In 2018, does anyone really want to watch reality TV? With Big Brother bowing out of the race, after its second incarnation on Channel 5, and the ratings hit of Love Island several months ago, you’d be forgiven for writing off the idea of tuning into live TV seven nights a week as dated a concept as Noel Edmunds. This year, though, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here has just changed the game entirely by actually combining the two: the result is reality TV… with Noel Edmunds.
ITV’s juggernaut of a series first started in 2002, and it has since returned without fail year after year, powered on by its combination of celebrities and creepy crawlies being poured all over them. The dreaded Bushtucker Trial is, in itself, an outdated piece of cruel television – watching someone being subjected to nasty ordeals in order to win some food, while animals have the potential to actually be harmed. And yet there’s a timeless appeal to such pure, unfiltered schadenfreude: for those who love reality TV, there’s pleasure in seeing celebrities humiliated; and for those who hate reality TV, there’s equal pleasure in seeing those desperate enough to participate humiliated. It’s a fiendishly simple formula that, unlike Big Brother or Love Island, is designed to please on any level you want it to.
It’s helped that the bulletproof presenting antics of Declan Donnelly and Anthony McPartlin (Ant & Dec, as the nation knows them) have anchored each new season, continuing that same knowingly ramshackle humour and endearing brotherly affection that made SMTV:Live such a hit back in the 1990s. But this year, without Ant, the show must go on with Holly Willoughby gamely stepping into McPartlin’s shoes. Dec and Holly, it turns out, are an instant match, sparking with a playful humour that never feels forced, while reacting with delightful disgust at each new insect wheeled out mid-Trial – and so, even in the face of that possible hurdle, the impervious juggernaut continues.
With those two components remarkably dependable, the final component to the show’s success is its roster of stars entering the jungle. And if previous years have occasionally failed to capture the public’s imagination, as the novelty of has-been D-listers has worn off, 2018’s selection are an unexpectedly vintage bunch. There’s The Inbetweeners star Emily Atack and Corrie’s Sair Khan, who, together with actor Rita Simons, serve up a fun line in impersonations and jokes. There’s presenter Nick Knowles, whose bearded seniority brings the sort of kindness, reassurance and wise advice that the words “strong and stable” used to mean. (Even if he does claim to have once played a set with Biffy Clyro.)
In any other year, football manager Harry Redknapp would be the MVP, with his likeable blend of endless sporting anecdotes, zero sense of smell and mildly downbeat lack of enthusiasm for unpleasant things (he spends half of his days and nights longing for jam roly-poly). But this year’s star immediately announces himself as John Barrowman MBE (you can bet he asked for that honour to be included in the credits), and he sashays onto the screen with a showbiz grin. Within seconds, he’s declared himself King and Queen of the jungle with an irrepressible energy, hysterical confidence and adorable ability to encourage others – he’s the one who reaches out to quiz boffin Anne Hegerty, not only bonding over their shared love of Dr Who, but also giving her the chance to share trivia with the group during downtime.
And yet even John Barrowman’s spotlight threatens to be stolen by the show’s biggest masterstroke: the late introduction of Noel Edmunds. Revealed as the Emperor of the jungle, he emerges with a actual robe and crown (“They’re not wreaths, their laurels,” he informs Dec, in pure Accidental Partridge mode) and promptly starts calling everyone his subject. “Are you not entertained?” he cries, in the smug voice of someone who probably hasn’t watched Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
There’s a teasing hint of self-awareness in the ensuing madness, as he lords it up over the rest of the contestants, while bonding sincerely with Harry, whom he crowns his Trusted Advisor (leaving them both exempt from Bushtucker embarrassment). He’s a font of hilarity, as we try to work out whether Edmunds really does think he deserves to be Emperor or not, and that endlessly fascinating persona is precisely the reason why he has endured since the days of Noel’s House Party – and even such bizarre recent ventures as Positivity Radio and the Channel 4 gameshow/immersive performance art piece Cheap Cheap Cheap. He recently threatened to retire from TV should he win I’m a Celebrity, and it’s a surprisingly sad thought, as it would deprive our screens of whatever Noel might do next.
True to form, the first week of the show climaxes with the wonderful pay-off of seeing Noel finally undergo a Bushtucker Trial himself, as he and Harry have all manner of disgusting animals placed in their mouths for 60 seconds at a time. It’s impossibly satisfying to witness, as he uses his meditative techniques (showcased in both his book, Positively Happy: Cosmic Ways To Change Your Life, and CD, Positively Tranquil) to overcome the horror of live insects clawing to climb down his throat; you’re left not only squirming at the sight, but wondering whether his self-important philosophical nonsense really does work. It’s a rare example of layers to the show’s absurd silliness – and almost all of them stem directly from Noel.
Now placed on even footing with everyone else, I’m a Celebrity… promises us John Barrowman, Harry Redknapp and Noel Edmunds all living alongside each other. Even though the jungle is clearly a very safe portion of Australian wildlife that’s more artificial that The Crystal Maze set, the chance to see such an unlikely combination together on your telly is, for the first time in years, a reality TV premise that’s genuinely exciting and enjoyable. Viewers already seem to have cottoned on to that potential: this season launched with 11 million viewers, up 750,000 on last year’s figures. Don’t be surprised if those numbers continue to climb. Who knew that, against your better judgement, reality TV could still surprise and entertain in 2018? The only way they could improve it is by adding Danny Dyer. (If they’re not planning that for 2019, the producers are missing a trick.)
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Season 18 airs nightly at 9pm on ITV, with episodes available to catch up on-demand on ITV Hub for one month after broadcast.