Almost a whole prime minister ago, the former UK health secretary Matt Hancock crawled from a hole in the ground to appear on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! He may have taken a wrong turn. He may have been tunnelling towards “the news”. I assume this is just how Matt Hancock arrives everywhere, burrowing from below like a common mole. But this time he was caught on camera, digging up through the soil, spitting insects, grinning with his generic man-in-management face and speaking, as his wont, like a subterranean satnav.
Only journalists watch the news, but everyone watches I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! (Sunday, Virgin Media One). Andy Warhol once said that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Hancock, a man who has already failed spectacularly at his first 15 minutes, was given another go. He got a whole Warholian half-hour. He literally had Hancock’s Half Hour.
Throughout his run, Ant & Dec watched from their jungle eyrie and chuckled darkly. If they have views on the ethics of laundering Hancock for light-entertainment lolz, they did not share them. These hyuking homunculi represent the spirit of the cheeky, fatalistic Blitz-loving British nation. When the apocalypse comes, Ant & Dec will be front and centre of the TV coverage, making jokes about dread Cthulhu’s tentacles as their faces melt and their souls are consumed. I’m only joking. I know Ant & Dec don’t have souls. Like the king (the name for the new man queen), Ant & Dec express no political views. Their ideology is a quip, their belief system a chortle, their philosophy a TV rating.
People are still surprised when the architects of disaster are banal, vacuous wonks and not scenery-chewing psychopaths. Matt Hancock isn’t a Sith lord who hates freedom, he’s just selfish, incompetent and sexually attracted to television cameras
Matt Hancock has been good for that philosophy. He and the Tories mishandled the pandemic and then he broke pandemic guidelines by having an affair with a political aide. So people were curious. They tuned in to see “the real Hancock”, and Hancock was on board with this agenda, striving for relatability at all times.
“We don’t come across as human enough,” he says at one point, speaking of politicians in general and not, as I assumed, using the royal we. And he’s got a point. I cast my mind back to the Conservative government that vomited him out and on to prime time: the Edwardian cosplayer Jacob Rees-Mogg, the haunted ventriloquist’s dummy Michael Gove, the surprised competition winner Liz Truss, the depressed ogre’s thumb Dominic Raab and that fleshy, fluffy avatar of human appetites Boris Johnson. Hancock does seem relatively normal next to that Legion of Evil. He repeats his theme later, with all the dramatic emphasis of a text-to-speech app: “We are normal people. We do things that normal people do.”
Normal things? Normal things like being on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, I guess. Hancock probably mistook this for a community project and probably mistook Boy George, the rugby player Mike Tindall and Eileen from Coronation Street for “the working class”. He is very keen to show he’s just like these representatives of the common man. It’s a version of “If I am cut, do I not bleed?” but it’s more “If I eat a plate of animal genitals, do I not also win plastic stars so B-list celebrities might eat and also £400,000 in cash money?” (Apparently, that’s what he’s being paid.)
Initially, some of his fellow jungle mates are appalled by his presence. They challenge him on his record in politics but are soon worn down by his vague and masochistic pleasantness. His face resembles nothing more than the baby-faced sun on Teletubbies, just now it’s middle aged, adulterous and recently retired from pandemic mismanagement. Eventually, surprised that he hasn’t overseen any deaths on the show, the celebrities collectively decide that Hancock is “nice”. This also seems to be the opinion of the voting public, who keep him there until the final episode. A half-century on from Hannah Arendt, people are still surprised when the architects of disaster are banal, vacuous wonks and not scenery-chewing psychopaths. Hancock isn’t a Sith lord who hates freedom, he’s just selfish, incompetent and sexually attracted to television cameras.
I missed a few episodes, but by the finale there are just three celebrities left. If I know Hancock, the rest probably died unnecessarily from his mismanagement of a jungle pandemic. He now shares the jungle encampment with his fellow survivors: the dry-witted football champion Jill Scott and the sweet-natured soap-opera hunk Owen Warner. A typically giggly Ant & Dec arrive to administer their final torments. Hancock gives advice from afar as Scott uses her tongue to rotate yellow stars while encased in a Perspex box that’s swarming with rats. It probably reminds him of his time in government.
Hancock then watches as Warner munches down on fermented duck’s egg, meal worms, camel testicle, kangaroo penis and scorpions. “The skin was a crispy nice texture like a crisp; the inside, however, mucus,” says Warner, who seems to think this is just foreign cuisine. Warner is too good for this doomed world. Hancock looks on as though he is envious of this degradation.
When Hancock says, ‘I’m just incredibly grateful. It’s been an extraordinary ride,’ I start shouting at the screen: ‘This has been an extraordinary ride? This? You were UK minister for health during a pandemic and yet you think THIS was an extraordinary ride?’
Then Ant & Dec submerge Hancock in a tank of water while countless eels, spiders and toads are dumped on his head. But to Ant & Dec’s chagrin, cunning Hancock has smuggled in a snorkel and so does not drown. He’s been weirdly equanimous throughout the show’s various tortures. As a toad sits on his head, it’s clear that he’s inured to all humiliation. He’s a man for whom eating shit has become a skill and a personality trait.
This final trio are emotional come the programme’s end. Warner says, “This experience has changed my life.” Warner is largely known for being on Hollyoaks, so this feels fair enough.
It seems a bit more dubious when Jill Scott says, “It’s just been the best journey ever,” given that she was part of the England soccer team that won the Euros just last June. But who knows, perhaps it’s true.
It’s when Hancock says, “I’m just incredibly grateful. It’s been an extraordinary ride,” that I start shouting at the screen: “This has been an extraordinary ride? This? You were UK minister for health during an unprecedented pandemic and yet you think THIS was an extraordinary ride?”
It’s like Neville Chamberlain saying, “On reflection, I think the most stressful time in my life was doing the Just a Minute Quiz.”
It’s all wrong. There’s something wrong with Matt Hancock. There’s something wrong with I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! There’s something wrong with us all, really.