The standout neologism* from this year is Fun-Washing (after Nigel Farage joined I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here).
But ‘Fun-Washing’ – the idea of cleansing toxic or repellent individuals or ideas by re-locating them into the heart of light entertainment – is not as recent as we might think. Cultural historians will debate its origins for years to come but there’s a strong argument it started back in the 1987 Alton-Towers based medieval themed celebrity tournament Its A Royal Knockout featuring ‘the Royals’, Meatloaf, John Cleese, Toya, Christopher Reeve, Chris de Burgh and Anneka Rice.
In some classic foreshadowing Prince Andrew – then known warmly as ‘Randy Andy’ by the red-tops was key to the pageant. Let’s look at some milestones in the development of the idea.
Fast-forward to the fourth series of the Celebrity Big Brother franchise in 2006 and George Galloway defined the Fun-Washing genre with an appearance on all fours in a red lyotard, purring and pretending to lick cream from actress Rula Lenska’s hands, as part of a task set on the Channel 4 show.
But Celebrity TV is only a sideshow in the genre – with ‘serious’ programmes like Question Time arguably pulling more than their weight with the normalising / mainstreaming of fascists starting with the 2009 invitation of the BNP leader Nick Griffin. To a lesser degree they frame politics by normalising far-right wing politics by inviting random unknown and unelected pundits and representatives of dark-money think-tanks onto the show. Examples of the uncritical normalisation of the far-right closer to home can also be seen in such as the Holyrood magazine soft interview with Steve Bannon in 2018.
Today (30/11/23) former Health Secretary Matt Hancock starts his testimony to the Covid Inquiry. Hancock famously said he’d thrown a ‘protective ring’ around Care Homes, then had to resign, wrote ‘Pandemic Diaries’ and appeared on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Here is faking-crying on Good Morning Britain.
Watching these clips is like watching popular culture slowly degenerate, as ‘reality TV’ shapes and reflects the bizarre descent and your mind turns to jelly. For a long time now we have been in a bizarre loop where shows are made up not just of D-list slebs but people whose only fame is derived from being on reality TV. We are now in the second phase of this, so where, after Farage do we go next? Could we expect Andrew Tate on Celebrity Bakeoff, chided by Noel Fielding and Alison Hammond for an under-cooked bundt? Or Tommy Robinson doing a foxtrot on Strictly?
Actually Fun-Washing and (sur) reality tv had a role in projecting Anne Widdecombe as a ‘national treasure’.
In 2018 she appeared in Celebrity Big Brother.
At the time Iain Dale, the Conservatives favourite blogger-turned radio star is celebrating Ann Widdecombe, urging his readers: “Ann Widdecombe needs your vote. For those of you who don’t watch Celebrity Big Brother, she’s in the final and voting finishes this evening. It would be great to see her win it, and confound her critics.”
On reminding him that, whilst Ann might be hilarious in Celebrity big Brother, her track record whilst Prisoners Minister included advocating shackling pregnant women in chains in the run-up to childbirth. A confused Dale denied this had ever happened, so here’s a reminder…
As Prisoners Minister Widdecombe told MPs they had to be chained and handcuffed to stop them escaping.
The Mirror revealed how mother-of-three Kathleen Mackay, 27, was handcuffed to a warder on a 10ft chain and Channel 4 News secretly-filmed footage of Annette Walker shackled during the early stages of a 12-hour labour.
The policy of shackling pregnant women with handcuffs and chains was introduced during Derek Lewis’s tenure as director-general of the Prison Service and was revealed when Channel 4 News showed secretly-filmed footage of Ms Walker in chains at the Whittington Hospital in Archway, north London. It was Ann Widdecombe who defended the policy in a Commons debate of January 1996.
At the time the Independent reported:
“While prison officers allegedly agreed to remove the cuffs during an abdominal examination, the officers remained in the room. The chains were re-applied afterwards and she was chained to a bed in a 12-bed ward. The next morning she took breakfast in the dining room chained to an officer in the view of other patients.”
[see Beech BAL. Shackled prisoner wins compensation. AIMS J 1998. 10.13, cited in Legal Aspects of Midwifery].
The Apprentice proved a lucrative career-building ground for Donald Trump, and maybe that’s what Nigel Farage thinks he’s doing in I’m a Celebrity? But the shows are very different, in The Apprentice the ‘boss’ (Trump or Alan Sugar) get to project power to a cartoon-level (“Thank you Lord Sugar”) whereas Farage is surrounded by people who can challenge and ridicule him. Plus The Apprentice is based around an idea of basically venerating wealthy business people, whereas I’m a Celebrity has an air of the ‘already-desperate’ about it.
So what is Farage doing?
It’s not really for the exposure, is it? I mean as Marina Hyde reminds us “he has essentially been on transmit since the 1990s. The period after that date has pretty much been one long media interview/speech/piece-to-camera…”
Like most of the failed politicians he’s in it for the money. He has reportedly received £1.5m to appear on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! with Ant and Dec but the hope is perhaps also (as for the minor Royals and proto-fascists) to – ‘normalise the abhorrent’ – by placing himself in this weird tv pantomime. You don’t need to ‘win’ or even be liked for these processes to be successful, the point is to be just part of the cultural landscape of ‘Saturday night tv’.