It was on the third night that the producers of I’m a Celebrity finally got their money shot. An emotional Matt Hancock, having been lightly grilled by fellow contestants over everything from his extramarital affair to his failure to keep Covid out of care homes, confessed that “what I’m really looking for is a bit of forgiveness”.
Cue lots of hugging, and former Coronation Street actor Sue Cleaver – the camp’s unofficial matriarch – announcing that the elephant in the room “has departed”. The former health secretary had got what he surely wanted, and so presumably had the ratings-chasers at ITV. The nation, however, not so much.
Hancock entered the reality show jungle saying he wanted to reveal “the real me”, as if being caught on office CCTV snogging someone else’s wife wasn’t enough reality for one lifetime. Was he going to bare all in the shower? Break down sobbing into a plate of kangaroo’s unmentionables? But it seems he meant what politicians usually mean by declaring themselves only human, which is that they want everyone to stop being horrible about them.
There’s something intriguing about the idea that a politician’s innermost self could be more lovable than the facade constructed for public consumption. Most of us are more inclined to hide our real selves – the ones slumped on the sofa in pyjamas, mainlining crisps in front of shows like I’m A Celebrity – from the world. To be fair to Hancock, most politicians are more likeable company in private than you’d imagine from hearing them on the Today programme, and he’s hardly the first to feel misunderstood or blamed for things not their fault.
Nor is he the only contestant with a chequered past – fellow campmate Boy George was sentenced to 15 months in jail in 2009 for handcuffing a male escort to a wall and hitting him with a metal chain – or a flagging career to revive. He is, however, the first to attempt these things when he should be at work helping his constituents, and while being strongly associated in the public mind with the deaths of over 200,000 people. It doesn’t get more real, sadly, than being unable to hug your bereaved mother at a funeral.
For those who don’t watch I’m A Celebrity, it’s the one where supposedly famous people camp in the Australian rainforest, while viewers vote for the most annoying one to undergo bushtucker trials – mostly involving close confinement with creepy-crawlies, or eating something disgusting – and presenters Ant and Dec crack jokes. Someone eventually wins, but by then you’ve stopped watching. Before Hancock arrived, the highlight was rugby player-turned-royal spouse Mike Tindall admitting his first date with Princess Anne’s daughter was a boozy lunch where they realised they “both liked getting smashed”.
Hancock was parachuted in late with the comedian Seann Walsh, probably best known for cheating on his then girlfriend with his dance partner on Strictly Come Dancing, and set a series of tasks calculated to irritate the others. Given the former health secretary was famed at Westminster for his ability to ingratiate himself with people useful to his career, it was probably wise not to make things too easy for him.
For the most part, however, he cruised along pretty effortlessly in second gear. All we learned about The Real Matt Hancock was that he likes Ed Sheeran “because I’m from Suffolk too”, but doesn’t seem overly confident of the words to Sweet Caroline, and that he’s stoical about eating sheep’s vagina or plunging his hands into slurry in the dark. If he ever mentioned the dyslexia campaign he had supposedly hoped to promote, it never made the final edit. His campmates were visibly thrown by his presence, but initially too polite to make a scene. Boy George recalled painful memories of being unable to visit his mother in hospital early on in the pandemic, but out of the MP’s earshot. The TV presenter Scarlette Douglas was more direct, telling Hancock on his second day that it had felt like a “slap in the face” when he was caught breaking the social distancing rules he’d imposed on everyone else. He responded by thanking her for bringing that up, a reminder that he’s answered these questions a million times and long ago learned how to defuse them. Then the cameras cut to Boy George prattling about face yoga. This was cut’n’shut TV, the clumsy soldering together of mindless fluff with something much darker, with little attempt to cover the awkward joins.
By popular demand, Hancock was later submerged underwater for a trial involving snakes and a crocodile, while being slowly starved of oxygen. “Shall we have a laugh afterwards?” he said, slightly testily, when the presenters started firing gags about politics in his direction. But that was the closest he came to properly cracking under pressure. The Hancock we got – good sport, eager to please, smooth but with just the hint of an underlying edge – is the one any journalist who has spent time with him will recognise.
Does that make it more or less real than the one some Tory MPs report encountering, who could be all those things but also bumptious, arrogant, willing to do anything for promotion? More or less real than the one Dominic Cummings accused of “incompetence and dishonesty”during the pandemic, who left nurses using binbags as protection? Or are they all real?
Hancock is no cartoon monster: people rarely are, inconveniently for those who like their politics without shades of grey. Watching his campmates grapple with the concept that likeable people can be responsible for bad things, and vice versa, was mildly interesting. But for the distress it must have caused to some with painful pandemic memories, I can’t honestly say it was worth it.
By now, everyone surely knows there is nothing particularly real about reality TV; that casts are carefully chosen, footage edited, and situations engineered for juicy drama. Everyone’s emotions are manipulated. The only difference is that participants get paid and viewers don’t. That may seem a fair exchange if you’re watching newsreaders on Strictly. But it’s more troubling when serving up something that should be the stuff of testimony on oath to the Covid inquiry, to a backdrop of Ant and Dec sniggering .
Entering the jungle was clearly a risk worth taking for Hancock; his political career is effectively toast, he may have charmed the odd viewer, and the fee will help with an expensive divorce. It’s ITV that should have known better than to attempt this queasy mix of death and light entertainment, so close to a trauma many are not ready to relive. There is no real closure to be had; no justice, little enlightenment, and no redemption. All that’s left is the uncomfortable feeling that some things are too real for reality TV to bear.