One of the great benefits of having teenage children is that they force you out of your fuddy-duddy comfort zone. There was no way, for example, that the Fawn and I were ever going voluntarily to watch I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! because we’re snobby old farts who only like history documentaries and University Challenge. But Girl decreed otherwise.
That’s why, unlike many of you, but like most of the nation, I am now able to comment knowledgably on how well Michael Buerk is doing, who Tinchy Stryder is, why it was a sensible idea to choose world superbike champion Carl Fogarty to undertake the first bushtucker trial, and why Melanie Sykes is currently Britain’s favourite Milf.
You think you don’t need to know this trivia? I’m with Nadine Dorries. When the MP was given stick for appearing on the show last year she defended herself thus: ‘I’m doing the show because 16 million people watch it. Rather than MPs talking to other MPs about issues in Parliament, I think MPs should be going to where people go.’
Now this earnest desire for public outreach wasn’t, I suspect, her only motivation. (The going rate for the show would appear to be in excess of £100,000 per celebrity.) But she’s quite right on the general principle. Obviously, it would be quite impossible for any sane, civilised person to keep up with all the bread-and-circus spectacles staged to prevent the masses from murdering us in our beds (X Factor; Strictly Come Dancing; Britain’s Got Talent; The Only Way Is Essex; Geordie Shore; Celebrity Big Brother; the football etc). Not to engage with any of them, though, is surely the equivalent of being some high-minded Victorian refusing on principle to read that frightful penny-dreadful populist Dickens. Or worse, like being Emily Thornberry.
In any case, the truth about I’m a Celebrity is that, provided you watch the edited episodes, rather than the painfully sluggish live ones, it’s really both highly entertaining and weirdly edifying. The source of the entertainment is pretty obvious and basic: the exquisite schadenfreude of watching a bunch of spoilt, mostly quite well-off people being starved, humiliated, frightened and forced to eat pig’s eyes and raw deer penis, while Ant and Dec prod them with verbal barbs, like keepers of the original Bedlam trying to get the worst out of the inmates for the amusement of visiting rubberneckers.
As for the edification, this comes from watching people caught in extremis, noting how well they rise to the occasion, and rewarding them with votes: much in the way that in Ancient Rome the crowd could decide to spare the life of a wounded gladiator who had performed with especial dignity and courage. So IACGMOOH! is performing a similar function to compulsory rugger at public schools: by encouraging us to applaud selfless, noble behaviour and to mock cowardice and weakness (e.g., when the fat girl from The Only Way Is Essex was too scared even to fly in a helicopter), it is surreptitiously teaching us to become model citizens.
This is why the punishment for failing the tasks is not personal but communal: if you baulk at shovelling the requisite number of ground cockroaches down your throat, then your teammates starve (rations being dependent on tasks successfully completed) and they begin to resent you, much as your platoon would resent you if, instead of laying down covering fire you cowered behind a tree, and as a result your advancing comrades were needlessly slaughtered.
Melanie Sykes — the model and TV presenter who first made her name in that Nineties Boddingtons beer commercial, where she served a pint of foaming beer in the desert — understands this well, which is why she has become second favourite to win this year’s show. It helps, obviously, that at 44 she remains exceedingly fit. (This is another cynical trick that contestants play, if they can: getting their kit off at every opportunity to show how buff/large-breasted/surprisingly-well-toned-for-a-68-year-old-newsreader they are.) But where she’s really triumphing at the moment is in the fearlessness, determination and unflappability with which she approaches each new challenge.
Compare and contrast the behaviour of current number one favourite, Jimmy Bullard. Being a handsome, reasonably famous footballer, known as a bit of a character, Bullard started with a huge advantage. But unlike with Sykes, I’m just not sure he’s the sort of chap you’d trust to cover your flank in the neighbouring foxhole. Not, at least, on the evidence of the first challenge where he and Mel had to shove their arms deep into a large box in order to retrieve some letters, the catch being that the letters were in tanks surrounded by snapping, biting creepy-crawlies — baby crocodiles, giant crabs and so forth. Mel did all the work, while Bullard squealed like a girl.
If Bullard eventually wins this contest it will be a travesty and I may have to recant my views about the third wave Feminism movement being a total nonsense and join the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Caitlin Moran at the barricades demanding that all penis-owners be castrated and executed as a matter of routine. At the moment, though, I’m holding out for those 16 million viewers to reach the wise and commonsense decision that will restore my faith in humanity and the future of Britain: vote, vote, vote for Mel Sykes, say I.