As John­son Sr enters the jun­gle his sons are in one back home

The back­stab­bing and forced bon­homie of I’m A Celebrity .. has West­min­ster writ­ten all over it

London Evening Standard (West End Final A) - - COMMENT - Matthew d’An­cona

GIVEN the re­cent tra­vails of the For­eign Sec­re­tary, you might think the last thing Bri­tain needs now is an­other mem­ber of the John­son fam­ily fly­ing the flag abroad. Yet this week, Boris’s 77-year-old fa­ther, Stan­ley, touched down in Bris­bane to take part in the new se­ries of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

Start­ing on Sun­day, the el­dest John­son and nine other celebri­ties, dressed in kitsch Aus­tralian out­fits, will face a se­ries of in­dig­ni­ties in the out­back: “bush tucker tri­als” in which con­tes­tants are buried alive, cov­ered with thou­sands of in­sects, chal­lenged to drink liq­uidised bugs, and oth­er­wise hu­mil­i­ated as a means of se­cur­ing more sub­stan­tial meals than beans and rice for their camp­mates.

As the se­ries pro­gresses, the ten­sion mounts and con­tes­tants are pro­gres­sively evicted un­til a King or Queen of the Jun­gle is crowned. John­son Sr will be seek­ing to suc­ceed last year’s win­ner, Scar­lett Mof­fatt, an ami­able 27-year-old whose only pre­vi­ous claim to fame had been her ap­pear­ances on Gog­gle­box, the Chan­nel 4 re­al­ity se­ries which en­ables viewers to watch other peo­ple watch­ing tele­vi­sion. Cul­tural the­o­rists would doubt­less call this the tri­umph of the post-mod­ern.

John­son, who faces com­pe­ti­tion from Amir Khan, the for­mer box­ing world cham­pion, Shappi Khor­sandi, the co­me­dian, and Den­nis Wise, de­scribed as “ex-Chelsea hard­nut”, is fa­mil­iar as the tou­sle-haired pa­tri­arch of the John­son clan — Boris, Jo (min­is­ter of state for uni­ver­si­ties and sci­ence), Rachel (the jour­nal­ist and au­thor) et al. As such, he presents him­self to the world as a hy­brid of Don Cor­leone and Fal­staff, as imag­ined by Wode­house. Hav­ing scaled Kil­i­man­jaro twice, he will doubt­less face the tribu­la­tions with equa­nim­ity.

It says noth­ing good about me that I am an ob­ses­sive viewer of I’m a Celebrity… But — let’s be can­did — the blend of forced bon­homie, con­spir­a­to­rial back­stab­bing and pub­lic ordeal is fa­mil­iar fare for a po­lit­i­cal colum­nist. Apart from the hats and the silly shorts, they may as well be in West­min­ster.

In­deed, that is pre­cisely where John­son would pre­fer to be, as the un­suc­cess­ful Tory can­di­date for Teign­bridge in the 2005 gen­eral elec­tion. Be­tween 1979 and 1984, he was MEP for Wight and Hamp­shire, and he has never quite left the po­lit­i­cal world in which his chil­dren have pros­pered. His de­ci­sion to ven­ture into the jun­gle is en­tirely con­sis­tent with that lin­ger­ing ob­ses­sion.

How so? In his fine book, The At­ten­tion Mer­chants, the Columbia Univer- sity aca­demic Tim Wu writes of the in­ex­orable rise of the “celebrity-in­dus­trial com­plex” and the speed with which rel­a­tively low-cost re­al­ity TV has pro­lif­er­ated, “in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing the man­u­fac­ture of celebrity for the pure sake of at­ten­tion cap­ture.”

To put this claim in per­spec­tive: last year’s se­ries of I’m a Celebrity ... at­tracted 12.66 mil­lion viewers. That is con­sid­er­ably more than the 2,456,990 Lon­don­ers who voted in the 2008 may­oral e l e c t i o n wo n by Jo h n s o n’s son, Boris. It is com­pa­ra­ble with the 16.55 mil­lion bal­lots cast in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tions. Such shows may be crass, facile and ridicu­lous. What they are not is ir­rel­e­vant.

Politi­cians, with their an­ten­nae for such things, were quick to sense the power of the new tele­vi­sual genre and the Faus­tian trade-off it of­fered: dra­mat­i­cally en­hanced recog­ni­tion in re­turn for fre­quently-un­speak­able hu­mil­i­a­tion. Na­dine Dor­ries, the Tory MP for Mid Bed­ford­shire, was dis­ci­plined by her party and the all-party stan­dards com­mit­tee, af­ter play­ing hooky from Par­lia­ment to com­pete in the jun­gle in 2012 (she was the first con­tes­tant to be voted off by the pub­lic). For­mer mini ster Ed­wina Cur­rie ap­peared on the show in 2014, and has also com­peted on Hell’s Kitchen and Strictly Come Danc­ing. Ed Balls trans­formed his pub­lic im­age by strut­ting his stuff on the dance­floor last year, and Vince Ca­ble showed he was more than an arid econ­o­mist on the 2015 Strictly Christ­mas spe­cial. In 2014, Penny Mor­daunt, the Tory MP for Portsmouth North, braved the div­ing pool on the ITV se­ries Splash! At the time, she was widely crit­i­cised for in­dulging in such fri­vol­ity. Last week, she be­came In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Sec­re­tary.

The in­creas­ingly por­ous bor­der be­tween pol­i­tics and re­al­ity TV has led to mo­ments of toe-curl­ing hor­ror. No sane per­son would vol­un­tar­ily watch Ge­orge Gal­loway pre­tend­ing to be a cat, lick­ing imag­i­nary milk, or dress­ing up in a red leo­tard, as he did on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, while he was the MP for Beth­nal Green and Bow.

All the same, the con­nec­tion be­tween the two spheres — high pol­i­tics and low­brow en­ter­tain­ment — is no ac­ci­dent. It is part of the steady con­quest of po­lit­i­cal life by show­busi­ness, in which clown­ing for viewers’ favour is con­fused with proper hus­tings, and the abil­ity to present Have I Got News for You? is seen, ab­surdly, as a qual­i­fi­ca­tion for pub­lic of­fice rather than a dis­trac­tion from it.

This process is, of course, most con­spic­u­ously per­son­i­fied by Don­ald Trump — a Pres­i­dent much more eas­ily un­der­stood as an en­ter­tainer than a tra­di­tional politi­cian or busi­ness mogul. What most both­ers Trump, for­mer host of The Celebrity Ap­pren­tice, is rat­ings — which is why he was so in­fu­ri­ated by re­ports that his in­au­gu­ra­tion had been at­tended by fewer peo­ple than Barack Obama’s in 2009. He has been as ex­er­cised by hos­tile satire on Satur­day Night Live as by the in­sults of Kim Jong-un. He treats the vot­ers as just an­other au­di­ence, and has an­nexed the gov­ern­ment of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion to the world of show­busi­ness. It is a ter­ri­fy­ing cat­e­gory mis­take.

There is noth­ing ter­ri­fy­ing about I’m a Celebrity ... — but in its own com­pul­sively shal­low way, it be­longs on the same cul­tural con­tin­uum, in which en­ter­tain­ment is swal­low­ing up ev­ery field of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. By all means en­joy the progress of John­son the el­der in his jun­gle adventure. Just re­mem­ber it has noth­ing to do with re­al­ity.

The in­creas­ingly por­ous bor­der be­tween pol­i­tics and re­al­ity TV has led to mo­ments of toe­curl­ing hor­ror

Bush tucker man: Stan­ley John­son, fa­ther of For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris and uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter Jo, is tak­ing part in the new se­ries of I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

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