The Queen’s speech signalled a new bill that will make it much harder to gain realistic asylum in the UK while at the same time, because of inadequate international agreements, applicants could easily find that they cannot go back. They cannot go forward and cannot go back. Priti Patel has just revived the concept of Limbo that was itself jettisoned by the Catholic Church during Vatican II in 1962.
And Vatican II is an important link given that the whole Brexit enterprise might best be traced back to a coffee shop pact by the wondrous Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as the now derailed Mark Reckless and Daniel Hannan back in 1990 in Oxford. Dear Jacob! But he, at least, is a man with imagination and humour- he might even manage some maths. None of this is in evidence when we look at the present Home Secretary.
Priti Patel joins a list of British politicians, instead, who think it is clever to promote and rely on mindless bureaucracy: it is this reliance that has seen the endless rise of the Jon Stone tag “abolish the Home office”. But if that ever happened, it would simply replace one bunch of papers with another! Simply because something is on a bit of paper, Priti Patel supposes like Theresa May, before her, that it has meaning. Ideology and prejudice comes before reason, even history and personal history as well- Her parents, for instance fled Uganda a few years’ before Idi Amin stripped Asian citizens of their rights and expelled them. Her parents, Gujarati immigrants, had seen the writing on the wall and came here where they were welcomed into Britain. We have to ask what their chances would be if they were to be faced with the same threats today, particularly if their daughter passes the legislation she intends. Sadly, as we shall discover, if this legislation goes through, people with just as good a reason to start a new life here will be denied that opportunity and we shall be denied their new vision and courage. More than that, we shall be setting an example to other countries – maybe we are doing so already if Mr Barnier’s nonsensical bid to be the next French President is given a chance.
The preamble to Patel’s draft law talks about “faster and fairer” means to process migrants, and about “better support for the vulnerable”. It also decries the deaths at sea as migrants are abused at the hands of smugglers and piled into boats ill-equipped for the voyage and the numbers -so, she promises to deal swiftly and firmly with people smugglers- all well and good. Then, it takes a sharp right turn, because it blames the migrants or refugees or asylum seekers- the nomenclature is fairly nebulous at this stage- for choosing to come to Britain by the wrong route.
This language probably calls to mind the Robert Frost poem, a much maligned piece of writing that many people believe they know and that has been bandied about by advertising execs – even to pitch Ford cars in New Zealand- as a statement of self-assertion. It is, however a deceptive piece of writing, as indeed, is this draft law by Priti Patel. “I took the one less traveled by” may be what the poet eventually says he did but if you look more closely, both roads “equally lay / In leaves”, the way was unclear and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” In other words, it was not choice but chance that led the poet to take the road “less traveled by”. And that chance is tinged with some regret.
This distinction between choice and chance lies at the heart of what is wrong with Priti Patel’s legislation. A migrant fleeing a rogue state is often in no place to note where help comes and who is offering passage to a better life. We should not blame people who have already suffered for the people and route they trusted as they escaped although I concede there may still be a small number of people who have been trying to play the system.
Priti Patel, however, is turning us back into Victorian prudes who look down on the dispossesed and brand them “deserving or undeserving”. The criterion she offers for this distinction is simply the road they travelled to get here. Patel’s bill is a law drawn up in an ivory tower that ignores circumstances- that does not care whether someone was coerced into taking one route rather than another or did not have the knowledge or the paperwork to detect the difference. It also plans to penalise people with a criminal record- but one wonders which criminal record will be recognised- will someone be further punished by Britain for being wrongly accused and convicted of a potentially spurious offence in a rogue state? The language would need to be very carefully thrashed out. At the moment, I fear Rhetoric and posturing are more important in this bill than common-sense and I worry that it will descend into a box-ticking piece of bureaucracy that will simply fail to help those we should be supporting. And those who know how to handle the system- not necessarily those we should be supporting- will have the means to steer through the hurdles miss Patel has erected. This is not compassion for the victim.
