Former football pro Jermaine Pennant has described the moment he learnt he would be pitted against former health secretary Matt Hancock, in a brutal challenge on Channel 4 series Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins.
Almost a year after his divisive appearance on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, Hancock, 44, will be put through his paces by ex-army officials in the new Channel 4 show, which launches on Tuesday (26 September).
In one scene, Hancock is shown coming face-to-face with Pennant in the military training exercise of milling, which sees two opponents punch each other in the head as aggressively as possible without evasion until they’re told to stop.
Speaking at a press launch for the new series on Tuesday 19 September, Pennant explained what went through his mind when he was told that Hancock would be his opponent.
"My first thought was, ‘Oh yes,’” he said, adding: "That was without a doubt the first thought. Then after that it was, ‘Do not lose’. It was imperative I won because I would not be allowed to walk the streets again if i didn’t. I was just very grateful that I won and I saved face.”
Hancock was the health secretary during the Covid-19 pandemic, and resigned in June 2021 after being caught on CCTV breaching his own social distancing guidelines while kissing Gina Coladangelo, an advisor with whom he was having an extra-marital affair.
The ex-politician filmed Celebrity SAS before taking part in I’m a Celebrity. He declared in the MPs’ Register of Interests that he was paid £45,000 to appear on the Channel 4 show, while reports claimed that he was paid as much as £400,000 for his time in the jungle.
Hancock’s fellow contestants, also including singer Gareth Gates and TV host Melinda Messenger, had no idea he would be on the show before cameras started rolling in Vietnam.
At the press launch, they reflected on his involvement, with Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton commenting: “I think we’re all in the same boat with it. You leave everything at the door, no matter our own personal opinions of what did and didn’t happen and how he handled things.
“We’re quite similar, nice people and we judge people the way they treat us, and I’ve got to say he treated me with utmost respect from the moment that I met him.”
Heaton said she didn’t think “singling” him out was “absolutely and necessarily fair” due to him not being present at the launch. But Pennant said: “I think you have an opinion about him and once you go in there, you leave it where it is, and as soon as you come out, your opinion goes back to where it was.”
He continued: “I think everyone in the UK has that same opinion. You go in and work hard together, you work as a team. So, your opinion on anybody goes out the window, you’re all a part of one family. And I’m sure opinions have changed now everyone’s back into normal regime, normal life.”
Messenger said she “saw him as a person” and could tell how his resignation “had really affected him”.
“I think it’s easy to stand on the outside and judge people sometimes, but actually if you’re the one that’s got to do it, you’re always going to have people on your side, people against you, and people who don’t care. That’s just the reality.
“So, I think we saw him as a person [and] who he genuinely is. I think if any of us had been in his position having to do that job, who knows how we would have handled that. We got to know him for who he was and accepted him for who he was. I think he worked really hard in there, actually.”
Providing a more neutral response was former Navy SEAL Rudy Reyes, who offered his view as “the American who didn’t know Matt Hancock”.
He explained: “It’s my job to just take him as a recruit. I just wanted to let his actions and how he showed up for each task and how he conducted himself dictate the way I treated him. But we did notice quite quickly that he can’t take criticism and we don’t like that.
“There’s no time to bark orders – we’ve got a schedule, we’ve got things to do and that would get you thrown off the course in our world.”
Hancock previously described his time on Celebrity SASas “one of the toughest physical and mental things” he has ever done.
“It really opens your eyes and makes you look into yourself,” he said, adding: “After coming through the most challenging period as Health Secretary during the pandemic, I wanted to push my limits. It’s safe to say the course tested my resilience!”
Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins returns on Tuesday 26 September at 9.30pm on Channel 4, and continues on Sundays from 1 October at 9pm.