As a journalist Michael Buerk has witnessed war and insurrection, flood and famine, and now to add to the list of extraordinary things the 68-year-old has been party to over a long career is the sight of Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson “twerking” for his delectation. “It’s not quite the greeting I get at the Garrick Club,” he said.
Many have questioned why the estimable Buerk, a reassuring, knowledgeable presence on TV and radio for nearly 40 years, had decided to enter I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.
As he relaxed in a luxury hotel, sipping cocktails wearing a crisp linen shirt and sporting a grizzled beard, he resembled the recently retired creative director of a design agency, rather than a battle-hardened reporter. Indeed, he seemed rather bewildered by the celebrities who surrounded him. As well as Wilkinson, there was ex-footballer Jimmy Bullard, presenter Melanie Sykes and rapper Tinchy Stryder.
“Titchy?” asked a bemused Buerk.
This would have been funny had it not felt so manipulated by the production team. Immediately Buerk and Stryder were presented as a ready-made odd couple, the sort that reality TV thrives on. Yet their awkward “rapper’s handshake” and Buerk’s insistence on calling Stryder “my man” felt horribly contrived. Buerk came across rather better when parachuting out of a plane and landing rather nimbly. “You get a jolt and then it is serene,” he said, rather as if he had had some surprise religious experience with Ant and Dec as attending angels.
Elsewhere, a new twist, or rather a desperate attempt to flog some life into an exhausted format came in the form of the “Celebrity Slammer”, a prison little different from the programme’s actual bush camp. The public had voted for five of the contestants (the five not in Buerk’s group) to be incarcerated there. And so we saw ex ‘Allo ‘Allo actress Vicki Michelle, Superbike champion Carl Fogarty, Irish model, actress and singer Nadia Forde, Coronation Street’s Craig Charles and Gemma Collins from The Only Way is Essex, condemned to misery before the show had barely begun.
Collins, emotional, vulnerable, scared, looks likely to be the one to dominate the tabloids this year. She had a panic attack in the helicopter and by the end of the episode was threatening suicide if she didn’t get a decent meal.
Judging by this series opener, I’m a Celebrity is going to have to work a lot harder to capitalise on the ratings successes of previous years. Ant and Dec’s scripted gags are beginning to grate, and the mixture of celebrities is not an enticing one. You couldn’t help longing for the snarling aggression of John Lydon, the jolly hockey sticks maternalism of Christine Hamilton, hell, even the attention-seeking antics of Katie Price.
Things may improve if Buerk decides to host an impromptu version of the Moral Maze round the campfire. The question? Is it morally wrong to eat Carl Fogarty if they run out of beans and rice?