What is most worrying is that we look set to turn our back on legislation we helped to define- the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 talks about giving refuge to the needy and talks specifically of helping those with a “good cause”. This is quite a different matter to asking for migrants to be penalised for the route they took and I worry that it will get overlooked in the enthusasm for trimming back migration. This, in any case, is a paper tiger as we already take far fewer refugees than France and Germany.
Instead of thinking of ways to tie up applicants in endless red tape and leave them to the mercy of the authorities for years on end, we should be thinking of the contribution and committment that generations of refugees have already made to our country not least the the NHS and public transport, both still crying out for applicants- and not all of these former refugees are on the socialist left. We have a tradition of hospitality and a tradition of welcoming and embracing the needy traveller. This is not about discouraging greedy migrants, or those who come here to batten on our services. This is about our response to the genuinely desperate who will transform our society with their enthusiasm, passion and appreciation. Instead, we are potentially setting up a 5th column of trapped and failed asylum seekers who cannot be sent back to Europe because we quit the Dublin regulation when we effected Brexit. We will be in a stalemate with hundreds or more people trapped- because they cannot go back and take another route- what they did in the past, for whatever reason will have defined their present predicament.
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
These sorry people will eat up our resources- they themselves will be unable to work, but they will need to be constantly monitored and fed, they will need to draw on legal and social support which might otherwise be better servicing others. We will, in one stroke of Priti Patel’s poisoned pen, be creating a community of the dispossessed, despised and rejected whose numbers can only increase and who cannot go anywhere else. And, even if we can finally be rid of a handful of them, we will be sending back those few individuals who have learnt to hate us and to hate our unfair, selfish and egregiously dishonest system.
We can already see the fruits of this proposal in M Barnier’s comments today. We have dared to suggest the unspeakable and rip out the ethical bedrock that supports our society and literally repairs the world in Chasidic thought (תיקון עולם), the principle of hesed (חֶסֶד) or “loving kindness”, the principle that allows a person to speak and plead their case, however they came to be here. Suddenly, our unprincipled proposals make it reasonable for Euope to revise the very rule book that caused such a delay in Brexit, and to be done by the man responsible for that delay. I am flabberghasted, therefore, perhaps more by Barnier’s Chutzpah than by Priti Patel’s contempt for the history and for the traditions of hospitality that we have nursed as a civilized country for centuries.
Barnier started with the reasonable proposition that “There are links between immigration flows and terrorist networks which try to infiltrate them,” but he went on to parallel Patel and identify immigration as a “threat to French society”. His solution is not so different to Patel’s- his pause of 3-5 years simply makes the stranded and dispossessed wait on the french border. Patel at least locks them down in middle england. But it is essentially the same message and it is horrifying: whole communities in stagnation -waiting for help that may never come.
Barnier says, “We need to introduce a moratorium on immigration. We need to take time to evaluate, check and if necessary, change our immigration policies.” The language might to be one of caution while Patel’s is one of contempt but it is the same message.
The FT rightly judges Barnier’s rhetoric to be the sort of stuff that came too late- had he been saying this only a few years’ ago, Brexit may never have happened. It makes Britain’s decision to leave Europe look prescient at best.
But it is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of civilization. We need to change the home office culture of mistrust or even distrust, of open hostility and of quotas. People are not figures in a spreadsheet. People are our potential and our hope for a better tomorrow. They must tell their own story and we must recognise that most stories do not have a neat beginning, middle and end. Most stories, bluntly, are not written for the Home office bureaucrats.
Cruel and Time-wasting
Both the positions adopted by Patel and by Barner are insensitive and possibly hypocritcal but most importantly, they are are cruel and timewasting-and I think the message of Patel’s law in the Queen’s speech is the harder of the two to swallow- for it has already set an example. Patel is the parent to Barnier’s child- her law is both timewasting and dishonest because she proposes something that can never work in practice; it is dishonest, moreover, because it ignores rules we helped to write and cruel because it ignores the circumstances of the individual and shows contempt for human dignity. Both will inevitably create a backlog of misery that future generations will have to sort out. We should not be leaving our children an asylum mess.
