They've all got it: infamy

John Leslie, James Hewitt, Charles Ingrams... the new stars of reality TV are trading on disgrace. Why bother? Sarah Shannon reports
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The Independent Online

You know about his championship bed-hopping. You probably knew a little about his manoeuvres on the polo field. And now, courtesy of Channel 4's latest celebrity reality show, The Games, you also know about the infamous "love rat" James Hewitt's skills at judo, hammer-throwing and diving. (Not that you knew you wanted to know.)

Following on from Hewitt, later this year Charles Ingram, the major at the centre of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? cheat scandal, is to appear in C4's new reality show Celebrity Wife Swap.

John Leslie, the cocaine-snorting presenter recently cleared of indecent assault, will reportedly also appear on the programme.

A pattern emerges: those whose private activities have been lambasted by the press are queuing up to parade themselves before us on television entertainment shows.

The trailblazers were Neil and Christine Hamilton. No sooner had the MP lost his seat in a cash for questions scandal than he and his wife popped up on Have I Got News For You. More appearances followed - culminating in Christine's bravura performance on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here earlier this year.

So why do producers sign up the infamous? Simple. We are interested. "If I offered you a cup of tea with James Hewitt I'm sure you'd be up for it," says Tim Hincks, of Endemol, the production company behind The Games. "You'd be intrigued to see what he's like."

Celebs - particularly those with a bit of naughty glamour - come "pre-approved" by viewers.

"On most reality shows you employ a team to sift through thousands of members of the public to find the ones who will be the best on television. We already know whether a celebrity plays well on TV - they've been quality tested."

Why the "stars" think there is anything in it for them is more difficult to fathom. Why would the Ingramses want any attention? "Charles thinks that he and his wife have been painted the villains," says Stephen Lambert, director of programmes at RDF, which makes Celebrity Wife Swap. "He thinks they'll both look better if they're on a programme that shows what they're really like."

"Viewers are less judgemental than people imagine, and certainly less judgemental than tabloid newspapers," says Hincks. "Just ask Jack Dee or Phil Tufnell about the benefits. TV is a short cut to becoming a hero and that's hugely attractive to anyone."

Then there is the money, of course. Christine Hamilton received a reported £15,000 appearance fee for I'm a Celebrity and another generous fee for appearing on Have I Got News For You, a programme at its best when it is humiliating the infamous.

"We were just going to get Christine on, but she offered to bring Neil as well. We thought great, two for the price of one," recalls producer Nick Martin. "But, of course, Christine is a canny businesswoman so it was two for the price of two."

But who is taking advantage of whom?

"They're informed adults who've already been in the public eye," says Lambert. "They make the judgement to come on the show. As long as you've fairly informed them about what's involved I don't think you need to have anxiety about them coming on."

So where will this phenomenon take us? Are there limits to infamy? Yes. Ask Michael Barrymore. Despite trying to restart his career, he has been a televisual pariah since a party guest was found dead in his swimming pool. A recent report that he will be a guest in the next series of BBC2's Room 101 was hastily denied by the BBC.

"We have absolutely no plans to work with Michael Barrymore on any of our shows," says a spokesman.

So what's the difference between a Barrymore and a Hewitt? "Somewhere in what they've done there has to be some comedy. It can't be tragic or sad," says Martin. "We won't be having Harold Shipman on."