x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

When a political career flags, can eating termites save it?

The British MP who went on the reality show raises some questions about why people seek publicity, and how.

It's pretty much winter here in the UK, the time of the year when the nation draws the curtains, turns up the heating and settles down to watch television.

Just now all the talk is of the forthcoming series I'm A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here. The programme, which boasts a huge TV audience, is an irresistible confection - part game show, part adventure yarn and part theatre of cruelty. The concept is simple yet gripping: take a handful of (fading) celebrities, plonk them in the middle of the camera-infested Australian outback, and then film their every movement over a four-week period.

To add further spice to the concoction, the contestants are regularly forced to perform various "bushtucker trials" for the delectation of the viewing public, who subsequently vote the candidates off the show in succession until only one - the winner - remains.

These "trials" are what give the show its notoriety, involving as they do such pastimes as eating live insects, putting your hand into tanks of snakes, or pulling on ropes that upend boxes of maggots over your head. No wonder millions watch it.

The list of contestants for the new series includes the usual inventory of sportsmen, models and showbiz has-beens who never were, each of whom will receive £40,000 (Dh233,593) for enduring their nightly humiliation. But perhaps the programme makers' greatest coup is securing the candidacy of Nadine Dorries.

Ms Dorries, an attractive woman in her mid-50s, ticks all the boxes for a successful candidate - good looks, strong opinions and a predilection for opening her mouth before she's engaged her brain. The trouble is, she's also a member of Parliament, and her commitment to the show will require her to forsake her professional duties as Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire for up to a month (duties for which she is funded annually by the taxpayer to the tune of £65,000).

Given the disdain in which the British public currently holds politicians, you might think the announcement of her disappearance to the other side of the planet for weeks on end would have people dancing in the streets: but Ms Dorries's actions have caused embarrassment and fury both inside and outside Parliament, with Prime Minister David Cameron censuring her publicly for neglecting her responsibilities and ordering her suspension from the Tory party.

Ms Dorries, no doubt anticipating the furore her decision would provoke, has got her justification in first. By participating in the show (she argues) she will have the opportunity to publicise various dearly held concerns to a far wider audience than she'd ever have achieved in Parliament. "If people are going to watch I'm A Celebrity, then that's where MPs should be going," she says.

Maybe. Yet her justification has more than a hint of humbug about it, for most of the viewers to the programme won't have the slightest interest in whether she supports voluntary euthanasia or the raising of the income tax threshold - all they'll want to know is whether she can gag down a handful of termites without throwing up all over her compatriots.

For political figures to flirt with celebrity and showbiz is of course, nothing new. Only recently the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons posed provocatively in a glossy magazine, while a few years ago we had the privilege of watching the renegade MP George Galloway pretending to drink milk while dressed in a red Lycra cat suit, as part of his inclusion in another much-watched reality show, Celebrity Big Brother.

But the interface between politics and entertainment raises serious questions about the real intentions of those we elect to conduct our affairs. Is it actually the oxygen of publicity for their personal crusades that they crave, or merely fame and fortune? Or, worse still, simply to be "liked"?

Whether Ms Dorries will vanish into oblivion or revivify her image by winning the forthcoming TV series will be revealed during the coming episodes. But I, for one, will be surprised if we're still talking about her in six months, let alone six years.

In the meantime, I hope she is working up a healthy appetite. For with public resentment running high, and the individual deputed to perform each separate "bushtucker trial" chosen nightly by telephone vote, I suspect Miss Dorries might have bitten off more than she can chew - in more ways than one.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins