In the hours before Matt Hancock finally entered the I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! camp I felt a bit like Ralph in Lord of the Flies; conch in hand, there I was, loitering behind a rock (the screen of my laptop), waiting malevolently for Piggy. It was really very strange. I will probably never meet Hancock. I’m about as likely to use the I’m a Celebrity app (which lets you vote for who should do which challenge) as I am to appear on the show itself. Yet not only did I feel like a bully, I was enjoying feeling like a bully. Between assignments my twisted daydreams involved extreme gunge, outsize rats and a grown man – a former cabinet minister! – crying hot tears of fear and self-pity in an outdoor lav. I think I must be a horrible person.
But we’ll get to the satisfactions (or not) of watching Hancock bathe in a stinking swamp of God knows what. First impressions. They’re not good, are they? The synthetic laughter. The cocksure attitude feebly disguised as everyday modesty. The instant attempt to recruit the other dubious late arrival, the comedian Seann Walsh, to his cabal. We see right through him, don’t we? And he’s so talky! The CCTV footage of Hancock with his hand on the backside of his then aide, Gina Coladangelo – footage that led, during the pandemic, to him losing his job – was silent, for which, at the time, I think we were all grateful. But thanks to Beastly Burrows, his first challenge on the show, we now know exactly what it must be like to sleep with him: “I’m over here, and I’ve got my hand in this… yeah, that’s my foot… can you feel my foot? Can you put your hand in this box? No, that was my arm…” Ugh. I bet he’s a running-commentary merchant dans le boudoir.
He did quite well in Beastly Burrows, in which he had to find meal-winning stars in a series of pitch black tunnels; he didn’t flinch at the puddles of slurry, at the rodents and the insects and the various other unmentionables (though he and Walsh only retrieved six stars). But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised he is well-prepared. The former health secretary began his political career as an adviser to David Cameron and George Osborne; snakes are nothing to him. As for bullying, we all saw Rishi Sunak snub him on the day the former was made leader of the Conservative Party. Hancock’s smile dimmed only for a nano-second. Add to this his private education and his years in Westminster, and it’s probably fair to say that the jungle will be a relative cinch for him. Facing his constituents back in West Suffolk is going to be much worse. They have pitchforks there. And prize bulls.
Hancock and Walsh were at first required to remain at Mole HQ, a mud hut with a computer screen inside it. Beside its door was a large plastic mole with a red nose that lit up whenever instructions were about to appear on this screen. I think this mole may, in its way, be more humiliating than the kangaroo anuses etc. It seems, somehow, to personify Hancock’s hubris, not to mention his blindness, which manifests as a delusional tone-deafness. But then again, the plastic mole can’t speak, unlike Hancock’s camp mates – and already there are signs they may turn nasty.
Anyway, like Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, Hancock and Walsh finally left Mole HQ, emerging from two holes in the earth to greet their new colleagues, cue a certain amount of shock at the former’s appearance. No one could believe it, and Boy George, who’s big into karma, was soon clutching his pearls. “I’m not good at hiding my feelings,” he said. I once interviewed Boy George. I found him quite alarming. I expect the Buddhist chants may soon give way to something a bit more, er, authentic.
Hancock’s camp mates should be careful, though, and now we return to the question of penance: of whether Hancock will pay it, and if he does, whether it will do the rest of us any good. The high ground is a relative concept here. Charlene White, the ITV presenter, thought she was being so clever when she asked Hancock – “I’m a journalist!” she said – why he was in the jungle. But while it’s true that he should be working for his constituents, her smugness was no more edifying than his half-truths, or not to me. I mean, why is she there? Hancock muttered something about wanting to be seen as a human being, but however shabby and platitudinous this sounded, I hardly think White, who anchors the eternally gruesome Loose Women, is there for any better reason. In the end, aren’t they all in it for the money and the cheap fame?
As for Boy George and his tears – his mother was in hospital during the pandemic, and he had not been able to visit her – they alarm me a bit, creepy crawly jokes aside. More than 200,000 people have now died and had Covid-19 on their death certificate. Their friends and relatives are still grieving; the country is still getting over the pandemic’s financial effects, a recovery now painfully delayed by the cost-of-living crisis and a war in Europe. I’m not sure that booking Hancock will ultimately prove to be a good move for ITV. The country’s suffering, for which he must bear some responsibility, is far beyond the purview of reality TV, which is what passes for light entertainment these days.
And how will Ant and Dec play it? Whatever they say about Hancock’s bum crack and the cockroaches that are stuck in it – however funny they are – this isn’t what we want or need. Who, of all those who were, or are, in charge, will ever pay a price for what has happened? Hancock has been chosen for the next challenge – I bet his estranged wife was on that app like an electrified ferret – but even the Tentacles of Terror (whatever they turn out to be) are utterly inadequate to the purpose here.
[See also: What did we do to deserve Matt Hancock?]