Today it was announced that the Circle was not being re-commissioned by Channel 4.
I was telephoned by the PR firm that manages the Circle in the UK shortly before the news was made public. I was a little surprised for a number of reasons- firstly, I had just made a request of the PR firm for the third week running to interview some of the cast from season 2 USA which seems to have drawn a blank and, secondly, because I had learnt that Channel 4 had actually recommissoned the show nearly 4 weeks ago. Maybe, that claim about recommissioning was a ruse, as I was due the following day, to have a lengthy chat with the Circle executive producers – and one of the things that turned out to be for discussion was a proposal that I might be involved in “production development” for future seasons. This was after I have been fairly outspoken about my disliking the darker tone of season 3 and the twists and tricks employed by production. I was also dismayed by the level of nastiness voiced on social media and continue to have concerns about the wider issue of the treatment and care of Reality TV participants, an issue that I feel needs to be addressed by the Secretary of state for Digital, Cultural media and Sport, Oliver Dowden. Accordingly, I asked the studio Execs to join me in approaching the Secretary of State.
The message today suggests, therefore, that Channel 4 have either changed their mind or that I was misled. There is another message tucked away too- which is that the studio are in negotiations to take the whole show over to Netflix.
Netflix already screen the international versions of the Circle that are filming at 1 Adephi warf, Salford. But I hear the big circle sign that has hitherto adorned the building, has now been removed and the flats have been put up for sale.
“The Circle has been a huge hit for young audiences and has grown successively over three seasons on Channel 4, consistently outperforming slot averages,” a statement read, describing the show as “innovative”.
“In much the same way as when we originally commissioned The Circle, Channel 4 has a responsibility to continually look at how we reinvent and create space for new ideas, and so we have decided not to commission the show for a fourth season. We’d like to thank Studio Lambert, Motion and all those involved for The Circle’s huge success over the last three series.”
The events that led to the statement from Channel 4 may remain confused. It is, after all, in no one’s interest that the exact chronology or the reasoning is made public. However, it is worth examining what Channel 4 are claiming- that they must “continually look at how we reinvent and create space for new ideas”, and yet, at the same point, they have just broadcast seson 8 of “Naked attraction” and are on God-knows what season of “Gogglebox” and “three/Four in a bed”, all series made by Studio Lambert. So, to cancel the Circle after only 3 seasons because Channel 4 wants to “encourage greater innovation” makes very little sense.
Others have already asked whether Reality TV is deceitful. The assumption is clear, that most viewers who watch this stuff know it to be staged, heavily edited, probably scripted in some form and certainly contrived. However, we have been trained by years of cinema and TV production to “willingly suspend disbelief” and what fascinates me is the range and scope of that suspension and how production companies have taken advantage of that. Indeed, whether there is danger in that.
While we know that “Star Wars”, for example, is fiction and wholly contrived, yet we can trick ourselves, for the duration of the show, into believing it is real, Reality TV is purporting to be real, and claims to use Real people in its presentation. It is harder for the audience to say “enough is enough”. It is harder to define what is true and what is not. This might be a special effect that goes completely unnoticed and unchallenged because we are told that the real “deceit” lies elsewhere. Because we are bewitched, charmed, dazzled by the words we are given to describe what it is we are watching, what it is we are welcoming into our home when we switch on the TV.
Reality TV might be such a spectacular “magic show”, such a superb sleight of hand that we are not even sure we have been tricked. The smoke and mirrors is utterly convincing. If we were in the 17th century, we would say we were mesmerized. It is, as was said of Mesmer, our own choice (“nothing comes from the magnetizer; everything comes from the subject and takes place in his imagination”), but the effect is remarkable. We are willing participants in a global deception. We are as “mesmerised” as were the prisoners in the cave and as reluctant as they were to identify what the deceit may be- but we will get to that and to the issue that accompanies it- Plato’s recommendation that a good city practices censorship.
