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Don't Rock the Boat: reality TV that's harrowing, dystopian and fascinating

Joel Golby
·3-min read

Freddie Flintoff is standing at the top of a cliff commanding Shaun from The Chase to run down it face-forward. Jack Fincham from Love Island shivers with fear. Sometimes, reality TV can jump over the blade-thin line from “bombastic TV set-piece” to “harrowing vision of a dystopian Britain”, and at many points, Don’t Rock the Boat (Monday, 9pm, ITV) does exactly that. Am I really watching Jodie Kidd row to Ullapool while Craig Charles both cacks himself and vomits? I am, and it’s fascinating.

Before I explain the broad structure of Don’t Rock the Boat, I would like to take a moment to ask ITV’s producers to reach out to me and inform me of the exact names, dosages and source of whatever black market stimulants they are taking, because this is the kind of idea I have after I drop a Jägermeister into a glass of wine so hard I can see through time: 12 celebrities, locked together in a Covid bubble, row in teams for three weeks from St Ives to the northern tip of Scotland. Freddie Flintoff and AJ Odudu host.

The rough shape of the race is this: the teams of six split into a rowing team of four for each stage, and the remaining two landlubbers undertake some harrowing challenge – running down a cliff to avoid the ire of England’s best all-rounder, or something – to compete to win treats for their knackered teammates. At the end of each stage, Tom Watson and Craig Charles stare into a fire pit together, and consider what decisions they have made that have led their lives to this point.

ITV understands more than any other TV channel that we love watching floppy, shallow, inconsequential reality TV characters undergo some sort of harrowing athletic milestone. A celebrity isn’t a celebrity until they’ve forged themselves anew in the foundry of a reality TV challenge that involves being really dirty, sleeping in a tent and wearing a fleece gilet, and then they can write a just-in-time-for-Christmas book about how far they’ve come.

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Accordingly, the usual faces are here: a soap actor or two (Adam Thomas, Lucy Fallon); retired Olympic champions who crave the constant anguish of competition (Denise Lewis, Victoria Pendleton); a YouTuber who has to explain who they are (Joe Weller); Fleur East (Fleur East); a Pussycat Doll. (I don’t think I’ve watched a single celebrity-led reality format TV show in the past five years that didn’t involve a Pussycat Doll. This time it’s Kimberly.)

Crucially, though, everyone here seems to be having a whole lot of fun: before the horror, before the salty, endless boat rides and the jumping off cliffs, the collected dozen are laughing and joking in a way you can’t help but smile along to. As a format, it taps into the best bits of I’m a Celebrity (watching people suffer but get through it remade; dressed-down celebrities talking normally) and none of the worst (grown adults arguing about a single square of chocolate).

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Adam Thomas booms at the outset. “None of us will ever get the chance to do this again.” Well, I mean, you probably will. There is no way this isn’t getting picked up again for season two.