Janet of the jungle

Snakes, singers and Sophie Anderton: they hold no terrors for Janet Street-Porter. The 'mother of live TV' reveals what life in the celebrity camp was really like (and how much she'll miss Paul Burrell)
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The Independent Online

I've been whisked from a rat-ridden camp site to a three bedroom suite at the Versace hotel - with roof terrace, barbecue and whirlpool bath, a walk-in closet, two bathrooms and three lavatories. I've been ruthlessly grilled for hours for all the spin-off programming that shows like I'm a Celebrity spawn, and if anyone else asks me what Paul Burrell is really like, I might revert back to the old nasty Janet and puke. But how do I feel? Is that horrible hard knot between my shoulder blades the result of sleeping on a canvas hammock for over two weeks or my unconscious reaction to returning to "civilisation"?

What my time in the jungle proves is that you can take the most hard-boiled, opinionated, aggressive woman in Britain and turn her into someone who uncomplainingly sweeps the ground with a piece of bark, cleans out the communal lavatory with a torn-up rag, and happily rustles up a stew featuring mutton bird (a revolting oily seabird that's full of oil and tastes of fish) or smoked wallaby for 10 without a complaint.

Was I beaten into submission by the rules imposed by the programme makers? From the outset it was made clear to me that there was going to be no deviation from the regulations. When I smuggled a pair of tweezers into the camp inside my sock, my "crime" was detected when I mentioned it to a fellow inmate and it was picked up on my radio microphone, which I wore 24 hours a day. Within an hour I was summoned to the Bush Telegraph hut and had to hand it over.

When you participate in an enterprise like I'm a Celebrity, you have to be under no illusions. You are taking part in a piece of prime-time entertainment and to extract the maximum amount of compulsive viewing from your involvement, you will be subjected to an extraordinary ritual of meaningless rules and regulations that govern the camp - from where you can collect water, to how many people have to be on site at any one time. Lavatories have to be cleaned at 30 minutes' notice (to enable a crew to film you) and even a simple wash will be covered by three remote controlled cameras.

Each day, new twists unfold without any warning, designed to destabilise you further, such as not allowing you to do the one task you enjoy to compelling you to enact a form of "cabaret" around the camp fire if you want one glass of wine or a piece of chocolate brownie. Everything is engineered to turn you into a gibbering wreck willing to make a complete fool of yourself for the edification of bored couch potatoes all over the country.

This use of game theory to create gripping viewing in a confined setting such as a camp or detention centre has a long history - way back in 1990, while working as a BBC executive, I spawned the first reality show when we decided to rent a house in central Manchester and fill it with students who we filmed around the clock with hidden cameras. We even built a diary room for them to retreat to and moan about their flat mates ad nauseam. Over the years I have watched the genre grow and grow, and become part of British popular culture along with football and page 3 girls. My decision to take part was based on a real curiosity to see this pyscho-drama at close hand, to write a diary about it, and to go on a personal journey to try to discover if I could mentally cope with nine other people who, frankly, I would not have crossed the street to have a cup of coffee with.

From the moment I entered the camp, the task of keeping my sanity in the face of a wall of sound was incredibly difficult. I would go for walks around the limited area, and when filmed sitting and meditating, felt so invaded that I actually threw rocks at the crew and pushed the cameraman out of the way. I wriggled out of my wet knickers behind palm leaves and refused to give roaming camera men endless interviews by the washing line or the woodpile. Then, as the number of people in the camp decreased, I found it easier to cope with conversation (if you can call it that) which seemed to keep returning to a few subjects with monotonous regularity - what day would the series end, who would be voted out next, and what was for dinner.

Each day at dusk a basket of food would be dropped from an overhead winch and it was my job as camp cook to sort out the contents and turn them into a filling meal. I opted to be the cook, because it took me out of the smoking and mind-numbing wittering around the fire, and also because I genuinely enjoy creating interesting meals. To me, turning three live crabs, a coconut, four beetroots and a chilli into supper is not a problem.

In spite of Mr Burrell's risible claims to be "trained" in the art of French cuisine he had simply no idea what to do. Fran Cosgrave had clearly never eaten either beetroot or crab and Joe Pasquale retreated into his shell. In the end I threw them (sadly the crabs, not the men) into a pot of boiling water and then cleaned them by lamplight while my inmates looked on.

Having spent hours alone walking or writing, I found the days passed relatively quickly if I could find a way to be by myself. The strain was really interacting with others, accommodating their weird ways and intellectual shortcomings. The camp rules were important because they gave a structure to the day and enabled me to see clearly who could carry out a simple task and who could not. It seemed quite often that the younger members of camp had no idea of how to complete a job. They would get distracted and just forget. Often the oldies ended up finishing it for them, clearing up or drying the dishes. Unfortunately camping in the open means you have to run things so that food is cleared away and everything stored, otherwise rats and flies arrive. Not surprisingly, that's what happened. So small tasks such as scouring pans and chopping breadfruit were delightful. Conversation was problematic unless you wanted to discuss movies or constipation. Thankfully I was allowed to write a daily diary for 30 minutes which became a way of recording all my fellow inmates' little foibles.

I didn't feel constrained by being recorded all the time - as the mother of live TV, and someone who has spent their whole life in the media, I have learnt how to tailor my behaviour and speech for the appropriate audience. I didn't have a game plan other than to carry on as normal, with the caveat that I would not be revealing anything about my private life that was not already in the public domain.

In the event I have been touched to discover that people have enjoyed seeing another side of my personality, one which you probably wouldn't be aware of through the pages of this paper or an appearance on Question Time. I worked hard, was uncomplaining and hopefully provided compulsive viewing. I am extremely fit, so lugging logs up hills ferrying water wasn't a problem.

Sure, I was short-tempered from time to time - but wouldn't you have been if you'd been wearing the same knickers and T-shirt for three days in pouring rain? And I would have been denying my skills as a journalist if I had not interrogated Mr Burrell about his extraordinary decision to devote all his time and energy to a woman who was not his wife for a whole decade.

I'm not disappointed that I didn't make the final three. For me, three blokes sitting around a fire isn't exactly compulsive viewing and after I left the show the producers were tearing their hair out at the lack of chemistry between the remaining contestants. I felt as if I went on a journey, and it did me a lot of good. I emptied my mind of everything except the present, and treated the enterprise as if I was playing in a non-stop symphony orchestra. So, in answer to your questions, I won't miss seeing any of them again, but I'd like to thank the programme-makers for giving me a chance to lose 2.5kg and to get my body reasonably toned.

I've given up salt, caffeine and sugar, eaten plenty of vegetables and no dairy foods. My blood pressure is the best it has been for 10 years. My levels of tolerance, after listening to Brian Harvey shout at flies and Fran Cosgrave endlessly fart, are much improved. My mind has been exercised by the new national sport of Burrell-baiting. And if I see another model slathering oil on herself for hours, I can cope. In short, I'm back in fine form, ready for the cut and thrust of the party season. And don't ask me to do the dishes or rustle up eel canapés - it's not going to happen.