Michael Buerk on the pain and torture of I’m a Celebrity, what it was really like in the jungle— and why he’s glad he did it

The news reader hated the thought of going on the show — but despite suffering sleep deprivation, starvation and isolation, he doesn't regret a thing...

imagenotavailable1

Reality television is a parallel universe with its own laws, and the executive producer of I’m a Celebrity…came into my hotel room waving them like Moses coming down the mountain with God’s commandments for the Israelites. She had more than ten, as it happens, and they weren’t burnt into stone but typed up on a laminated sheet that she drew out of her handbag. 

I doubt that Moses blushed as much handing down his proscriptions to his chosen people as Becca Walker did reading out ITV’s to this chosen person. Behaviour that was banned (for being “inappropriate”, of course – nothing is actually wrong these days) included bullying, “nonconsensual touching”, masturbation (she seemed particularly concerned about that), homophobic language or attitudes and “category A” swear words (which include the f-word and the c-word). Later it turned out that the conversation of several of my campmates consisted of little else. 

It was all rather odd because it was made clear that there was “no problem” with nudity (“in a nonsexual context”), sexual behaviour “that is reciprocated”, and rudeness. The one thing they were adamant about was harming the wildlife: “You could be prosecuted.”

I was in “lockdown” at the time, which is lockup with room service. As soon as I set foot in Australia, I was stripped of my phone, my iPad and my freedom. In the week or so before going into the jungle, I was chaperoned round the clock and forbidden to contact anybody. Ok, my prison was a luxury hotel, but in every other way it was very much like starting your stretch at Parkhurst; here’s the uniform, put your belongings in this black sack, it’s too late to say goodbye, we’ve cut off the phone to your room (and they had, too).

The wooing had taken a long time. I wasn’t just reluctant, I was horrified at the very thought. But the curious thing was that the more I told them I thought they were manipulative, the show was juvenile, the contestants were bird-brained attention-seekers and the audience was a lumpen load of slack-jawed voyeurs, the more determined they seemed to become.

They were charming. With beautiful manners. They reeled me in – slowly, slowly. I struggled. I’d seen this stuff and knew what it would mean: three weeks in the famous hamster cage for preening narcissists trying to remember where they had left their dignity.

It was money that clinched it in the end, of course. They would have to pay a lot. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, they did.

To be fair, I’m a Celebrity… is, by some distance, the most professionally produced, and even caring, of the reality shows. The ITV people were kindness itself, when they weren’t actually torturing me.

The format works on techniques perfected by the Gestapo and the KGB. The “jungle” is part prison camp, part torture centre, part laboratory experiment in social anthropology; cruelty with its tongue in its cheek, staged at vast expense (and huge profit) for the amusement of millions.

We had no idea about what was happening to us from one moment to the next. We knew nothing of the world outside the camp. We weren’t allowed to know the date or even the time of day. They had taken our watches away at the airport and the camera crews that surrounded us had theirs carefully covered over. We had nothing to read, nothing to write with, nothing to listen to or watch, nothing to distract us except ourselves. The whole idea was to leave us powerless and disoriented. 

Advertisement