Written by Jenny Eclair

Arts

Reality TV shows – the reality

Jenny Eclair has seen the reality behind some of the country’s most popular celebrity shows. And she doesn’t regret a second of it. Here’s why.

Jenny Eclair 1When I went to drama school in 1978, I expected to emerge three years later like a fully formed Glenda Jackson. Jackson was my role model because, like me, she had once worked as a Saturday girl in Boots the Chemist, an omen if ever I saw one.

My future, beyond drama school, I presumed would be split between the West End stage and Hollywood. I would NOT be doing regional theatre tours, television soap operas or panto. I’d refuse adverts and would put a gun to my head rather than appear on stuff like Blankety Blank. Ha!

Fast forward three years, I’m a sniveling anorexic and part time punk poet. For the next 10 years I work mostly in rooms above pubs, getting changed in filthy kitchens next to the deep fat fryer. My television experience amounts to being sprayed gold for a children’s sci-fi programme and ‘walk on’ work in the ‘80s hit comedy series Who Dares Wins.

I was a very keen extra: I got to play plague victims, slags and on one occasion ’woman in restaurant holding a hen under the table’.

Around this time, Saturday Night Live burst onto our screens. I kept waiting for the call asking me to be on it… I’m still waiting. I’ve always been an acquired taste as a performer and I suppose back then I was particularly Marmite.

Oh well, there had to be other ways onto the box?

How come I ended up, aged 50, in the Australian bush (it’s not really a jungle) eating kangaroo anus? Well, as my mother would say, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

It’s mostly to do with timing and technology, I suppose. Reality TV exploded onto our screen in the late ‘90s, enabled by the use of video tape rather than film and a new method of computer-based editing. Hey presto, the ability to make fast cheap telly. Which suddenly coincided with our new-found obsession with so-called ‘celebrity’. Ker-ching!

In this country, the biggest reality TV successes have been Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!, with the latter hanging onto its prime-time ITV slot for almost a decade and half, thanks mostly to the enduring love the nation has for its hosts, Ant and Dec.

“How come I ended up, aged 50, in the Australian bush (it’s not really a jungle) eating kangaroo anus?”

I did series 10 in 2010. Why? Because my career had stalled and a friend had died and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life or career.

I’d tried so hard for so long and 30 years of slog seemed to suddenly count for nothing. I was faced with an empty diary and the funeral of a woman I’d known for a very long time. My friend Angie was a risk taker and mermaid, a woman with a big pile of yellow hair and a dog lead in her hand, a bonfire maker and dancer, an artist and beekeeper who could do everything but keep herself alive.

I got the call to do the show the day after her funeral. I was crying in the bath, everything was shit and suddenly my agent was asking if my passport was up to date and whether I was prepared to catch a flight the next day to join the cast of I’m a Celebrity… in Australia?

I seriously had nothing to lose, I bought a swimming costume and some fake tan and the next day I went to Heathrow to catch a flight to the other side of the world.

Good, fuck it! To be honest, I just fancied being in the sky for 24 hours, cocooned in the bubble of a business-class pod, eating umpteen chicken satay sticks (Air Malaysia) and drinking champagne. I felt hellish when I disembarked in Brisbane.

Basically the deal was that I should hole up in a hotel, sitting on a metaphorical reserve bench should there be a dramatic number of ‘jungle’ walk-outs.

Series 10 was two days old when I arrived in Oz and showing signs of self-combusting. The weather was poor, Gillian McKeith was mad, Nigel Havers wanted out, Sheryl Gascoigne wanted out, if they weren’t careful, the whole thing would be over by the end of the week. Cue Eclair and Dom Joly, canoed into camp four days late, after a night spent winning meal tokens in a snake-infested hut.

The truth about IACGMOOH! is that it’s hardcore. It’s a mind fuck and this comes from someone who is an Edinburgh festival survivor. It’s relentless, its uncomfortable, some of the other people are weird and you are hungry – very hungry – and, oh yes, you are on national TV, at the mercy of the edit.

To be honest, you forget the cameras; the whole set-up is so weirdly surreal that the only thing that feels abnormal is normality. It’s two and a half weeks spent in a semi-dream-like state, hemmed in by giant fake ‘rock’ polystyrene walls where hidden camera runs are constructed. At the same time, you’re surrounded by real trees, birds, bugs and creepy crawlies. One day a massive turkey walked into camp; another a massive camera light fell 30 feet to the ground. It was The Truman Show meets an outback It’s a Knock Out – with additional poisonous toads.

And, yes, you do sleep outside and the fire has to be maintained and water must be boiled and wood collected and its mind numbing and exhilarating and sort of horrific, like a game in the playground you can’t decide whether you can really bear to play anymore.

Do I regret it? No, I got £40,000 and three years of regular work out of it, including my first panto. Oh yes I did! By this point my inner drama student had shrivelled to the size of a peanut. Panto? What about Pinter? Why are you driving a mechanical digger while a billion mealworms rain down over your head? What about Ibsen?

To be honest, I’d still like a crack at all those other things, but I have also realised I’m not a proper actress, not really. I’m a writer and a performer and I’m a show off. I like attention and I don’t really mind making a twat of myself. I’d rather be doing something than nothing and I’ve still got a massive mortgage to pay off. I can’t get a booking on Q.I. to save my life, so, yes, that’s why I’ve also done Masterchef (first out) and, most recently, Splash!, the diving reality show, where I teetered scared out of my wits on the edge of a five-metre diving board, a dumpy 53-year-old woman with chronic cellulite, squashed into a bright pink all-in one swimsuit.

As I went head first off that board and hit the water with the velocity of a small car, I tell you, I’ve not had many bigger thrills in my life. Had I not been underwater, I’d have laughed, I’d have laughed my head off, because that’s what reality TV shows are, they’re a laugh.

So, if there’s a producer from Tumble reading this? Yes, I have leotard (there might be a small hole in the gusset). Yes, I can do a forward roly- poly. And yes, I’m up for it.

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Written by Jenny Eclair

Veteran comic, writer, diver, knitter (amateur) and South Londoner, v short sighted ( -5 left eye), HRT fan.