The Real Full Monty: Jingle Balls review – naked celebrities is a new Christmas tradition

<span>Photograph: ITV</span>
Photograph: ITV

The annual spectacle, since 2017, of The Real Full Monty, presented by Loose Women’s Coleen Nolan and the Diversity creator Ashley Banjo, is the most British thing you will ever see. A jolly crew of celebrities get together to do the worst thing in the British world – strip off in front of a crowd – for a good cause, in this case raising awareness of cancer prevention, especially by checking your unmentionables. All the celebrities or a close family member have been affected by the disease. The Real Full Monty is camp, emotional, moving, ridiculous and now a Christmas staple.

This year is even more chaotic than normal. So many of the participants fall ill or have unavoidable commitments – including, in some cases, treatment for cancer – that the only time the whole group will perform the routine that will end with them starkers is on the night of the show itself. No matter. Clever camerawork will cut enough together for the audience at home and the tide of goodwill in the theatre will carry them safely ashore.

It is always fascinating to see how differently we treat male and female nudity. The men – including Pete Wicks (“I’m probably best known for being a bit of a plank on Towie”), rugby’s Ben Cohen, the drag artist Nick Collier (AKA Ella Vaday) and the former butler Paul Burrell (whose treatment for prostate cancer is not hampering his ability to drop Diana, Princess of Wales’s name into every other conversation) – have their bums out for the opening credits. The women – including the TV presenter Julia Bradbury, Coronation Street’s Victoria Ekanoye and national treasure Sherrie Hewson – stay almost fully obscured throughout. Because seeing naked men is enduringly funny and seeing naked women is enduringly risque. Let’s get together over mince pies and mulled wine and discuss that one day. But not now.

Like the troupe, we must get on with the business at hand, which is to put the dance routine together while carrying out various tenuously relevant stunts. They go freshwater swimming to get them used to powering through uncomfortable moments. The ladies have plaster casts of their boobs made, to get them used to getting their tatas out. That sort of thing.

When it comes to working with them as dancers, Banjo, the choreographer, displays a valiant spirit. The man is made of rhythm, grace and charm; it hardly matters that his team are mostly useless. The bond between him and Nolan is just lovely. She gives him the plaster cast of her breasts for Christmas and tells him he can use it as a fruit bowl. He says it’s even better than the PlayStation he got when he was 12. I love them so much. Banjo and Nolan, I mean, not her breasts. Although her cast looks magnificent.

There is always sadness in the programme, of course. Although it is intended to be uplifting and empowering – about encouraging people to stay alert, feel less alone and get themselves and their loved ones checked – it remains a programme about cancer starring those affected by it. This year, however, the sadness is so great that it threatens to undo the whole enterprise.

Nolan’s sister Linda was given a terminal diagnosis in March (their sister Bernie died of the disease in 2013). Ekanoye is still reeling from discovering, two years ago, while breastfeeding her first baby, a lump that led to treatment, including a double mastectomy. Then there is former footballer Ashley Cain, who was broken by the death in 2021 of his eight-month-old daughter, Azaylia. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia at eight weeks old. He hasn’t shaved since, because she used to play with his beard while he tended her in hospital. It is hallowed by her touch. He can still hardly believe she is gone. He is still so angry. “We counted her last breaths,” he says, relating what is not yet a tender memory. “I couldn’t see a reason for me to be here on this Earth any more.”

You can see why he wanted to take part in the programme, of course. Whether it should have been allowed – whether we are watching the results of a producer’s bad decision, surveying someone who should be at home with friends and family, trying to find a way to bear an impossible grief – is a question raised every time he is on screen.

In the meantime, let’s all do as the good people suggest: stay alert for signs of illness and encourage others to do the same. Let’s hold our loved ones close and wish Cain and Safiyya Vorajee, Azaylia’s mum, fewer unbearably painful days to come.

• The Real Full Monty: Jingle Balls is on ITV1 and ITVX