Editor-At-Large: Hail the Maria Callas of our times! Gillian's got it taped

This year's 'I'm a Celebrity...' is the best modern drama around
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The Independent Online

Will they be up for sale on eBay? Will she donate them to the costume department of the V&A? Perhaps they'll be cast in bronze and exhibited in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern? Generating as much interest as the transparent frock Kate Middleton once wore, the condiment-carrying knickers sported by Gillian McKeith have achieved iconic status. Harry Potter might have his trademark specs, but Gillian's herbal underwear has inspired more jokes and probably as much online debate.

The current series of I'm a Celebrity... has struck gold, with ratings well over 10 million a night, back to the levels of early 2004. ITV must be delighted with this success so soon after its autumn hit Downton Abbey. Suddenly, the channel is buzzing and ad revenues are soaring. Can this be the same ITV that was falling apart less than a year ago? The reason for its latest smash hit is simple: better than any soap, more fun than the on-off sexual chemistry at Daybreak – millions of viewers are riveted by the sight of a highly neurotic middle-aged woman falling apart night after night. You wouldn't want to have the real Gillian around for a cup of soup and a nut-burger, but an hour or so of enjoying her tears, tantrums and mental meltdowns from the safety of a sofa is guaranteed to cheer anyone up. Had a nasty credit card bill? Treat yourself to five minutes of Gillian weeping on YouTube. Husband being a misery? Replay Gillian's faux fainting fit, now turned into a comedy musical number on the internet. All over the country, we're impersonating Gillian on our phones and posting it on social networking sites.

Her current status is the product of a simple truth – the public are the best judges of bullshit – which is why they voted for Gillian to take part in a record seven Bushtucker trials, culminating in her collapse and being excused from further torture on "medical" grounds. Ever since then, she's wandered around the campsite shunned by fellow inmates, singing, grimacing, dancing by herself and insisting the tin she eats from is not touched by anyone else. (Interestingly, this skeletal female eats more than the others, helping herself to seconds and even thirds, much to their impotent rage.)

I've spent the last week in Queensland watching Gillian at close quarters, taking part in the nightly ITV 2 show that follows the live broadcast of I'm a Celebrity.... I've got up at 4.30am each day and driven into the production offices in the rainforest to trawl through hours of footage of the victims (sorry, contestants) as they lie around moaning, bitching, griping and whingeing. They include this newspaper's Dom Joly, who the producers surely hoped would inject his usual acerbic asides into proceedings and rile everyone as much as possible. Sadly, nasty Dom has not performed as planned, even appearing caring on occasion.

He arrived with Grumpy Old Woman Jenny Eclair, who has also gone soft. Instead of slapping down shirkers with her usual pithy putdowns she is "giving offenders three strikes" before retaliating with verbal abuse. At least she managed to do well in a bushtucker trial and use it as an opportunity to air some of her well-honed stand-up routine – though it's a bit stagey for my taste. Dom also confessed to a phobia about spiders – a big mistake. As I learnt from my experiences as a contestant in 2004, never admit to a fear, otherwise, like Gillian, you'll be made to suffer. I had to listen to Natalie Appleton, convinced the trees would "harm" her, spending every day sobbing in her sleeping bag. And Dom's terrified of eviction. It just isn't impressive to be so keen to survive the elimination process.

Some of Gillian McKeith's credentials as a nutritionist may be highly dubious, but she's certainly qualified as a top TV entertainer. Notice how she looks for the hidden cameras before delivering each part of her floor show. When it seemed she was slipping from the spotlight, she announced she "thought" she might be pregnant – about as likely as me giving birth to twins. Next, she "confessed" to smuggling herbal tea bags, stock cubes, celery powder, garlic, salt and herbs into the camp in her underwear. To be precise, she claimed they were hidden inside sanitary napkins she wore, carefully repeating the words sanitary napkins twice for maximum effect. Gillian claims to be 51. I don't want to pry, but somehow I think she might have experienced the menopause quite a few bus stops ago.

Gillian has managed to become the Maria Callas of reality telly, a considerable feat given the company she's in. Linford, Alison, Stacey, Lembit, Dom and Jenny are all used to hogging centre stage, but Gillian has eclipsed them. She's realised that the trick to remaining on this show as long as possible is to appear larger than life: nice gets you nowhere once the voting starts. Sheryl might have put up with Gazza for years, but she made all the impact of a wet tea towel. The most interesting fact about her emerged on her last day – she was once an estate agent. Sadly, Sheryl was just too bland to succeed. The unfortunately named Aggro is the least threatening rapper you're likely to encounter and won't last long. Ex-MP Lembit, never short of a joke or a quote in real life, seems to think the only hope he's got of getting a job post-jungle is to appear friendly and approachable. His admission in the "jailbreak" trial that he didn't want to harm the rats probably contributed to his early departure – punished for being bland.

The best thing about I'm a Celebrity... is that contestants lose their sense of proportion. The smallest thing can tip them into posturing platitudes. Who would have predicted that Nigel Havers, who has spent years in the most plebeian of TV dramas, would storm off the show because he thought wearing prison garb and facing an electric shock as punishment was "highly degrading"? We also have to be grateful to Gillian for reducing Stacey to tears with a rant about what constitutes a phobia. The show has a nasty habit of revealing hidden shallows in people you thought you knew. Have you noticed how often Linford is stroking, cuddling and massaging any female with a bit of a problem? Shaun Ryder, who clearly missed a trip to the pub at the start, has settled into captivity, dealt with a savage snakebite, and is surely the favourite to win.

Of course, the edited stories on the show represent a tiny fraction of what's filmed. Yes, the producers can shape what you see to offer you an unappealing view of one character over another, boosting the tension and enticing you to vote. The team that turns around all this footage includes some of the best editors and crew in the business, and working with them only increases my respect for the genre.

This series is brilliant, but you are watching a carefully crafted drama. Believe me, the contestants do little most of the time, lying around, moaning, farting and scratching. The stunts they endure are playlets designed to tease out weaknesses and highlight secret anxieties.

It's too easy to dismiss reality television as degrading and trivial. This is where you find the best modern drama. And millions of us love it. Don't be ashamed!