I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here is one of British television’s great success stories. The reality format sees twelve celebrities of one flavour or another roughing it in the Australian jungle for up to three weeks and facing all manner of unpleasantness as they do so. Audiences the world over simply cannot get enough of its combination of actors, retired sports stars, musicians and politicians all degrading themselves in the hope that it might win them some sort of popular appeal, or at least – in one of the buzz-words of the programme – a meal for camp.
In the UK the programme has just completed its 14th annual series, to the delight of British audiences for whom it has become something of a pre-Christmas ritual. Former motor cycle world champion Karl Foggarty was this year’s unlikely winner, having memorably downed glasses full of deer’s blood and live worms as well as having cavorted through the jungle in a giant wasp costume.
There are international versions of the format which have aired in the US, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, India, Sweden and Australia. Each version follows the same basic template as celebrities are routinely subjected to a series of tasks involving snakes and lizards, and rats, and any number of bugs of one sort of another in order to feed themselves, and to stay in the show. Indeed, seeing celebrities eating (and drinking) some of those aforementioned bugs as one of those challenges is perhaps of the programme’s signature scene.
The American version of the show was pulled by NBC in 2010, which makes the spectacular success of the British version all the more noteworthy. Fans of the US programme will remember it was won by Chris Judd in its first season and by Lou Diamond Phillips in its second. Those who were not fans may be forgiven for feeling somewhat non-plussed. After all, the message from this side of the pond seems to be that we just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
There must be something in the British character in particular that gets a buzz out of seeing a former Olympic athlete getting a cockroach stuck up her nose or a notoriously hard living musician shrug off the minor irritation of a prolonged snake bite as part of an elaborate challenge. It is drama – but not as we know it.
One of the astonishing things about the show is the way it has encouraged serious-minded politicians to take part. The season just finished saw the British Member of Parliament and former minister of state, Edwina Curry participating alongside Michael Burke, a distinctly high-brow radio and TV presenter whose upper class tones and cut glass credentials – you would think – would mean he would never go within a hundred miles of such a programme. Last year the participation of another MP – Nadine Dorries – caused a political mini-scandal when she refused to declare her fee for taking part. No doubt the highly confidential fees are quite persuasive.
Inevitably, mention of fees does point to the commercial success of the programme which is said to have generated over £170 million over the past fourteen years. Serial sponsorships with organizations such as the 32Red casino and M and M Direct, the Iceland supermarket chain in addition to organic revenues derived from audience’s engagement via premium rate telephone votes and competitions all point to a huge money-spinner. And that is before you get to factor in the advertising revenue that follows on from topping the list of most-watched TV programmes in the UK on a nightly basis.
The enduring popularity of I’m a Celebrity in the UK suggests the Brits just can’t get enough of its of tongue-in-cheek slapstick sadism. Seeing the great and the good reduced to farcical levels of self-debasement is evidently something that particularly appeals to the British character. The fact that the show is fronted by two boyishly mischievous presenters who take evident delight in the farcical exploits of the show’s contestants is entirely in keeping with what is a very British set of cultural values.
Seeing an MP scrambling around in the dirt dressed as a giant spider, or a senior broadcasting figure sporting a giant parrot costume whilst shouting out nonsense words from a high wire perhaps only makes sense to that weirdly paradoxical thing that is the British sense of humour.
There is no sign of the Brits tiring of this annual festival of celebrity cruelty. It is already contracted for another two years and there is every reason to suppose that it will simply go on and on. It is becoming one of those self-perpetuating parts of the annual cycle, like the Superbowl or an airing of It’s a Wonderful Life, that owe their popularity to tradition as much as any intrinsic merit. We will, of course, let you know as and when (and if) anyone gets round to making a Canadian version. For the time being – for all the international franchises – this does appear to be a particularly British speciality.