The I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! line-ups are showbiz’s most closely guarded secrets, with names still managing to surprise us each year despite a very active rumour mill.
So far, Alan Halsall, Duncan James and Maura Higgins have been touted to enter the jungle camp this year.
While we enjoy watching celebs grimace through Bushtucker Trials, laugh at Ant and Dec’s cheeky humour and anticipate the show’s many twists and turns, it’s the camaraderie of the cast that really makes us tune in. The more harmonious camp of 2018, which was almost devoid of bitchiness, rows and sniping, proved to be one of the most popular yet – with viewing figures averaging an astonishing 12.14 million.
Speaking at a Bafta Masterclass earlier this year, creative director Richard Cowles and celebrity producer Micky Van Praag explained just how they assemble a ratings-winning cast every year.
Casting for I’m a Celeb starts early. Very early.
Jungle fever might strike for fans in November, but for Van Praag and her team, work on the show starts soon after I’m a Celeb wraps in the UK – with the exec starting to look for celebrities for the upcoming series as early as March.
“I work on it alone during the early days,” she said. “The team then gradually builds up around April time, and we start looking at casting, but I’m by myself making the core of those decisions.”
John Barrowman, who placed third in 2018’s well-loved series, was cast back in April last year – giving him ample time to plan how to keep his part in the show under wraps.
“Our first meeting was in Soho House,” he explained. “I hadn’t been available for other years, but this time, I was. It was confirmed really early, April time.
“I was at Comic Con in Australia prior and I sent my assistant to take photographs on the way home so people thought I was going home, but really I was still out there, going into isolation. It was a big surprise and I was hoping people weren’t expecting it as we worked so hard to keep it quiet.”
Everyone has a say in who gets picked – even Ant and Dec
Although Van Praag is at the core of the casting process, she has an ongoing dialogue with producers and other crew members – in addition to publicists, agents and even celebrities themselves, about who to cast.
It was a stroke of genius on Dec’s behalf which saw Noel Edmonds cast for the 2018 series, after the pair filmed together for Saturday Night Takeaway.
“It’s a conversation,” Cowles said. “Everyone suggests names – Ant and Dec always suggest names.”
“I do have publicists message me, and it’s great,” Van Praag added. “Keep going, I love it! It’s a compliment that the show is so popular.”
Saturday Night Takeaway is evidently a hunting ground for celebs; Fleur East unwittingly put herself forward for I’m a Celeb in 2018 after bumping into Micky backstage on the show.
“I dropped myself in it very early on,” East said. “I said the only reality show I would do is I’m a Celeb, and every year ever since, I got the phone call.”
Casting for the show is a very thorough process
Van Praag revealed she can she speak to potential celebrities for over two hours in those early meetings to see whether they are right for the camp down under.
“We meet everybody, but you only have that first meeting to get to the bottom of somebody and figure out what they’re going to be like out there,” she explained. “You always have a tonne of questions you want to ask – but you only have that one meeting to get to the bottom of them and figure out whether they’ll work in an ensemble cast.”
Two hours may not seem long in the grand scheme of things to entirely figure out someone’s psyche, but Micky and her team seem to have things down – admitting to having only been surprised once by celebrities when they got into camp.
“Celebrities aren’t often different to how we expect,” he said. “Myself and my team spend a lot of time speaking to people, so I think we’ve got a good sense of what they’re like.
“But they do sometimes to things that surprise you. Amir Khan and strawberry-gate in 2017 was hugely surprising to us.”
Casting is purposely a mixed bag
No matter how popular a show is, any programme with a celebrity line-up will always see viewers furrow their brows, scratch their heads and ask, “Who?” (The Strictly line-up in more recent years has been particularly guilty of this).
The I’m a Celeb casting team counter this by ensuring there’s either two or three genuine household names among the bunch.
“It’s one of the few shows that appeals across the board,” said Cowles. “We have people from eight years old to 80 years old watching it.
“The way I’ve always looked at it, you need two or three members of the cast that every member of the family will know. You just want to have enough so viewer can sit there and say, ‘I know those people.’ We cast those celebrities for show one, and then we cast the others for the rest of the series.”
“There are layers to it,” Van Praag agreed. “It’s not just about the names, it’s got to be people who are interesting.”
But I’m a Celeb never tries to replicate its former successes
While last year’s camp was one of the most popular line-ups for the last few years, we won’t be seeing a similar line-up this year.
Van Praag explained they try to do something completely new each series to stop the groups from becoming too formulaic.
“I think we know what works,” she said. “I’m always looking for people who are funny and high-energy as we know those types of things always work.
“But otherwise, you want to do something completely different every year, because you don’t want to do things by numbers.
“You’re never looking for the next Harry [Redknapp] or the next John [Barrowman] or the next Fleur [East]. You’ve got to do something different.”
Celebs can be in the mix for years until they’re put on the show
Both Van Praag and Cowles are keen to stress I’m a Celeb is an ensemble cast, weighing up the personality types and beliefs of each campmate over pure star power.
“We’re sometimes offered some great people,” she said. “But they just don’t work in the mix for that year.”
The key is an unexpected find
One of the ways the I’m a Celeb casting team keep the show fresh is finding a celebrity who would genuinely surprise fans of the show.
Last year’s surprise campmate, according to Van Praag, was supposed to be Harry Redknapp – until he leaked his own inclusion on TalkRadio.
“The key to casting is that you want the announcements to feel like a treat and a surprise,” she said. “An unusual choice is a key finding – although, Harry has been an obsession of mine for years.”
The show is cast like a comedy, not a drama
And while we’ve seen our fair share of fights and arguments in the jungle, Van Praag and Cowles say the show is treated as if it were a comedy, and not a drama.
“I think there’s a belief that as a show, we cast for conflict,” Cowles explained. “We never have. We try and put people in there who are interesting.
“I think warmth is very much a part of the show- we will always try and cast for warmth and to see people get on.
“Arguments are fine if they happen, but if they go on for too long, it gets quite dull and a bit relentless – and it can become uncomfortable.”
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the casting teams want it to necessarily be easy for the celebs.
“I know it makes me sound like an evil producer, but we want it to be as stressful as it can because that’s when you see people’s true colours and how they would react,” Cowles added.
“What we’re trying to do is see what our celebrities are made of and how they cope with the jungle. It’s watching people come together in a common pursuit.”
I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! launches later this year