Another year, another parade of Z-list celebrities being tortured for our amusement.
’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! always felt like a bit of a threshold in reality television, where we collectively stopped pretending to be interested in the mundanity of normal people’s lives, and embraced the fact that what we really wanted to see was rich people eating bugs.
It’s like a nationwide Milgram experiment, only we do it every year and we don’t really learn anything from it.
This year’s edition of the ITV-sponsored 90-minutes of hate had a bit of curveball in the form of human Hummel figurine Matt Hancock, who shocked the British public by a) not once calling his fellow campers “the poors” and b) making it all the way to the season finale.
There were a few highlights from this season that didn’t involve Hancock – Chris Moyles pranking a naïve Owen Warner was pretty funny, and Charlene White seemed set to position herself as the camp’s villain before Hancock showed up – but if we’re being honest this year’s outing was a bit of a one man show.
It isn’t surprising, really; Matt Hancock is a sitting MP who abandoned his constituents to eat cow anus on TV, and whose actions as health secretary during the UK’s worse public health crisis in living memory have a connection to the deaths of more than 200,000 people. If people were more interested in Boy George being mildly antisocial then we would, quite frankly, have to pack the country up and start again.
It makes for boring television though, doesn’t it? I think people were probably expecting Hancock to go in and immediately be uppercut by Sue Cleaver, but alas.
What we got instead were a group of people trying their absolutely hardest to ignore the elephant in the camp; or worse, gradually coming to the conclusion that the elephant was misunderstood, and that maybe people have been too hard on the elephant, even though the elephant outsourced contracts for vital PPE to his mates during a deadly pandemic and then broke his own lockdown rules so he could go and cheat on his wife with a subordinate.
If we’re being completely honest, Hancock played an absolute blinder with this whole reality TV gamble, even if he didn’t win. He could very easily have just resigned from politics in disgrace and disappeared into the night, and gone back to his previous job as, I assume, a haunted ventriloquist puppet.
But no, he said to himself, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to absolutely wreck the country and then have the decency to disappear into the ether so people never have to think about the pain I’ve caused them ever again. What am I, David Cameron? No, he said, I’m going to go on TV. I’m going to get myself in the papers. I’m going to eat a camel’s penis while sitting opposite a quietly furious Boy George.
It’s win-win, because that’s just the nature of reality television. You’re either able to show a vulnerable, human side of yourself that activates people’s innate compulsion to forgive, or you become a pantomime villain and get invited on Loose Women.
Either way you get a book deal out if it, and certain papers report on everything you do until the day you die because you’re an ex-reality TV contestant and I’m afraid that’s just the law.
Hancock went the former route, with the campers’ initially icy reception quickly giving way to heart-to-hearts about how, hey, we all make mistakes (sometimes big, big mistakes with scary consequences).
Him and Seann Walsh became fast friends, providing the show with a nice little narrative arc as they teamed up on missions together and played the show’s version of the marriage game (in which Hancock guessed that Walsh’s secret Disney crush was Bambi, which for reasons I can’t explain feels like the most Tory answer he could have come up with).
He took those Bushtucker trials like champ too, showing a cold, almost sociopathic willingness to humiliate himself for our entertainment, even when Ant and Dec were bringing the 10 plagues of Egypt down on his head in the finale like the avatars of a vengeful God.
Was he awkward and weird? Sure, but that’s the point. Matt Hancock somehow managed to make himself – and I hesitate to use this word but – adorkable. His answer to the “dream dinner party guests” question was predictably bizarre, with him choosing Pocahontas – a real human being who actually existed and has appeared on money – as his fictional guest. He shared private text messages between himself and Boris Johnson with campers, like a girl at a sleepover who’s nervous about asking out a boy she likes.
But that’s all part of the charm, and it’s helped a lot of viewers come around to his side. Sure, Ofcom received almost 2,000 complaints pertaining to Hancock’s appearance on the show, but here’s the thing: only half of them objected to the fact that he was being given airtime in the first place. The rest were from people complaining that he was being bullied.
Bullied. Matt Hancock. The Conservative politician. A survey for Savanta ComRes for Yahoo News UK created a word cloud out of all the different ways that people chose to describe the former health secretary. Sure, you’ve got “idiot”, “tw*t”, “untrustworthy” and “useless” standing out most prominently which, yeah, I’d hope so. But you can also see “funny”, “brave” and “human”, which as descriptors go run the gamut from gag-inducing to debatable.
In confrontations that have emerged in the camp, viewers have consistently taken Hancock’s side, casting him as some kind of underdog in a world where Boy George apparently rules with an iron fist. He lost to Jill – who frankly deserved to win after cutting her tongue open while using it to unscrew a star while covered in rats – but does it matter? He has been successfully rehabilitated, or at the very least, has normalised his behaviour to a wide swathe of the British public.
I don’t know if Hancock had some kind of grand scheme to further his career, or he just really wanted to put a spider on his face, but his success in I’m a Celebrity is a testament to the way that the British tendency to avoid interpersonal confrontation at all costs has hamstrung the UK as a nation. That we place politeness over accountability, and that we will forgive even the most heinous, damaging political choices if the person who delivers them “seems like a nice enough bloke”.
Hancock’s stint in the jungle is another step on the road to the hypernormalisation of Conservative excess. He’s a litmus test for exactly how much obscenity we will learn to live with before we actually stand up and say no, this is the limit. He’s a shiny pair of keys, being dangled in the face of a gullible electorate to distract them from the fact that their country is disintegrating around them.
But hey, at least we got to see him eat a sheep’s vagina.