It establishes an odd, touching intimacy between the participants themselves and between us and them. The world of celebrity is, by definition, one of illusion. It is life polished to a heightened, unrealistic sheen. But this is celebrity rendered relatable; hair ruffled, scrubbed clean of its makeup and shoved out of its comfort zone. Whether that leads to lying in a pit of snakes or simply learning to tell the time, that is always going to be worth watching.