First, we need to break down the trick and locate the artifice. This may take some time and I hope you will allow me a few attempts in the process. (I welcome feedback)
With Reality TV, much of the trick lies in setting up the conceit. The way the show is described is such a distraction in itself that maybe we never see where the real magic is taking place. I find the whole thing frustrating because, just as there is in the magic of David Copperfield or of Penn and Teller, David Blaine and Derren Brown, there is genuine art at work in the construction of these Reality TV shows, but the level of “promotion” and secrecy means that much of what is constructed goes without applause and the people who put in the hard work are never congratulated or praised for what they have achieved.
The language that is used is my starting point to try to untangle this web.
When considering what Reality Tv may be, there are a number of expressions, for example, that defiantly recur. Some of these are peddled by self-serving institutions- the production companies, agents and managers as well as the performers’ union, Equity. I will instace a few of these and suggest what they might actually mean.
Reality Tv shows are a “game show”. This is a repeated claim that is demonstrably untrue. A “game show” would be independently monitored and properly regulated. It would be fair and transparent. Many Reality TV shows are blatantly unfair and few admit any independent scrutiny.
Reality Tv casts are “contestants”. This develops the game show theme but also establishes that the cast as “ordinary people”, not professionals and certainly not performers. While this compounds the illusion that what we see is “real, it also means that they do not need to be represented by Equity, and that any of the rules pertaining to usual TV performance do not apply. This allows for insane and extended hours of filming, often at night.
Reality TV participants are “enjoying” themselves. This is a sort of “holiday”. This claim, often peddled, allows producers to claim that the participants were not working and therefore do not need to be paid. They might receive a “displacement fee” or prize money, but they do not get paid a recognised fee. the fee goes to the presenter who might command a massive payout for what appears realitively little input. The presenter, a recognised face, validates the show and ensures that it is the show and not individual participants the audience remembers.
Dealing with fame and disappointment: this is a routine discussion- that those who complain have a problem with fame. In my personal observation, it is not fame but manipulation by the producer’s agents before, during and after the show that causes the bigger problems. That manipulation can take many forms but boils down to continued, often unreasonable but certainly unforeseen control. As most participants have not got professional support or representation, it is little wonder they are open to protracted manipulation in this way.
Participants “knew what they were signing up to”. Often, this is not the case, but, equally, many participants did not apply as the production publicity claims, but were recruited. In my own case, this happened very fast. I was sworn to secrecy and, therefore, was unable to seek real advice from anyone who knew what these shows were about before I went on the Circle.
Reality TV is often disingenuous about facts- eventually, the truth comes out but it takes time. As in the secret service- there are actually few genuine secrets so it is a matter of finding the magazines and the articles that spill the beans- and putting them together. In the case of “the Circle”, most of the “secrets of the show” have been shared by the producers in a series of articles each targeted at a different audience. There are also a number of podcasts and broadcasts by former participants who feel it is in the public interest to come clean. Put together, therefore, there is little that is genuinely hidden.
However, there is a bigger issue about whether the show itself and its sister shows across the Reality TV genre are promoting a wider lie. I believe, for instance, that “the Circle” was a magnificent Gettier problem– in other words, an example of a “justified true belief” that is, nevertheless, based on a deception. We are also touching on what Plato dealt with when he discussed the allegory of the cave in “the Republic”- the perception of an illusion which we mistake for reality. In the cave, there are puppeteers who control the deception just as producers and the “Voice of God” manage the activities of the performers on Reality TV. But, in the case of Reality TV, there is a second level of deception because it is not just the performers who are deceived- it is also the audience at home that are now the prisoners locked into a madness- or better still a magic because they are bewitched by the shadows on the wall and insist that what they are witnessing is demonstrably real. It is engaging. It is enjoyable. The characters on screen are making genuine decisions. They must be held responsible for their actions. Hence the social media hate mail and all the nonsense that follows.
It is apparently real, people appear to be making genuine decisions on screen over a period of a month or so, but if it were genuinely real it would be dull. We willingly suspend disbelief, we willingly accept the artifice and the management in order to be amused or distracted.
This would be good enough if that is as far as it went, but it has the power, the potential and, recently, has demonstrated that it has the will to undermine our moral values- think of the trailer for teh most recent series of “the Circle” –what would you loose to win.
