For the last 19 years, I’ve watched I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! avidly; I’ve been on set in Australia, spoken to dozens of friends who have done it, and two years ago even watched my son-in-law, James Haskell, compete in the jungle. So when I signed up to appear this year, I thought I knew roughly what to expect.
Rats, snakes, spiders? I have no great fear of them (heights are a slightly different story). Live television? No problem – I’ve been doing that for 40-odd years. Getting on with an eclectic group of notables? That didn’t seem an issue, either.
But what I didn’t anticipate was that a funny turn, combined with pesky Covid rules, might see me out of the competition so soon after it had begun. As it is, I sit here writing this with a cup of tea in my home in North London, when truthfully I’d rather still be in Gwrych Castle with Arlene Phillips, David Ginola and the rest of this year’s contestants.
My week began with a trip to the “Castle Clink” after my team lost a trial on the opening night, and finished with a visit to the local hospital in North Wales, following that funny turn I took in the early hours of Thursday.
Thirty-six hours earlier I was up for around 18 hours, completing camp chores and chatting, before undertaking the “Castle Kitchen Nightmares” trial that night.
It was difficult – hunting for 10 hidden stars in a room full of critters as rotten fruit, fish guts and offal are dumped on me isn’t my ideal evening out – but I felt fine afterwards. So I don’t think that had any bearing on things.
Next day, by the time we cooked, ate, washed up and went to bed, it was very late again – about 4am. The hours are one thing viewers don’t realise: a 4am bedtime is normal, due to the timings of the live show and the trials, plus various delays in production or the time it takes to have food delivered.
I reckon I must have been dehydrated that night (I’m forever not drinking enough water), because I got into my bunk and suddenly felt detached and discombobulated. “Funny turn” really is about the only way of describing it.
A nurse checked me over, but given my symptoms were so vague, it was recommended that I leave the camp and have some precautionary tests in hospital. They completed a thorough MOT in about an hour, including a high tech once-over from a consultant, and I was given the all clear by dawn.
I felt absolutely fine, but by that point, the penny had dropped. A slightly tearful producer then confirmed my fears: by going to hospital and coming into contact with doctors, nurses, porters and so on, I’d broken the show’s hermetically sealed Covid bubble. There was no way I’d be able to return to the castle.
It’s no exaggeration to say I felt completely gutted. It seemed ridiculous – I was loving my time in the camp – but I understood their reasoning. Before the show, we had all quarantined for two weeks in cottages on Anglesey or in Snowdonia (Judy offered to join me, but I didn’t think it was fair, so did it alone), and the production site is about the size of Hampstead, with around 1000 crew members working. I’m A Celebrity didn’t want to suffer the same plight as Strictly, on which contestants have repeatedly come down with the virus, meaning there had to be zero-tolerance on Covid risks.
So no, contrary to reports, I wasn’t at all unwell apart from foolishly forgetting to stay hydrated, I didn’t pick up a stomach bug from my trial and – despite what some oddballs on Twitter might say – I wasn’t suffering ill-effects from my Covid vaccine.
In reality, at 65 I feel as fit as a spring chicken. The extensive medical assessment before going into the castle makes you feel like an astronaut before a space mission, and my results showed very good blood pressure, cholesterol levels, general fitness and no causes for concern.
It was a shorter experience than I had hoped for, but nonetheless a wonderful one, and much different from what I expected. ITV have asked me to do I’m A Celebrity probably every year for the past 16 – once they even sent an executive producer to turn up unannounced at my home and try to tempt me on. I finally agreed out of journalistic curiosity, more than anything, and from that perspective it was fascinating.
You’re constantly tired, hungry (a diet of rice and beans, only occasionally spiced up with things like squirrel or pike, provides about 750 calories per day) and left with little to do in the daytime but chat.
After the career I’ve had, starting on regional news in Carlisle as a 19 year-old, then moving around the country before presenting This Morning with Judy for 23 years, then our Channel 4 show, and more recently freelance work with Good Morning Britain and others, I have never forgotten when the camera has been on me. But in the castle, chatting with the others, I somehow did.
There is something about the environment that makes you unburden yourself, and speak quite deeply, quite quickly, with relative strangers. You end up thinking about the outside a lot. I’d find myself missing Judy and the kids, because stripped from all comforts, you appreciate home so much more.
Like the The Truman Show, they are always watching, so you need to be careful; and if you do dare break the rules, you’ll soon know about it. On one day, David Ginola covered both our microphones and whispered something conspiratorial to me. Instantly the Voice of God rang out, admonishing him. The singer and producer Naughty Boy brought in some cumin in his sock to give our unseasoned food some flavour. He admitted it, for some reason, and had it confiscated instantly.
— I'm A Celebrity... (@imacelebrity) November 23, 2021
This year is a cast of true characters and big personalities. Arlene is like a battery charged with delicious celebrity anecdotes – you just have to touch her and they come flooding out. David Ginola is uber competitive. And Frankie Bridge, who is lovely and very mentally strong, became a fast friend.
Who will win? It’s anybody’s game, but I’d feel surer saying who won’t. Naughty Boy has been complaining, and misses his mum. He has his reasons, but from the outside that looks pathetic; viewers never like a moaner. Arlene is suffering a bit, too. She’s cold, and longs to see her daughters, so I’m not sure she’ll be long for it either.
As ever, I will continue to be glued to it, along with the rest of the nation. I just wish I was still in there with them. Even last night, eating an Indian takeaway at home, surrounded by my family again, a part of me wanted to be with the camp. I don’t regret anything, but do wish I’d had a good glug of water before bed on Thursday morning...
As told to Guy Kelly