The moment of truth has arrived. Former Conservative health secretary Matt Hancock has been dropped into the jungle to compete in ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
The show is a feat of mental resolve, stamina and bravery. Celebrities are plunged into the Australian jungle, forced to subsist on a diet of rice and beans and then are voted off one by one in a merciless public vote.
The producers know that the public wants to see the celebrities suffer. They haven’t wasted any time subjecting Hancock to a “bushtucker trial” involving slime, insects, darkness and enclosed spaces.
Much has been made of Hancock’s appearance has an attempt to rehabilitate his public image. He was criticised for his performance as health secretary during the early stages of the pandemic, when the UK had one of the highest death rates worldwide. He eventually resigned after breaking social distancing rules, being caught in a romantic tussle with an aide.
He has said he hopes the show will give him a chance to show “the human side of the guy behind the podium”. But the show’s producers will also be hoping Hancock’s signing will boost flagging numbers and bring some much-needed drama to the 2022 season.
First hitting the airwaves in 2002, the competitive reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! has now been a popular staple of British television’s winter schedule for 20 years. But, as with any long-running series, staying fresh and relevant is essential to survive in a highly competitive marketplace.
The series struggled through the pandemic like everyone else. Unable to film abroad, the show made a temporary home in Wales. However, the winter 2020 lockdown provided an immediate bounce as people were forced to stay home and ratings went up to 12 million viewers. But things took a dive in 2021 with a significant rating slump, down to just over 7 million.
Keeping it real
The most memorable aspect of the 2021 show was the decision to inject some gentle political satire into the framing segments hosted by Ant and Dec. The pair’s trolling of Boris Johnson in the period when the Partygate scandal was exposed (referring to parties held in Downing Street during the lockdown period) seemed to capture the public mood.
The gentle ribbing of Johnson appeared to anticipate the end of his tenure as prime minister. The show became reactive and fresh with viewers tuning in for these jokes, many shared as clips on social media or turned into memes. This commentary made the show appear instep with British society rather than just a carbon copy of the previous seasons.
Of course, many would take issue with the very idea that Hancock is a celebrity. He is a controversial public figure. The decision to cast him has already led to increased media interest in the show. Much of the reporting has been scathing with many outlets condemning Hancock’s decision to compete. Many commentators have noted that the events of the past two years are just too recent and raw to overlook what appears to be a shameless act of self-promotion.
Question Time, the BBC’s flagship political discussion programme, devoted a considerable amount of airtime to the controversy. The consensus of the panel and the studio audience was that Hancock’s decision to appear on a reality TV show not only appeared to trivialise his role in the pandemic but was also a dereliction of duty.
He is taking a break from the important job of representing his constituents and punishment from the party has been swift as he lost the whip.
The reaction of the camp in many ways echoes that of the public and the media in the UK – shock and confusion and disapproval. Singer Boy George told Hancock he is “really going to get it”. The comedian Babatunde Aleshe said, “You can’t help having strong views [about Hancock].” And, radio presenter Chris Moyles expressed unease about the impact this might have on his constituents with the pointed criticism, “He should be at work.”
Hancock is doing everything to be personable and plucky. On entering, he immediately started singing his favourite Ed Sheeran song to comedian and fellow contestant Seann Walsh, who also joined the show late. This is the kind of sequence the show revels in: kitsch, cringe-inducing exchanges that confound audience expectations. This is light entertainment after all.
Both Walsh and Hancock have experienced a considerable amount of bad press for romantic misadventures and are possibly hoping the show will redeem their reputations. Walsh appeared on BBC’s dance show Strictly Come Dancing and was caught cheating with his dance partner.
This pairing is significant and producers could be gearing for them to become figures the public will love to hate. However, if the rapport continues to grow and they appear as a kind of jungle “odd couple” it is just as likely they will be redeemed in the public eye.
More recent series have seen heartwarming group bonding and friendships win over audiences. Recent winners like author Giovanna Fletcher (2020) and actor Danny Miller (2021) were rewarded for their supportive and kind team spirit.
However, audiences do like conflict and with such a controversial figure as Hancock, producers will be hoping for some drama. Personality clashes generate chatter on social media and headlines in the press, which could transform into viewing figures.
So far it certainly feels like a welcome return to form for the show. The jungle setting is spectacular, the early trials were gut-wrenching and gruesome and the mix of celebrities is entertaining. It remains to be seen if Hancock’s appearance is enough to save the show from further decline.
Unsurprisingly, he has already been voted by the public to participate in the next bushtucker trial: “tentacles of terror”. If he takes this punishment on the chin, it could be the making of him.