It is promoting values that were once vilified as sinful. It promotes egotism and hedonism as postive, it rewards deceit. It salutes greed and assumes this is a norm.
Is this in itself wrong?
There are a variety of falsehoods. The first is the outright and constructed lie. The second is the unintentional mistake – an untruth at best, and the third is fantasy. But there is another way of looking at the problem and that is to ask about the degree of damage or harm caused.
We live in a society predicated on deceit. Accepting a constructed hierarchy is a form of deceit as, indeed, are the fables of Santa Clause. Even a game like chess is deceitful. Poker even more so. The legal system works on a from of deceit where one party stands against another and both construct arguments that may be riddled with known lacunae- it is for a jury to judge which account is accepted as truth. There is also the thorny issues of fiction and religious belief. All of this is discussed in Plato, particularly the error of “the poets” who present as truth something they know to be scurrilous and vapid. They present corruption or fake values as laudable because it is the behaviour of the gods, those we revere as famous, those we have set up as icons around our temples.
What Plato wishes to censor might be the very stuff we celebrate at the Oscars and the Olivier awards- the theatre of performance, but I think that is not his target. We have to remember that one of Plato’s greatest dialogues takes place at a dinner party following a drama festival and one of his companions is the comedy writer, Aristophanes. I cannot imagine, therefore, from what happens in “the Symposium” that Plato really intends to outlaw theatre. Equally, knowing what happened to his hero, Socrates, I cannot imagine that Plato has genuine religion in his sights. I think he is thinking of some other, more subtle deceit and I believe that Reality TV, in its present form, fits the bill very well. Reality TV, in its present form is something Plato would have judged pernicious.
If Plato were to be alive today, I imagine he would have identified fake news or fake advertising as a credible target as well. These go out to deceive- to suggest that something is true or beneficial when the film-maker knows very well that is not the case. Paid endorsements for something that is worthless – this is about misleading the public in a way, for instance, that political broadcasts are not. We may not agree, after all, with what Mr Farage says, but we cannot doubt that he and his followers sincerely believe it. There may be a case for denying him airtime, but it is not, I think, the same case that Plato is making. Mr Farage is not peddling deceit. And that is the issue at the heart of the debate both about Reality TV and about fake News. It is central to Plato’s plans for censorship. Plato is talking about stopping wilful deceit and stopping those who take advantage of the public. I wonder if the same issue lies at the centre of what I find worrying about Reality TV. Presenting something as true when it is not- feigning values that we do not have, displaying the sort of fake sentiments that would merit awards for an actor, but pretending this to be real, promoting a life-style that is wholly unattainable and fairly corrosive. And calling it all genuine or “Reality”.
This comes very close to the charge that Plato has against the poets- that we promote a “hero” in Achilles, a man who is flawed and whose behaviour falls short of the noble standards to which we should aspire. The problem is not that Achilles’ story is the wrong one or that it would be out of place on the stage, but that it is now used as a quasi-religion and presented as truth, or as “Reality”. The problem, I suggest, is that we cannot see that it is just a piece of Theatre. Achilles actions may influence others because those actions are presented as “real”. Achilles, in other words, is the first “influencer” and Plato thinks he should never have been awarded a blue tick.
I am inclined to agree.
I think that the values that have emerged in “Survivor” and the latest series of the UK “Circle” are detestable- I think that the message these shows now put out – that we are permitted to do all manner of wickedness in order to win- is wholly wrong. I also think that, as the Persian poet Rumi says, ماهی از سر گنده باشد نه ز دم “the fish rots from the head down”. It is a well-attested proverb in modern Turkish (Balik bashtan kokar) and Greek (Το ψάρι βρωμάει από το κεφάλι); it is also a sentiment Plato would have accepted-and it divides into two concepts: 1) that wickedness is linked to power and 2) that a good person does good deeds and conversely a bad person does and encourages bad deeds… We can judge people by what they do and we can trace the source of their actions. A bad leader not only leads badly but also behaves badly. That is the lesson we can learn from the histpory books in the bible and from the great plays of Shakespeare- In this case, we know the message is wrong (“what would you loose to win”) because the production companies also mistreat the performers. Wrong-doing, in other words, is literally woven into the narrative by wrong-doers. Wrong-doing is encouraged by production. And we, the audience, are also are caught in a spider’s web of deceit and nastiness and may be encouraged ourselves to imitate the show and participate in the spirit of wrong-doing. So, when a participant on at TV Reality programme says or does something suspect, we should look to the production company and hold it accountable. We should certainly not assume that what is said are the words of the character we see on the screen.
