Patrick Freyne: A reality show about cold celebrities – perfect TV for the fuel poverty era

Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof (Tuesday, BBC1) begins with a warning: “For your own safety please seek guidance before attempting anything you’re about to see.” Even though the show’s challenges this week include oddly low-energy activities like showering and lying down on yoga mats, I completely concur with this warning (I’ve been working from home for a while).

Freeze the Fear is a strange programme. Wim Hof is a wellness boffin who says sciency things about the health-improving properties of the cold and who wishes to teach a random assortment of celebrities his methods. “I want to show the celebrities that they are capable of becoming better!” he says. He sporadically speaks of them as “the celebrities” as though this is a special class of human being. Scientists frequently warn us that experiments that work on mice don’t always work on humans. The same is probably true of celebrities in television experiments and us normals with our very different brain shapes and bank balances.

In lieu of peer review, Hof has comedian Lee Mack and television presenter Holly Willoughby

Wim isn’t quite a scientist, though he occasionally says “cardiovascular” so he’s kind of a “sciencer” (my term). In some ways he’s better than a scientist, at least for television. While Richard Feynman spent his time writing scientific papers like a schmuck, Wim Hof does Tai Chi on snowy clifftops wearing little but a poncho. While Rosalind Franklin engaged in complex experiments to learn the properties of DNA, a nearly nude Wim Hof barrels towards us in the snow in order to leap into a hole in the ice. Einstein said: “E =mc2”, Wim Hof says: “Stress goes down. Energy goes up. And you feel: Wow! S**t! I feel good.”

In lieu of peer review, Hof has comedian Lee Mack and television presenter Holly Willoughby who observe everything whimsically while wearing warm clothes. They rarely hassle the Hof with rigorous analysis of his techniques. Indeed, the nearest we have to an actual scientist on this programme is the rapper and Cluedo character Professor Green, one of the participants. And something tells me he’s professor of grooves, not biology.

The lack of scientific input is strange because while some of Wim Hof’s wider claims about the power of the cold have been verified by experiments, some have not. The BBC have clearly heard the word “some” in that sentence and thought “good enough”, and if Lord Reith is spinning in a cold, cold grave, they no doubt surmise it’s because he’s a fan of Wim Hof.

Right now, making celebrities weep on television is a bit difficult because nihilistic cruelty is out of fashion

Freeze the Fear is also a product of other trends. Most contemporary reality television starts out with a whiteboard on which someone has scrawled the words “Celebrities in tears?” and also: “Work out details later.” Someday someone will make a programme simply called Celebrities in Tears and then television will be over, the sun will snuff out at last and it will be the time of Ragnarök.

Right now, making celebrities weep on television is a bit difficult because nihilistic cruelty is out of fashion (on television, not in life, obviously). Nowadays, celebrity discomfort on television must occur in the context of self-knowledge and hugs. Their suffering must be for their own good and also for the edification of the viewer. If celebrities are forced into icy water or to hurtle from vast heights, it’s less about pleasing the viewers’ inner sadists and more about gratifying a quest for meaning. And we the viewers should be watching such shows educationally too, thinking: “I have learned something today about the nature of life” and not just hooting hysterically when people fall over.

In the first episode of Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof, eight people jump into the ice-hole into which Wim jumped a few paragraphs up. Later in that episode they abseil down a cliffside face-first. “Stephen’s gotten to the bottom,” narrates Lee Mack, even though getting to the bottom of the cliff was never really in doubt (it was about whether they could get there without plummeting at speed). Then the eight celebrities go to a large collective tent wherein they live like common Smurfs. Wim gets a whole tent to himself nearby, like Papa Smurf.

This week’s episode runs into the main dynamic problem of the series: being cold is not a very televisual situation. The programme-makers must know this, so in the opening of the episode they show us a huge bridge and promise us that before the series is over, there’ll be celebrities falling from it. Wim leaps off the bridge to demonstrate, which feels like an awful waste of a television personality until you realise that he’s actually suspended by a rope. Clever BBC. They don’t tell us this explicitly, but we intuit that this rope must be an emergent property of “the cold”.

The main activities in this episode are a bit dull. In the first half of the show, catering to very niche tastes, Wim encourages each of the celebrities to have a cold shower while Holly Willoughby and Lee Mack watch. “You just don’t want a cold shower, you just want a nice warm one,” says Professor Green, outlining for us the jeopardy of the situation. The celebrities have their cold showers. This makes them a) wet and b) cold and c) invigorated. I write it all down in my notebook. Because, yes, I am a sciencer too.

In the second half of the show, all of the celebrities lie on the ground and Wim talks them through some breathing exercises until many of them have some sort of emotional breakthrough. I’m not qualified to say what’s going on here but thankfully no-one on the show is either. Soon Willoughby and Mack are discussing how cathartic this experience must be. They are “psychologers” to Hof’s “sciencer”. More Statler and Waldorf than Freud and Jung.

I get why people are drawn to this delightful weirdo

Look, everyone on this show is vulnerable, open and well-meaning. Some, like television presenter Gabby Logan and footballer Patrice Evra, talk movingly about real traumas in their lives. Wim bangs a big gong and before long we’re seeing footage of next week’s show which includes, at one point, Wim and his daughter drinking tea while sitting in adjacent barrels of ice, like depression-era hobos or classical philosophers.

I get why people are drawn to this delightful weirdo. He seems kind and charismatic and he wears a poncho while proffering an individualistic silver bullet for self-improvement. And God knows, when you’re in the ruins of a welfare state, you can’t have enough of those. Meanwhile, the UK is having an identity crisis. In a nation run by party-gaters and tax avoiders, BBC management clearly saw this bearded Dutchman wandering through the snow in the near-nip and thought: “Is… is this leadership?”

I’m less sure how they can justify providing an uncritical endorsement of Wim Hof’s methods over and above the metanarratives of other entrepreneurial health gurus. On the other hand, in an era of inflation, fuel poverty and healthcare dysfunction, it’s surely useful to have a public broadcast arguing that cold has healing properties for an hour every Tuesday.

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