His I'm a Celebrity debut was a TV masterclass
On Sunday night, the first episode of the new series of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! ended with the grudgingly inevitable announcement that Nigel Farage would be competing in a Bushtucker trial. The former Ukip leader has entered the tropical panopticon as this year’s supposed comedy villain, but has thus far taken everything in his stride. Even his fiercest opponents will be hard-pressed to claim that he isn’t made for this sort of thing.
Farage entered proceedings dressed as Michael Portillo, and hadn’t even made it to the celeb camp before his pink shirt and lime chinos had been desecrated in a mucky hunt for plastic tokens. He cheerily got on with the task, all while his fellow campmate, YouTuber Nella Rose, shrieked and jittered. On first meeting Rose, Farage greeted her by saying, “Ah, you’re the mega influencer”, a combination of words which he somehow managed to imbue with sincerity.
That, of course, is Farage’s great skill, which could be called studied authenticity. A one-time public schoolboy and commodities trader, Nige nonetheless has an undeniable grassroots appeal. This isn’t fake authenticity, exactly — it’s not a routine like Boris Johnson’s, who deliberately ruffles his hair before making speeches and reaches for awkward pop culture references — but it is a quality which the Brexiteer has honed over three decades in the political arena, as well as through his increasingly regular appearances on television.
In the jungle, Farage is joined by Britney Spears’s sister and the winner of Big Brother Series 11 but, weirdly, he fits in. Aside from one weak joke about Brexit, his campmates have welcomed him with bearhugs and back-claps. Compare his entrance with that of Matt Hancock last year, ostracised at first by the other celebrities for his many failings as health secretary during the pandemic. Hancock redeemed himself in a way, undergoing enough goo and humiliation to win back some respect, but Farage has an easier gig.
This is because, while one would have had to spend some time last year searching for a Matt Hancock fan in the wild, Farage is loved at least as much as he is despised. At the Conservative Party Conference at the beginning of last month, he was more rapturously received than any Tory. The likes of Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps can’t hold a candle to the most powerful man on the British Right. Any testicle-chomping atonement will be less necessary than Hancock’s.
And therein lies an uncomfortable truth: showbiz, specifically ITV in this case, needs Farage more than he needs it, though his reported £1.5 million appearance fee won’t hurt. It is only Nigel among the lineup who can get the nation talking about this series.
He has cocked a snook at Cameron, Coutts and Covid lockdown advocates, and emerged the winner each time. Nothing, from the sex scandals to the alleged racism, sticks. Where shame now stalks Boris Johnson (who was in talks to feature in this series) in his post-premiership shuffle, from his photo ops in Kyiv to his meditations on Ozempic and Barbie, Farage is apparently immune. Eating insects while Ant and Dec heckle you is only as undignified as you make it; Farage is enough of a telly performer to understand this, and to eventually leave the jungle with his reputation enhanced.
Columnists will continue to accuse him of reputation-washing, and of being single-handedly responsible for our degraded public discourse, but this kind of talk doesn’t do much to sway anyone who might somehow be on the fence about Farage. One contestant, explaining to Jamie Lynn Spears who all the Brits in camp were, described Farage as an “ex-politician”. This is factually true, but applies a finality to his political innings which he will surely disprove before too long. Either that, or he’ll be presenting the next series of Great British Railway Journeys.