Of course, all this grim analysis does not mean that good cannot come from bad. It can. And equally, just bcause a performer on a TV show says something nasty does not mean they are bad, or even that the production company is wholly corrupt. It simply means the values that are being promoted are deeply worrying and have the potential to cause harm. More than that, we do not know how these seeds of wickedness will manifest. Certainly, they lead to misery and self-destruction – this can take years to arise but I would certainly hold that the recent death of Nikki Grahame is linked to her first appearance on “Big Brother” and to the way that particular show exploited her anorexia. But equally, at this stage, it is difficult to predict the impact that shows like “Survivor” and “Circle 3” might now have on the wider public. They send out a signal that greed is acceptable and that makes me anxious not just for today but for the future.
So much for the negative.
At the same time, these shows hold a mirror to the values we ouselves promote and they seem to me to be a way to record some of the things we consider important in our lives today. Reality TV has taken on the role that was played by soap opera in the 1980s and 1990s but with this caveat- that Reality TV, by the way it is promoted today, has the chance to stimulate more of the worse behaviour it both portrays and encourages. It recalls the language of Homer- this is how the gods behave, this is how heroes act- and why Plato felt that the poets legitimised corruption and so should be banned in a perfect society. But it goes further: Reality TV sanctions that behaviour by telling us that it is acceptable, it demonstrates it has benefits- all the way to the bank but it paints an unfiltered view of how ordinary people behave. This, it says, is normal. This is Reality! This is acceptable.
This is the lie, and it must be firmly challenged. If Reality TV cannot clean up its act or if our Governments continue to turn a blind eye because of the revenue these powerful companies bring in, then we must consider other options and we must also hold those who support them to account for the misery and death that Reality TV brings with it.
In response to Jack below, there are various forms of scripted show. I certainly was unaware of any script while I was on “the Circle”, but it seems to me, particularly from looking at some of the language used on recent shows that there is vocabulary and story arcs that seem to be comon and suggest a format if not a script. As we can be prompted, encouraged and on occasion, I am assured (though I do not believe I was ever fed lines to say), fed lines to say by the “Voice of God”, I think it is probable that various scripts lay underneath each day’s filming. A good example of this sort of scructire might be a page from an MTV show called “Geordie Shore” which certainly suggests that any spontanety is “structured”. The union Equity makes a distinction between what it calls “scripted reality production” and “a game show”- it apparently represents performers from the former though not the latter. It is difficult, of course, to ascertain which shows qualify.
There are also, certainly scenes that are reshot. I am not sure whether this qualifies as performance or reality. Equity was clear in a recent letter that this is no element of “performace” in a “game show”. I wonder in that case whether scenes of me doing Greek dancing in the kitchen qualify as part of the said “Game Show”. I am inclined to think not though arguably scenes of all cast memners dancing during the Oktobest fest may well qualify as a part of teh “Game Show”. It is very debateable and it is disturbing that unions, management and production pick up such charged and dismissive language.
In response to SamB, I agree wholeheartedly and it is shameful both of the TUC and of (British) Equity with whom I have been discussing this matter for a year, that no proposals have been forthcoming. If someone is working, they are entitled in principle to union representation but in this case, none is possible, though many of the runners, and production staff are represented by BECTU as was clear when the Guardian/ BBC reported about incidents of bullying in Studio Lambert over “Gogglebox” and “the Circle”.
