Mr Happy goes native: Dom Joly reveals what he learnt in the ‘I'm A Celebrity’ jungle

For 20 days, Dom Joly withstood the tarantulas and tantrums of 'I'm a Celebrity', his moves controlled by a jungle army of 500. So what did he learn?
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Coming out of the Australian jungle after 20 or so days and trying not to use the words "emotional roller coaster" has been very difficult. I had been very, very wary of going on ITV's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. I considered bolting for the airport about 20 times when I was in "lockdown" – the term the production used for the curious week of limbo before I was inserted into the show.

I had travelled secretly to Brisbane under the ironic code name of "Happy", and was then transferred by security to a hotel about 20 minutes away from Australia's Gold Coast. There, I had only a chaperone for company, and was told I had to inform said chaperone of my whereabouts in the hotel at all times, and was not allowed internet access nor my mobile phone. I was not allowed to leave the grounds of the hotel unless it was in a prearranged convoy.

The security was intense and a little over-the-top for what is a glorified game show. I started to feel like some politician who had discovered that there was a price on his head. I suppose that I could have rebelled, but it seemed pointless. I eventually went with the flow.

Fortunately, the weather was good. I lay by the pool all day reading books, and slowly started to forget that I was in Australia to do anything but have a holiday. When the day of my "entry" came, I was surprisingly resentful.

First came "Dr Bob", the show's doctor. He gave me a quick once-over and talked me through some of the deadlier types of "critters" that I might encounter (sadly he didn't warn me about Gillian McKeith). Then came the wardrobe lady to kit me out in my jungle costume. The only personal things I was allowed to take in were three pairs of underwear, three pairs of swimming trunks and one luxury item. I hummed and haahed for ages about what to take. Most people take photos or pillows. One person took a pillow with a photo printed on it, Jenny Eclair took in fake tan... I eventually opted for a disposable camera.

All my personal belongings were taken off me and signed for one by one. The atmosphere in the hotel room was quite tense, and I felt like a condemned man on the morning of his execution. It was crazy – I was off to arse around on telly, not headed for the scaffold, but your head starts to play tricks on you. I was walked to a car in an underground basement and driven to the coast, where we drove around randomly while whispered conversations were had over walkie-talkies. Nobody would tell me anything about what was going on – it was a sackable offence. I was entering the bubble and I was really not prepared for it all.

In shows that I've made before, you do the job and then you can have a chat with the crew, josh around a bit. It makes the whole thing fun. Not in this show. From first contact I realised that this was going to be different. The isolation is part of the show. "Time is a luxury" one of the producers said to me when I tried to find out. Everybody I came into contact with had strips of gaffer tape covering their watches. Any question or lighthearted greeting was met with silence and indifference. It was very dispiriting and dehumanising... and it was meant to be.

At a helipad, I was joined by an equally dazed Jenny Eclair who had just got off the plane from London. "I met you once in The Groucho..." were her first words to me, and our fates were sealed: we were a pair of celebrity arseholes who deserved everything we were about to get. We were choppered into a different world.

When we landed, everybody was in combat gear and it looked like we'd just been taken prisoner by some Colombian terrorist group. We were ordered into canoes and set off into the unknown.

Jenny and I tried to josh with each other but it was hollow talk – we were both a lot more nervous than we were prepared to admit.

I assumed we were heading for the main camp, but the evil masterminds behind the show had other ideas. We arrived at a separate campsite at dusk. The sounds from the jungle army of insects were unbelievably loud, and I started to feel a bit panicky and disorientated. I looked to the crew for support, but they looked back blankly We were in this on our own. I was knackered and just wanted to sleep, but the crew had other plans.

We had to earn stars to get meals for our future campmates, and so we were ushered into the "Shack of Terror". Before I'd come on the show, I was, of course, well aware of my crippling phobia of spiders, but I'd hoped to be able to conceal it for at least a couple of days. Fat chance! The first thing I saw in the tiny shack were three huge spiders on the table in front of us. It was classic "fight or flight" situation, and my instincts were screaming "flight". Jenny was made of sterner stuff. She bullied and cajoled me into staying for the whole experience, as ever more heinous "critters" were deposited into the shack during our four-hour ordeal. I managed to work out the time by snatching a glimpse of a time code on one of the cameras (it was a tiny moment but it felt like a huge victory). Jenny and I eventually crashed out on our beds and fell asleep. I would have been able to sleep on a bed of spiders that night – fortunately, the producers hadn't thought of the idea... yet.

