Not long ago I was asked if I wanted to participate in a Channel 4 reality show called The Jump. Rather embarrassingly, I’d never seen it, but my agent’s description of it sounded quite appealing. A bunch of micro-celebrities are taught a variety of winter sports, including skeleton, bobsleigh, speed skating, giant slalom and ski jumping. Once they’ve mastered the basics, they’re flown to an Austrian ski resort where they compete against each other in a D-list version of the Winter Olympics.
A lot more appealing than Celebrity Big Brother, I thought, and less risk of ruining your reputation (yes, George Galloway, I’m thinking of you). However, there was a chance of damaging something more concrete. During the first series, which was broadcast in 2014, four of the contestants had to withdraw midway through filming as a result of their injuries. During the second, two more contestants fell by the wayside, including Sally Bercow, who fractured several ribs.
I met with the producers and told them I was willing to do it, but never heard back. Perhaps they thought that with my butterball physique and titanium ego, I just wasn’t fragile enough to provide the viewers with five-star entertainment. As fans of the reality genre will know, the producers like to put the contestants through the wringer in the hope that they will collapse, both physically and psychologically.
And they seem to have got it right in the case of The Jump. We’re only part-way through the third series, but already there have been seven casualties, including the Olympic bronze medallist Beth Tweddle, who suffered a broken neck. The only reality show to top this was the short-lived Pirate Master, which aired on CBS in 2013. One of the contestants on that committed suicide after she was eliminated from the series.
I don’t mean to sound disapproving. On the contrary, I think we’ve become far too precious about health and safety in contemporary Britain. If someone’s willing to risk life and limb in return for a bit of fame (and a decent fee), that’s their right. It would be one thing if the producers of The Jump had misled the contestants about the degree of risk involved, but as I recall they were completely up-front about it. Admittedly, they didn’t say: ‘You could break your neck’, but they told me about the injuries the previous contestants had sustained. In any case, you’d have to be some kind of moron not to realise that attempting a ski jump without having gone through years of training is incredibly dangerous.
I was pleased to see Eddie the Eagle pop up to express this point of view after Beth Tweddle’s accident. Eddie’s a hero of mine. A man with no discernible athletic ability who, through sheer effort of will, represented Great Britain at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Yes, he came last in both his events, but that just made him all the more inspiring, because it demonstrated how little aptitude he had for the sport. It was as if the man who worked behind the counter at the local corner shop had elbowed his way on to Britain’s Olympic ski-jumping team. If he could achieve his dream, anyone could.
‘They signed up for this, they’re being paid for this,’ he said. ‘I’ve fractured my skull twice, damaged a kidney, snapped a cruciate ligament in my knee, and broken all manner of bones, including my jaw. And I count myself very lucky it hasn’t been worse!’
Eddie’s about to experience a second dose of fame, as the subject of a biopic based on his Olympic adventure written by two friends of mine, Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay. Simon and Sean’s stories aren’t dissimilar to Eddie’s in that they’ve been trying to make it as Hollywood screenwriters for more than 20 years.
Which isn’t to say they aren’t talented — they’re among the smartest people I know — only that it takes guts and tenacity to hang on to your dream for that long. And without wishing to jinx things, it looks as though their picture will be a hit. Twentieth Century Fox are so pleased with it that the studio booked a 30-second advertising spot during the Super Bowl. It’s due to be released in the UK on 26 February.
So here’s to the risk-takers, including Beth Tweddle. It doesn’t always pay off, but the important thing is to have a go. As Samuel Beckett said, ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.