This is the Statement BECTU put out in response at the time:
It is also signifiant regarding union representation that the General secretary of Equity, Paul Fleming, insists on using the terms “Game show”and “contestant” as well as isolating the term “performance”. This is what he apparently said on 27/04/21, ‘he received no money for a professional “performance”, and contestants were selected from members of the public, not from professional talent.’ I would dispute his inverted commas as well as his Oxford/Harvard comma.
Here is a copy of an email that I sent to STUDIO LAMBERT. I have removed some of the names. I marked this “strictly confidential” but in reply, it is clear that the studio execs decided to circulate the email. I see no reason, therefore, to continue to keep this confidential. However, I have obliterated the names.
From: Tim Wilson Sent: Saturday, March 28, 2020 12:01:53 PM To: XXX Subject: summary of what we discussed
Just to make it very clear what we discussed today. Much of what I said, I had also said to YYYy and to BBB so, at this stage, I am really repeating myself.
The issues with UNUM fully expose the inadequacy of the companies you have used and you relied on to subcontract the aftercare of and to the Circle participants. I have heard many complaints and, at the same time, I have done my best to encourage others not to put these complaints into podcasts or live broadcasts however angry they may be. They are angry and so am I. It is astonishing and shameful that in such a small group of people, you have managed to elicit such ire. If it were one person with issues, that might be dismissed, but this is many.
This is a serious failing.
The issues about UNUM make worrying reading but the fact that Studio Lambert and UNUM continue, this week, to “discuss this” and that, in the meantime, UNUM cannot be bothered to address my last email of 20th March is, I find, infuriating.
The cavalier approach of UNUM is one thing, but the way in which, even when a serious breach was noted in January, you contrived to paper over the cracks, makes me all the more suspicious of the activities also of X PR.
This is not a personal atteck on X PR at all. I am quite sure that X PR was acting in line with the approach of other agencies of its ilk, and I attach no personal blame to what they did. Indeed, they did it very effectively. But that does not make it right.
I spoke to CXX a few times of my concerns about the way X PR was handling me, and I know others also expressed concern. Some have completely walked away from the care package you offered and you must ask why.
A number of companies have since approached me directly to complain that they had contacted X PR to ask for my services and that I never heard about this at the time. This includes paid Podcasts.
I passed on all requests that came to my email tray directly to X PR as advised. Of these, few went ahead. The election blind date, for example, was completely scuppered. I was made to feel anxious about my participation in it, I was told X PR was discussing it at a high level, I was told that LXX was discusssing it with Stephen Lambert. When I eventually called the production company, myself, however, and spoke to the man who had written to me originally, he complained that no one had been in contact, that there was only one more show lined up and that he was disappointed that I had not, in fact, responded. So much for your contact and so much for my reputation!
X PR had said that, instead of the Election Blind date on BBC 1, Ch 4 had wanted me for their planned alternative election broadcast. Again, I finally spoke to a runner on this show who knew nothing about my involvement in the alternative election broadcast and speedily got me into the audience. X PR took hold of the situation when I told them at this point, apparently engineered a chance for questions to be asked (one of which took place) and adding a trip to The Nativity and accommodation (they fouled up about timings and, in fact, I had very little chance to rest because I did not know there was an extension on check-out time).
In our first meeting with X PR, I was asked what 3 things I would like. I explained that these were (1) an appearance in Panto, (2) a ticket for Mary Poppins and (3) a book-deal to write about the reality tv phenomenon. Mary Poppins took place on the same night as your CH 4 party in Manchester, yet it was only in the week before that, that I was told there was to be no option for Mary poppins because of the party. Oddly, I knew about your party independently and in advance of this admission by X PR. I had suggested, therefore, a ticket to a preview or some other option but, despite the bluster, actually nothing happened at all. The panto options that were discussed – Palladium, Wimbledon, Richmond, seemed absurdly grand and, of course, nothing happened. (I know that Cambridge might have been interested but they had not been approached). It is odd given that so many of the Pantos in the UK are centrally-organised through Qdos so frankly, in October, I do not believe this would have been impossible to arrange. The book, incidentally, was ignored at that point. I know other contestants were not only asked what they wanted but actively teased with suggestions, all of which came to nothing. It is wholly wrong to ramp up people’s expactations in this way when you have no intention of making good, or you cannot.