We were woken at dawn, and handed a phone and a laminated sheet of paper – which told us that we had to phone the camp and request that two "celebs" of our choice come to rescue us. There was our first glimpse of the "cast." Unlike many previous years, I actually recognised quite a few names: Britt Ekland, Nigel Havers, Shaun Ryder, Lembit Opik, Linford Christie... There were a couple of people whom I'd never heard of but it didn't look quite as desperate as it sometimes did.

Jenny and I opted for Havers and Ryder to come and "save" us. We both instinctively felt that these would be the two we might click with the most.

An hour later, and we were led to a jungle clearing where a helicopter landed and our two "saviours" nervously disembarked. They had already been in the jungle four days and were by now clearly institutionalised and terrified that they were about to be subjected to some new torture. It was becoming more and more difficult to remember that we were in a "light entertainment" programme. On the flight towards the camp we introduced ourselves. Shaun Ryder, who hates small talk, was quite silent, and I shall never forget the look of sheer terror in Nigel Havers' eyes. What the hell was going on in this camp?

The first person I saw when I entered it was Gillian McKeith, who stared at me with sullen, hostile eyes. Others were more friendly – I recognised Stacey Solomon, the sweet girl from The X Factor, and adored her straight away. She was very welcoming and made us feel at home. As I sat on my damp hammock and looked about, it looked like a refugee camp.

It's incredible, however, how quickly you adapt to unpleasant situations. Pretty soon I was used to the camp routine and was thrilled to find that there was nobody whom I totally disliked.

Everybody was quite open and friendly, and I was quickly filled in about the "Gillian situation". It turned out that Dr Gillian McKeith – a woman famous for analysing people's stools on television and not being a doctor – was afraid of everything. The public had smelt fear and, like a bloodthirsty crowd at the Colosseum, was baying for blood.

Gillian didn't help herself. She had a medical excuse for everything and behaved very selfishly around the camp. My favourite fact about her was that her husband had been unable to join her poor children in Australia... because he had a phobia of flying.

If we were taken off-site to do a trial we were bundled into blacked-out vans that we termed "Beirut Buses", and I rapidly gained a tiny insight into what hostages go through, and how you cling to anything that provides a sense of stability or continuity.

I was moved to a "prison" about four days after entering camp, and it was extraordinary how I now equated the camp that had so freaked me out on arrival with normality. Most of what happened in the camp you probably saw on television, but there were 23 hours in each day that you never saw, so we were all aware that our portrayal was heavily reliant on whatever storylines the producers chose to run with. In the evening we would be called in to discuss the day, and the questions would always be very indicative of what they were running with.

In the end, I did better than I thought I would. I even enjoyed moments of the experience, and certainly have no regrets about taking part. Whether I'll gain anything from it in the long term remains to be seen. Certainly I made some amazing friends, but experience tells me you need to test such friendships away from the extraordinary intensity of our weird three weeks to see if they stand the test of time. I rather suspect that they will.

As usual, the public got it right. From the moment I met her, I was sure that Stacey Solomon was the winner. She is truly a freak of nature – a lovely, funny, gifted person who managed to dissolve all my inner cynicism within seconds. I just hope that the powerful grasp of Simon Cowell, who manages her, doesn't reduce her to releasing terrible albums of karaoke. She is worth so much more than that.

As for me, I'm back in the real world with a serious case of sensory overload. I didn't need anything from this show – I'm about to make a movie in the States and I have a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. If anything does come from it, then it will be a bonus. If anybody comes to me next year for advice about whether they should do it, I will have one answer: go for it.

With enough money you can go into space, but you cannot buy this kind of experience. Half the nation watching you being controlled by a weird jungle army of more than 500 people... It's like The Truman Show for real. Weird scenes... Weird scenes...

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