“It’s a historic day here in the jungle – nobody has walked out for 24 hours!” Gallows humour from Ant and Dec last week as they introduced an episode of the increasingly beleaguered I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here!
This series started badly, with viewing figures for the launch episode two million down on last year. They have continued to slide. Heavy rain has sapped morale in the camp, with the result that the atmosphere is both bad-tempered and boring. Grace Dent, the food critic, was first to quit, followed closely by Jamie Lynn Spears, sister of Britney; both cited unspecified “medical grounds”.
But the biggest headache for ITV bosses is what to do with Nigel Farage. The Brexit champion and GB News presenter is this year’s star signing, for a reported record fee of £1.5 million. You can see why they banked on him: a larger-than-life figure with a knack for making headlines, how could he fail to be box office?
Well, something has gone wrong. After being picked for the first Bushtucker Trial, just as he and ITV had hoped, Farage has fizzled out. His supporters believe that he is the subject of a “dirty tricks” campaign, starved of airtime because “Lefty producers” disapprove of his politics. They have accused the broadcaster of trying to paint him in a negative light with the clips they do pick, and of attempting to humiliate the 59-year-old by filming his naked bottom in the jungle shower.
On the other hand, Farage haters point to the lower viewing figures at the launch as evidence that his presence on the show is a turn-off. Either way, his signing has not proved to be value for money so far, and ITV bosses are left wondering if they’ve made a £1.5 million mistake.
You can see why they booked him, and not just for the shock value that greeted his announcement as a campmate. Matt Hancock proved to be television gold in last year’s series, so doesn’t that prove that controversial politicians are a ratings winner? Well, no, because the two men are very different. Farage is a love-him-or-hate-him figure. Nobody loved Matt Hancock, which is why viewers repeatedly voted to make his life as uncomfortable as possible by selecting him for Bushtucker Trials.
Also, as demonstrated most recently on Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, Hancock is a man with zero awareness of his own pomposity. Farage is savvier, conscious of how he will be coming across to the public. He is chummy and solicitous, avoiding potential pitfalls when discussing contentious subjects, and coming across as an altogether avuncular chap rather than a divisive hate-monger.
His carefulness failed him only once, when a whispered aside to Dent revealed his anxieties. After viewers chose someone else for that day’s trial, he confided: “I was ready to do the trial, so the fact that it didn’t come came as a bit of a shock to me, in a very odd sort of way. I’m a bit gutted. You see, if you do the challenges, it’s 25 per cent of the airtime. I’m looking to reach a whole audience. Sounds a bit cynical but, you know…” I’m A Celebrity viewers prefer their campmates to be guileless, so the admission won’t have gone down well.
Ant and Dec have now suggested the show takes a break from sending politicians into the jungle. Asked on Instagram if Rishi Sunak should be a camp mate, Dec said: “I think we do a year without any politicians.” Ant added: “Agreed, agreed, agreed.”
The audience Farage hopes to reach is a young one; I’m A Celebrity is the most popular ITV show this year among the coveted 16-34 age bracket. As a Farage insider explains: “There is a group of people under the age of 25 that don’t really know who Nigel Farage is apart from what they have been told over the internet. They weren’t old enough to vote in the referendum. He wants to connect with that audience.”
And is ITV hindering that attempt? “There may have been some dirty tricks. Some producers on the show may be limiting his airtime. That accusation has come up a lot and there’s no smoke without fire, is there? And this after they begged him to go on the show.” Friends of Farage say that a conversation he had with campmates about his friendship with Donald Trump was cut from the edit. Ben Leo, one of Farage’s colleagues at GB News, called that “deliberate pandering to the Left”.
Ant and Dec have certainly had fun at Farage’s expense, although his camp insist he will take their jokes in good spirit. The pair have also mocked GB News over the size of its audience. “He won’t be presenting his show over the next three weeks, so we’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to all of GB News’s viewers,” they said, before delivering the punchline: “Sorry, Keith. Sorry, Linda.” GB News responded by finding two viewers called Keith and Linda, and inviting them to respond on air. Keith Littlefair said that Farage was proving himself to be cool, calm and collected in the jungle: “I think he’ll take everything in his stride and stand up for himself – without being rude like Ant and Dec were.”
The broadcaster absolutely denies suggestions of dirty tricks. “We are a 60-75-minute entertainment show and the content featured is a fair and accurate representation of life in camp,” ITV said in a statement.
A show source explained further: “There is no agenda. We have to condense a day’s events and conversations into each episode, and usually one part of each of those is dedicated to a trial. Everyone is at the mercy of the edit and no one can be the focus all the time.”
Are ITV bosses frustrated that the public are not casting more votes for Farage to undergo gruesome Bushtucker Trials? “These things are unpredictable. Every year, we never quite know who the viewers will take to and who they won’t. Who would have said last year that Matt Hancock would get to the final three?”
If the show is lacklustre this year, we should blame the weather, the source added. “It has been challenging and it does have an impact in terms of morale, and people walking [out]. It’s something we have no control over. It’s just bad luck.” Dent, shortly before her departure, likened the conditions to “day 11 at Glastonbury”.
Ratings need to be kept in perspective. The consolidated figure for the launch episode - which adds live viewing to those who watched it via catch-up over the next seven days - was 10.2 million, making it the most viewed show of the week across any channel, beating Strictly Come Dancing. But that is still two million lower than last year, and ratings have since fallen to seven million or so.
The 2023 intake is not a vintage one. Several of the celebrities were reportedly last-minute signings, and the result is an uninspiring mix that includes a Hollyoaks actor, a lesser-known This Morning presenter and, until she bailed out, someone whose only claim to fame was being Britney’s sister. There has been low-level bickering about washing up, one major confrontation (when YouTuber Nella Rose became offended by maitre d’ Fred Sirieix saying he was old enough to be her father, when she had earlier told him that her father was dead), but otherwise nothing of note.
In his first Bushtucker Trial, Farage stoically chomped through pizza slices with toppings that included camel udders and various types of penis. “Have you eaten penis before?” asked Ant. “Not regularly, no,” Farage replied. Here, though, was a basic misunderstanding of how to behave in a trial. Viewers want to see someone screaming hysterically, not munching away as if they’re tucking into a Wetherspoon’s breakfast. It was several days before he was picked again, for an underwater challenge which he failed to complete, much to his disappointment.
The closest that Farage has come to controversy is a conversation with Nella about cultural appropriation, but it didn’t become heated and Farage didn’t say anything wildly offensive. Is this another miscalculation? The nicer he appears, the less he stands out from the crowd and the further ratings plummet. Farage went into the jungle to detoxify his image with younger voters, but the truth is that he’d be pulling in more viewers if he lived up to the “Lefty” nightmare and started behaving like a panto villain.