Many of us have felt isolated over the last year but I had a taste of Reality TV “isolation” before lockdown. I never applied to be on “The Circle”. I simply received a call out of the blue on a wet day in Cambridge and I am still grateful for the experience and the deep friendships that I made both with other performers in that short time on the telly.
There was a downside as well. The underbelly of Reality TV is unattractive and, had I known more, maybe I would have turned down the show. Instead, as someone who has been inside Reality TV and has experienced, at first hand, the extreme stress of coming out of one of these shows, I am committed to talking and ensuring it gets better for all. Efforts to reform have been thwarted at the highest level and the “new” OFCOM regulations are a sticking plaster, a scab that endorses what is already common practice in the industry. This is a money-machine machine and one of the most powerful forces in media.
While I have been critical of the “Aftercare”, more a word than practice, “The Circle” itself remains remarkable TV and it is exactly what we need. It showed that isolation can be the foundation of friendship; it celebrated a deeper communication, whether performers were catfishing or genuinely themselves and it was both entertaining and nurturing. I speak regularly with my friends from the show.
Indeed, both Woody was there for me when, a week ago, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. It is scary and I value his support hugely. As I am writing, I face imminent surgery. But I know I will get on better by talking, however tough that may be. Silence must be challenged. We do not live in a vacuum. We live in a Circle. It is not perfect but we are better for the reciprocity it fosters.
I reached crisis-point about 10 days’ ago when, what had been minor rectal bleeding, dismissed over the last couple of years, led to a haemorrhage in my office. As I have a blood disorder on the haemophilia scale, I am not afraid of a bit of bleeding-and I have embraced it as a badge of honour with its esoteric “factors” as well as the influence of the mad Rasputin over the Russian Tsarevitch. It is a disease that links me to Queen Victoria who passed it to the royal princes of Europe. But this, frankly, was the stuff of nightmare. So, with the greatest sang-froid we could master, my partner and I put my clothes in the washing machine and went to A and E.
In the hospital, late at night, with my trousers round my ankles, I found out just how much impact a brief appearance on TV can have. A nurse lent over and asked if I was “Tim from the Circle”. I wondered, for a moment, what must have given me away. But I welcomed the diversion to chat about the programme. “Did you really never meet?” “We really didn’t,” I gasped as the doctor said, “That’s just my finger.” That nurse had exactly the right approach- it was a point of contact and she neutralised the terror with the warmth of conversation.
The NHS moved with speed so, in a couple of days, I was ready for a colonoscopy. I was warned the preparation was foul and that the procedure uncomfortable. In the event, both were quite manageable. I was fascinated by the progress of the Doctor’s camera and he kept up a careful reassuring description. On the monitor, it was like a “Star Wars” journey and, lurking in my colon like a capsized asteroid or a badly mangled “Maltese Falcon”, was my own personal cancer. There was no mistaking it.
Far from feeling isolated by the diagnosis, I feel invigorated to reach out to others who may feel lost or frightened at this time. It is frightening, do not doubt, to face a serious cancer. It is something that many of us fear and that, sadly, half of us will experience at some time in our lives but no one is truly alone, no matter how isolated we feel, no matter how silent are those hours after 4am when sleep eludes us and darker thoughts press. It is at those times, in the last week, that I feel an alliance with those friends I cannot see, just as I felt a growing bond, even a telepathic connection on the show with Sy, Brooke and James even though we had never met. It is the same alliance when I gaze into the eyes of my beloved cat, Bey who reaches up to rub noses. This is the message of the Circle: an unspoken bond that we are together. Conversation, language, even honesty is secondary. I would very much prefer not to be in this situation but we must deal with the Reality we face, not the Reality we want, and at the same time, I am in good company- Lynn Faulds Wood, for instance, who campaigned so forcefully for screening and Bobby Moore, the English footballer who died after years’ of being mistreated for IBS. His wife said his death had been “unnecessary” and she called for more awareness of Bowel cancer. I hope we have moved on since then, but I realise that, as a face from the Telly, as someone who the public got to know over the month-long series of “the Circle” on Channel 4, it falls to me to carry on their campaign and draw attention to something that can be overlooked or even dismissed in the early stages. This is now my Reality. It is deeply serious and something we need to be more mature about and more open to discussing. Speaking about bowel cancer, encouraging scans and action, I believe, will save lives. Knowing we are together gives those lives meaning.