The money on offer was good, says WILL SELF, but it was outweighed by the ridicule and sense of personal failure that would have followed.
When all else fails – opined the wit and poet, Christopher Logue – try Wales. The makers of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! have certainly cleaved to this maxim: with travel to their preferred locations in Australia impossible by reason of the pandemic, they have instead moored their ship of fools in the confines of Gwrych Castle, near Abergele. I was once asked to appear on I’m a Celebrity – but this was back when, following a stint as a panellist on Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Shooting Stars, for a few short years I hovered near to – if not exactly in – that cloudy realm defined by degrees of notoriety alone. During this period I was also invited to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing and a host of other televised farragoes, all predicated on the idea that by subjecting those whom fortune has favoured to a sort of cosmic pratfall, the masses may be united in happy schadenfreude.
There’s really something insulting about the ascription ‘celebrity’: everyone knows that those so denoted are very likely famous tautologically – just as there’s no greater oxymoron than ‘television personality’: a truth demonstrable if you watch this, the 20th season of the show, and, whenever his diminutive co-host is prattling on, look straight into the cold, emotionally-dead eyes of Anthony ‘Ant’ McPartlin. His recovery from addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs may’ve continued apace – but he remains hopelessly in thrall to his I’m a Celebrity… habit. Think on this: he’s only missed one season, which means this is the 19th time he’s had to spend hours and days and even weeks pretending to be amused and enthralled by the onscreen antics of another crew of neophyte bug-munchers. As the old adage has it: it’s not just the criminals who’re in jail – it’s also their guards.
To be famous not for being famous alone – but for corralling and encouraging the almost famous, is surely to be close to the zenith of human endeavour; which is by no means to deny either that Ant and Dec are good television presenters, or that I’m a Celebrity… isn’t a watchable show. The format gives the viewers – if they can be arsed – the option to vote the celebrities off; which means in turn that it provides a real-time insight into contemporary small-scale dynamics. Because let’s face it: for the most part – just as with prison – whatever status the contestants may’ve had in the outside world, is rapidly reconfigured once they reach either jungle fastness, or castle keep.
When they asked me to do it, it was easy enough to turn the gig down: they were offering the equivalent of about six months’ salary for a couple of months’ work, which looks good until you consider the lifetime of ridicule and the sense of acute personal failure. True, there have been some who’ve transcended the show’s format, and turned the tables on its producers – I think back fondly to Janet Street-Porter’s appearance in Season 4, when she trapped, caught, killed, cooked and ate an eel rather than succumb to an artificial famine created in order to gain ratings. Not that this helped her when it came to winning: Street-Porter was only the third runner-up; the public preferred to keep that moaning Minnie – and former Royal butler – Paul Burrell in the jungle, so as to gain yet more vicarious pleasure from his torturing.
I wonder if watching the celebrities in lockdown while the viewers are also in lockdown, gives the entire experience an added frisson. I suspect not: it’s hard to laugh at others’ misfortune if it’s one you yourself happen to share. True, most of us weren’t spending lockdown in a Welsh castle – but the living quarters look believably grim from what I’ve seen of the show. In the episode I watched, the pissing contest which is the human ape’s preferred form of interaction became for real, as the contestant faced off in a dispute over who was missing the bowl of their disgusting compositing toilet. In the end the Radio 1 DJ Jordan North had to clean up this hell hole – proof positive, so far as his fellow celebs were concerned, that he was the principal culprit.
And no, I’d never heard of him either – anymore than I had Jessica Plummer, Giovanna Fletcher and Russell Watson. With our grasp on the fame-to-money coefficient that guides the bookers for I’m a Celebrity…, we’re further empowered to assess whose star is on the ascendant, and whose is about to go supernova before turning into a black hole. I said the contestants’ statuses were rapidly reconfigured once they got on set – but being a good sort, up for anything while not being remotely up yourself, still only gets you so far. Even celebrities know when they’re in the presence of the legitimately famous; which is why, presumably, the likes of Shane Ritchie, Victoria Derbyshire and Beverley Callard were positively salivating over Mo Farah. For them the failure to be forestalled in Wales is the loss of their notoriety – but for him, as the highest paid contestant in the 2020 run (allegedly £300,000), the land of sheep is a cash cow.