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
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!