Nine contestants who have done it all before squeal at snakes, swing on big balls and drop constant innuendos – but without public interference, the hit show has no meat on its bones.
’m a Celebrity … South Africa is not a regular series of I’m a Celebrity. There are only nine contestants, at least to begin with. There is no public vote. It isn’t in Australia, or even Wales, and everyone taking part has been on the show before. All these factors remove a surprising amount of meat from its bones, leaving a skeletal version of the show behind. This is a sort of supercharged sports day, with camping, hunger, and personalities who have done it all before, who know how it works and what they are expected to do. Carol Vorderman is up for it, Helen Flanagan is not, Paul Burrell still screams when he has to put his arm into mysterious holes.
I’m a Celebrity is so popular that Phil Tufnell, who won the second series in 2003, has to note that it is 19 years since his victory (this was filmed last year). It has endured for more than two decades, when other reality shows of the same size and draw have fallen. Its viewing figures are firmly and reliably big and its hosts are Ant and Dec, who could present a documentary about how to fill in your tax return and still command bumper ratings and armfuls of awards.
I get sucked in to every series, despite deciding that I won’t, because I resent being committed to a show for three whole weeks and I hate the animal and insect stuff. But it is just so good at what it does. Ant and Dec are brilliant presenters, particularly when their humour is timely. No other show on TV could have caused a storm with a line like: “Evening, prime minister. For now,” as it did at the end of 2021. The contestants are truly tested and they go on that reality TV necessity: a journey. There are heroes and villains. It is a headline-making machine.
The problem with a reality-ish show founded on celebrity participation is that until now, it hasn’t allowed it to have that reality TV twist of a celebrity special. There has been Celebrity Big Brother, X Factor, MasterChef and the list goes on (Love Island bucked the trend by starting as a celebrity show and reverse-parking into civilian land). This is an attempt to make Celebrity I’m a Celebrity. By using contestants who have done it before, it is taking a Drag Race All Stars approach. The idea is that, once they get to camp, the celebrities will find that they are competing against one another in a series of tough challenges, for “the right to remain”. Suella Braverman is surely taking notes. The person who wins becomes the first ever I’m a Celebrity “Legend”.
It is well cast, making the sensible decision to place Shaun Ryder and Janice Dickinson in a stressful environment together. On the basis of the opening night, Dickinson may well be its saving grace. The former model and reality TV star first did it in 2007 and is winningly blunt, freely admitting that she doesn’t know who anyone is. “Can I know what you’re famous for? What’s your celebrity?” she asks her campmates. This is a far better approach than pretending she actually knows who Tufnell or Jordan Banjo is.
The celebrities swing on giant balls, make knowing jokes about holes and bushes, and with the exception of a couple of reticent former campmates, everyone gets stuck in to the challenges, because they know how they were perceived by the public the first time they did it. Vorderman gleefully chucks herself off a cliff face. Burrell squeaks and squeals as he plunges into a pile of snakes. Fatima Whitbread rides an enormous Newton’s cradle. It’s fine, watchable, a functional assault course with innuendo and consummate pros at the helm.
But the show is missing a spark. The lack of a public vote and no public interaction makes such a difference. To see Ant and Dec jauntily skip down the path to deliver the latest twist, to bring in the “new addition” who will stir things up in camp, and for it not to be live, for it to have already happened without any sense that the viewers are directly involved in its ups and downs, smoothes it out and makes it feel less like a TV titan and more just a regular part of the schedules. It’s still I’m a Celebrity, and if you like it, you’ll still like it. But, legends or otherwise, this is not the show at its best.
Source: The Guardian