I am watching Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins (Sunday, Channel 4), although I'm pretty sure the SAS's famous catchphrase has recently been changed to "Give 'em the ol' razzle-dazzle" given how many television series they've done with this format.
Things are bad over in the UK if this show is anything to go by. Worker shortages have led to them conscripting the only thing they've got a surplus of in the UK: celebrities. It's a bold move for Boris Johnson's administration, but I like their moxie. I picture Sooty crawling with a knife in his teeth, S Club 7 abseiling down the side of an occupied embassy, Bez from Happy Mondays firing rubber bullets at unruly rioters, Rod Hull and Emu interrogating a hooded suspect at a secret rendition site. Rest assured the next atrocity committed by the UK's special forces is going to be very, very entertaining.
The people shouting at the celebrities are the type of no-nonsense special-forces veterans who probably expected to be occupying a country, not helping Alexandra Burke to be her best self. That's isolationism for you, Britain
I realise, watching Celebrity SAS: Give 'Em the Ol' Razzle-Dazzle, that my cultural reference points are a little out of date and some of them are, arguably, felt puppets. But the actual celebrities include Vicky Pattison from Geordie Shore, Wes Nelson from Love Island and Jake Quickenden from The X Factor, a doomed trio lodged forever in reality television's hall of mirrors and against whom Rod Hull and Emu seem like Burton and Taylor, and Sooty seems like a hand-puppeted Bertrand Russell.
In fairness, the line-up also includes actual athletes such as the Paralympic shotputter Aled Davies, the BMX biker Shanaze Reade, the Olympic rower James Cracknell and the television presenters Saira Khan, Ulrika Jonsson and Ore Oduba. But what even are "achievements" in this age of Tickity Tok?
Given that celebrities crying is everyone’s favourite television phenomenon, Celebrity SAS cuts straight to the chase by exposing the participants to CS gas in the first episode. Tears are achieved instantly and unprovoked by boring “words” or overrated “narratives”. This is the sort of no-nonsense energy saving we should expect from national broadcasters, and frankly I’m surprised the show doesn’t simply end there. But, no, the celebrities must also be pushed from boats into the freezing Atlantic, run with heavy packs on their backs and traverse a ravine while shaking uncontrollably.
The people doing the shouting at the celebrities on Celebrity SAS are men dressed in black who stand with their arms and legs apart like Action Man, or someone who has recently had a vasectomy. They have names like Ant and Staz and Foxy and are the type of no-nonsense special-forces veterans who probably expected to be subjecting villagers to searches in an occupied country, not helping Alexandra Burke from The X Factor to be her best self. Well, that's isolationism for you, Britain.
There’s a lot of talk about feelings on Celebrity SAS, because we have moved on from the dark times in ancient 2015 when TV producers could just endanger desperate famous people purely for our enjoyment. The justification at the heart of it all now is that by putting people through this hardship they will learn something about themselves and find some inner strength. This narrative is foisted on the contestants as they variously succeed or fail at purposeless feats of endurance: it’s for their own good.
Without the animating cruelty, most reality-television concepts seem empty. The whole industry is at a crossroads, trying to wean itself off sadism despite the fact that for 20 years sadism has been pretty much the point
In some ways the newer, kinder celebrity torture on display seems as if it might be more damaging than the old sort. Towards the end of the episode, when one of them sits before two trained soldiers to explain her failures and begins talking about recently experienced abuse and bereavement, it feels as if a line is being crossed. They respond kindly because they’re nice men but also by more or less prescribing more physical challenges. I find myself shouting, “Let her talk to a counsellor!”
It’s not their fault. They’re just responding to her pain with something they’re actually trained to do. If they were bus drivers they would drive her around on their bus. If they were estate agents they’d sell her something overpriced. If they were Fraggles they’d sing a song about their home place, and read postcards from their travelling great-uncle.
But they’re soldiers, so they soldier, and this is presented here as an unalloyed psychological good. It’s worth thinking a bit about where this notion that army folk are on a higher plane of consciousness comes from. I suspect it’s the type of comforting idea you develop if you live in a country that frequently goes to war but doesn’t materially look after its veterans. The idea that personality can be tempered by the fires of war has surely been upended by the high numbers of former soldiers in addiction and homelessness on the streets of Britain.
This programme is often exciting. There are moments when a celebrity surpasses their own expectations, and it’s quite touching, despite also being exploitatively random. But I’d like to see something more meaningful, maybe a programme in which celebrities or, even better, politicians actually work as carers or orderlies or service-industry employees or teachers.
That would create real space for learning and empathy, not least because any fish-out-of-water hardship would have true purpose. This feels empty. In fact, without the animating cruelty, most reality-television concepts seem empty. The whole industry is at a crossroads, trying to wean itself off sadism despite the fact that for 20 years sadism has been pretty much the point. The viewers need to wean themselves off the whole thing. I’m beginning to lose the ability to cry without strong musical cues, schadenfreude, ersatz redemption narratives or a blast of CS gas to the face.
For more war and weeping, Britannia has returned for a third series on Sky Atlantic (Tuesday). It's a trippy exploration of Britain's contested and bloodsoaked ancient history created by Jez and Tom Butterworth, and it's joyfully dark, strange and irreverent. In it, strait-laced Romans, some of whom are secretly cannibal cultists, are attempting to conquer the unruly Britons, who are off their gourds on hallucinogens and body modification and the sound of 1970s glam rock. Against this backdrop a reluctant chosen girl, an enslaved queen, the centurion who pierced the side of Christ, a 10,000-year-old druid with runes carved into his face and a murderously evil David Morrissey (as himself?) chomp down all the forests of Britain with exuberant thespian glee. I love it. If you're tired of historical dramas that try to explain and allegorise modern Britain you should watch this, because the Butterworths clearly couldn't be arsed with all that. Which is, if you think about it, the most British quality of all.