Today there is an article in the NEW STATESMAN –
Much of it is about my friend and fellow contestant, James Doran, who played Sammie/ Charlie.
Isolation, heavy social media use, and being stuck inside with only a few sanctioned activities a day – this is a brand new reality most of us are experiencing for the very first time. But for a small group of reality TV stars who spent a month in isolation on The Circle, Channel 4’s latest breakout success, this is a past life they’re reliving after thinking they’d left it behind forever.
The Circle is a game show in which people compete to become the most popular person on a fake social media platform called “The Circle” – often catfishing or putting on fake personalities to make themselves more likeable. Contestants live in complete isolation in flats all in the same building and can only communicate via this interface, playing games, having private chats, and “blocking” (ie evicting) the least popular people several times a week. Although contestants are able to go to the roof of the building they live in, as well as the gym, they do not speak to any other people beyond a producer or showrunner, and don’t have access to television, the internet, or their phones. The finalists who make it to the end of the show experience this period of isolation for nearly four weeks, and in the first season this included a week in hiding preceding the show’s start. The prize for the winner is £100,000.
Well, nothing is always that straightforward the prize turned out to be split and, as the “viewers’ champion”, I shared this with Paddy. As with all contests of this sort, the show plays with the expectations and assumptions of the participants. It hungers for surprise and shock.
I have just reviewed the Brazilian version of the circle and I found it wanting. (I am told it redeems itself in the last two episodes and much of my gripe actually comes from the intensely boring episodes 7 and 8, possibly because Dumaresq was less prominent… ellipsis!) I must add that I found the scenes with the twins quite captivating, maybe because this was “real interaction”. And I loved their introduction as they both arrived in the apartment and only when they sat down together did we fully take on board the fact that we were watching identical twins.
The contestants were often gorgeous to look at and certainly bouncy, but they lacked any desire to bond together – which was odd: I thought Latin America was all about bonding (maybe it doesn’t quite work when there is no physical proximity?). It was the sense of intense reciprocity that I felt was lacking and seemed to me to be the very thing that made the UK Circle and set it apart from other reality tv shows of its ilk. I am also tempted to say that I am told it was particularly evident in the second series in which I was a participant. Even when James, Paddy and Georgina went over to “the dark side”, they were still bound together in a community, what James called “the circle of trust”. This sense of community is something that I feel is already developing across the UK at the moment as we all self-isolate; I am eager to see it continue and I want to nurture it. I think it is a good thing.
Now Dan was not only in the first season; he was also on the pilot so he is someone who should know about the circle. Incidentally, the lovely Jan who was in Season 2 with me was also in the original pilot. one day, I trust we will see that show too- now, would be a good time to drop it into the schedules!
Dan Mokasu was a finalist on the first ever season of The Circle in 2018 and was also a contestant since the first day, meaning he spent an entire month cut off from the outside world. “Even when we were in hiding, we weren’t allowed to watch live TV, we obviously weren’t allowed to read newspapers, we weren’t allowed to do anything really,” Dan tells me. “And then of course once you actually got on the show, you were even more limited. You can’t do anything, essentially. It’s really like primitive stuff to keep yourself entertained.”
During the show, viewers can catch glimpses of contestants playing puzzles, reading books, or doing yoga between bouts of messaging. For Dan, a month of this wasn’t necessarily cabin fever-inducing, but he did say he felt cut off and often bored. “I definitely felt disconnected,” he tells me. “We had even less [to do] than we do now.”
In contrast to Dan, I found I had plenty to do in the Circle but I am used to being on my own. I had an introduction to this as a monk and later as a goatherder on a greek mountainside. I sing, I talk to myself, I create stories and I draw. In fact, I actively enjoy my time alone. But, that time alone, I find, is actually time preparing to rejoin the community, and not knowing when that will be is now both unusual and potentially destabilising. I cannot assume, therefore, that any of this will be easy. We will all need help getting through this period.
James Doran was a finalist on Season 2 of the show who, like Dan, was in it from the beginning. However, he tells me that he suffered mental health problems both in The Circle and after he got out, and even had to be signed off for stress and anxiety when he returned to work. He says the loneliness combined with catfishing for an entire month (playing a single mother named Sammie) made him incredibly paranoid and the only human contact he had was “the kind of conversations you’d have in a lift” a couple of times a week with show producers.
“I don’t want to put a light mood on it, because it’s a really serious situation,” he says of now being in coronavirus lockdown, “but I think it’s a walk in the park comparing it to The Circle. I’m around my mum, my brother, I can speak to my girlfriend whenever I want to, I can go outside for a walk – you can’t do that stuff in there. We couldn’t use any technology, we had no sense of time… we couldn’t plan our days.”
I think the absence of time is a major issue and is something that comes with isolation. For this reason I have just reset the grandfather clock and I make sure I keep to a daily routine- up at 6, bed at 12, though I am afraid I often linger as lastnight falling asleep while watching episode 4 of “Belgravia”. (Not a criticism on Julian Fellowes by the way)
Although he felt at ease with this far more lax form of isolation, James does say that many parts of this are far more intense than his experience on The Circle. “When you’re self-isolating in The Circle there’s an end goal,” he says. “We knew how long we were going to be in there, whereas with this situation we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. No one’s going to win 100 grand when it’s over. There was an angle, there was a target, there was something to try to get, to keep determined. It wasn’t like ‘this filming might be extended for a few months and I might still be here then’ – it’s that uncertainty that a lot of people are stressing out about.”
