I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! Dunking stars in a coffin full of snakes never gets old

Look closely enough at the data and the winner of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! in any series is the most accurate temperature check on the whims and loves of the British populace at that time. The early years were dominated by whoever was the most famous: Tony Blackburn beat Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on nostalgia alone; Phil Tufnell barrel-rolled fresh from a sporting career into a broadcasting one; at just 23, Kerry came to the end of her first redemption arc after leaving Atomic Kitten three years before.

In 2005, the sitting Labour government should have paid more attention to Carol Thatcher winning the thing; in 2006, Matt Willis proved the British public love nothing more than to learn a boybander they’d dismissed as vapid was actually all right. We love when a once-beloved-but-now-out-of-fashion performer bravely gives up meals for their campmates (Christopher Biggins; Joe Pasquale); we love when a familiar face from soap proves to have an interior life and charisma all of their own (Joe Swash); we love Gino D’Acampo (Gino D’Acampo). In recent years, young mums have fared well (Jacqueline Jossa, Giovanna Fletcher), as have glamorous reality stars who abandon all appearances to eat something revolting (Vicky Pattison, Georgia Toffolo).

Crucially, we like to be surprised, to have our assumptions about fame inverted by watching someone prove that, when stripped of makeup and clothes and assistants, they still have the mettle to eat rice for three days straight then dunk themselves into a coffin filled with snakes. It’s not as if we delight in the suffering; it’s that we delight in the reaction to the suffering. There are two ways to be remembered in the I’m a Celebrity jungle (or castle): you scream in terror (Dean Gaffney), or you focus on the task at hand and calmly win stars for your camp (literally anyone else). Prove yourself unafraid and the British public will anoint you worthy of a Saturday night quizshow on BBC One.

To this year, then. The thing about I’m a Celebrity (which starts on ITV on Sunday) is that you don’t have to watch (or even especially like) it to respect it: of all the reality formats that emerged in the early 00s, this is the one that has endured – where are you, The X Factor? Where are you, Celebrity Big Brother? – and, as last year proved, it still has the power to be a celebrity kingmaker. Why? Partly it is down to Ant and Dec, so likable that not even those Santander adverts can reduce their shine. But partly, too, it is the rigid formula of the thing. There is always an actor on a break from their soap, a foreign star more famous in this country than their own, an Olympian or some high-level former sportsperson, a comedian who proves themselves to be way grumpier than you expected. There’s always a fight about the dunny, a camp mum or dad, and someone who turns out to be a coward. There is someone who only lasts about a day. There is a young celebrity with vibrant, playful energy and a wizened old sage one panto offer away from packing it all in. You know where you are with I’m a Celeb: there are no changes. In other shows, this would lead to staleness. Here, the constant is soothing like a bath.

If you have never committed to a full series of I’m a Celebrity, I urge you to change that this year: truly, nothing smooths the transition from the dark nights of autumn to the festive early days of December like watching a morning TV host swallow a testicle in honour of some ramshackle camaraderie they’ve formed with a former footballer. There’s a curious quirk about I’m a Celebrity, too: if you miss the first episode – the awkward glamorous-clothes meet-and-greet before the celebrities bungee out of a helicopter – you can never really catch up to the energy of the thing. Going through the whole series bonds you to these celebrities the same way a mild trauma might. But if you do watch, pay attention to who is crowned king or queen of the castle. The year 2022 promises a lot, and all of it is reflected in who we decide, in the dying days of 2021, has proved themselves worthy of the crown. Will this be a Frankie Bridge kind of year? Or more like Matty Lee? Pray, for all our sakes, it isn’t Richard Madeley.

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