There’s only one reason viewers will be tuning in to watch the latest series of Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins (which begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday September 26). And that’s for its customarily nuanced dissection of modern masculinity. Only kidding – everyone is here to watch Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, get beasted by special forces types. And to give credit to Channel 4, it knows its audience.
The opening episode is an elaborate montage of Hancockian misery. There’s Hancock being shoved into a flood-swollen river. Hancock half-drowning in sludge. And my favourite: Hancock sprinting towards the camera in slow motion while an instructor yells: “He runs like a f---ing ostrich.”
Why did he put himself through it? After watching 50 mins of the show, I couldn’t say. The other contestants have vaguely plausible reasons for submitting to 10 days of hell. Former Welsh rugby international player Gareth Thomas wants to prove that age and his HIV diagnosis can’t hold him back. Singer-songwriter Gareth Gates aims to help master his speech impediment. Hancock, however, just looks fed up. At least in this opening episode, he comes across as prickly, peevish and curiously baffled as to how he ended up there.
Hancock aside, Celebrity SAS slips smoothly into its groove. It’s been running since 2015, clocking up eight series, and it remains one of the most moreishly daft things on TV, elevating military campiness into high art. Ostensibly, the 16 contestants attempt a truncated version of special forces training in an “extreme” environment. In reality, it’s cosplay for men who go squirmy in Army surplus stores.
But as someone partial to the smell of Kiwi Parade Gloss, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. The setting this year is the Vietnamese jungle and the continuous rain gives it a soggy authenticity. Yet the challenges are the weakest element. No matter the dramatic music and dancing camera angles, there’s little excitement in watching contestants shuffle fearfully across high bars.
The highlight was Hancock’s interrogation by the directing staff. Like an irate jackrabbit in the headlights, he began to explain his credentials: “I’m used to high-pressure environments…” “Shut the f--- up,” one growled. “I’m talking now.” At that moment, he spoke for the nation.
Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday 26 September at 9.30pm