James has been using his Instagram account to help people struggling with isolation, creating videos on how to stay sane during lockdown and setting up an account to show people what exercises he did when he was stuck inside during filming.
We need to share our experiences and ideally each keep a blog or journal. We are now living through historical times in a way that we have not done for 70 years. In years’ to come, children will ask us what we did and we want to have these personal accounts to hand. It will also help us to order/ regulate our routines. We cannot just sit around waiting.
“I don’t want people to read this and think I’m just talking about my experience on The Circle,” James adds. “I genuinely want them to know that I care about other people, I’m not like ‘oh I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt.’”
It is very worrying to hear of Dan and James’ struggle, doubly so because the circle is actually just a bit of light entertainment. We do not want, or should not expect our entertainment ever to come at the cost of its participants’ health and I worry that the systems are not fully in place to cater to the aftercare of reality tv contestants or performers and to properly protect them. The memory of Caroline Flack remains fresh, but there is a very long list of men and women who have suffered from being in programmes like “Big Brother” where aftercare seems to be minimal and, even after all this time, contestants are unprepared for what they have signed up to. Often when it finds out about a problem, the media trot out a trite comment that these people had struggled to come to terms with their new popularity, but equally, they may have also struggled against a manipulative and very greedy management system operating in the shadows. It is not something any of us should be proud of. We cannot be entertained by reality tv and not take responsibility for the people who provide that entertainment- otherwise we are regressing to a Georgian voyeurism in Bedlam.
Manipulation and bullying turn up in many workplaces and are not at all the stuff of the school playground alone. I think, indeed, that we have become a society with a nasty underbelly of aggression.
We only get it right when we know nobody is hurting afterwards.
The circle was particularly unusual in that it was about seclusion. I can think of no other tv show or social experiment like it. And it threw up some interesting experiences that frankly even observers or the “professionals” were not aware of or prepared for. One of these is the experience of trust. Isolation works on trust. I promise this is the case, and it makes sense when you think about it. More than that, I feel, to our credit, we are now, as a Nation, trusting one another already a lot more. That is sadly, though, something the bully is also waiting to take advantage of, so we must be wary. We must trust, but we must be sure we trust the right people.
There is nothing worse than a breakdown of trust.
It comes as no great surprise to me, sadly, to see an Art Gallery raided and a priceless Van Gogh stolen, as has just been reported. Criminals are lying in wait to take advantage of us. We need to be careful- we need to be prepared but that does not mean abandoning this healthy and new investment in trust. We just have to mind that we do not abuse it.
For the isolation that we are in now, therefore, there are two points to note. The first is that we will only get through it in community, however isolated we may be. The second is that we will need to work very hard to adjust again to life on the outside after a few months in isolation. And again, we need to work together and to learn more about one another as we isolate: we need to become better neighbours and friends and build up stronger communities that go beyond the family.
We need to guard against the nastier elements in our society that will otherwise take advantage of us, indeed that are already doing so- the banks who have been trying to lever businesses into putting up collateral when the government has already offered the loan, the insurance agencies who were mealy-mouthed when theatres took the decision to close but had not actually been told to specifically shut down. I am afraid that list may grow, and it may well be “the usual suspects”.
This is what the winner, Paddy said. He
thinks that being cut off in The Circle is better than the lockdown we’re experiencing now. “You can’t go outside because it’s bad for other people – if I went mad or if I needed air [in The Circle], I could do that,” he says.“If you take that out of it, I don’t really mind being in isolation now – what I do mind is that that’s a game show and this is affecting our livelihoods.”
Then Paddy adds an absolute gem of advice:
He also said to embrace isolation. “I find that, trying to fight something, you go into a state of panic… especially right now, you kind of have to go with the flow and take every day as it comes.”
Fighting against the Circle is a waste of time. We will make it work by harnessing it and taking advantage of what it offers. We are not “stuck” at home- we are “safe” at home. We are not waiting, we are actively engaged in creative activities and doing something with out time in isolation.
All three finalists I spoke to had advice about how to stay engaged during isolation. “There are a million things that you could do,” Dan says. “Learn a language, reorganise your wardrobe, talk to your pets, phone a family member… Do your mum a favour and just clean up the house!” Paddy and James conducted an Instagram Live earlier in March, giving their own tips about how to combat cabin fever. Both suggested puzzles and reading, and giving yourself something to do each day to look forward to, as well as looking after your physical health. “Take care of your body and your mind will follow,” James says.
But above all else, the one thing they valued right now that they didn’t have in The Circle was the ability to speak to the people they love. “The conversations you’d have [in The Circle], it wasn’t like deep questions,” James tells me. “ And it’s not the people you want to be speaking to, is it?”
“It wasn’t the conversations you would have with someone you’re connected with, which is really what’s important,” he adds. “Keep in touch with those people now.”
It is odd that, since isolation began, I have had more conversations with fellow Circle players than at any time since we left the show. We formed a friendship there and we all realise we have an expertise that maybe we can and should pass on to others now.