I was wheeled in to see your accountant. I asked one specific question about tax and whether I should be paid into my company or directly to my own account. I got no answer and had to chase this up. But when he finally responded, I was offered the option of paying for his advice and taking on your accountant privately. This is absurd and just time-wasting and it beggars the question about what exactly he was doing in the first place. It appears to be window-dressing. By the time this took place, though, you had paid me into my personal account and I suspect I will now be heavily taxed- I do not know at the moment, but the question is moot because after May, I face probable penury. I cannot return to teach in Russia, partly because of Coronavirus, but also because I was described as gay in the programme. I could not have known when I did the Circle that Russia would significantly sharpen its own version of clause 28 to impose prison sanctions on anyone who might be seen to promote a gay agenda in education. This is something I can take on the chin and will probably not last, but I expected to gather more work, not less from TV in the meantime. I also brought this matter to your attention. When combined with the loss of BBC revenue, however, that has been a significant blow.
I was told that Studio Lambert was extending my contract. This terminology was actually wrong and needed clarification some week’s later. In fact, you were “optioning me”. I was happy to be optioned and for you to develop something around me. Indeed, I much enjoyed the meetings with your team, but the promised pilot (with what I was repeatedly told by CXX would be “real contestants invited from the street”) did not really take place. The touted grandeur of the money CXX said you would be spending on this pilot and the effort involved on my behalf, sadly, never materialised. You had already shot the series in the US by that time. To make it clear that I was now an afterthought, your team did not even come back to me with feedback after the shoot. I was obliged to badger them some 7 weeks’ afterwards and the majority of our ensuring discussion was about a project of mine- I think we spoke of the HXXX for about ten minutes. Apparently, you thought I had performed well, for which many thanks. The interesting discussion with TXX and NXX was superseded by Coronavirus, of course. I was also told that the newly installed Channel 4 arts man might be interested in the HXXX show, wanted to see the American version first and had not even thought about talent yet. This does not command much confidence and flies in the face of the claim that you were developing something for or with me. I hope you understand how the process might appear horrendous- the lack of feedback, the changes in what is proposed and what is actually offered as well as the sense that I am being manipulated which makes me feel very uncertain about my own ability and again, whether it is appropriate to turn to those I have been told to trust. One of these was X PR. One of these was your care system. Neither work effectively and certainly did not work for me or in my favour.
I wanted an agent because I wanted to know there was someone outside the system who understood the business who was working for my interests and on whom I could rely. I would willingly have paid for that. Hence, incidentally, an agent who is a “friend” of X PR would never have been my first choice. And I wanted this because I felt increasingly anxious that I was being pushed around, manipulated. That feeling has never changed. And I am not alone in feeling like this.
I asked for an agent and X PR firstly said (1) I was not allowed one; then explained (2) that my introduction to Studio Lambert was more than any agent could reasonably arrange and that, anyway (3), if I had an independent agent, I would have to pay an agent commission- and (4) X PR would do the job freely. I persisted and they said that (5) Stephen had asked them specifically to act as my agent. I went along with this until it was clear to me that X PR were stretched to cover the basic PR needs of the rest of the contestants. By this point, incidentally, there was alot of disquiet. I asked again about agents and was promised a list by CXX, which in fact I was never given. It was promised on multiple occasions.
Let me be clear about this: when I ask a question and get three or four differing answers, I am afraid I think it looks odd. It might even look disingenuous.
At this point, I was introduced to an agent in Curtis Brown. We had a very encouraging meeting, which she followed up with a call to Tim H. Three things took place quickly: she confirmed (a) that Studio lambert were actively developing something for me and (b) that she did not have the time to take me on. She also said (c) that another agent at Curtis Brown, who knew X PR, was interested in taking me on.
I was obliged to go to Vanessa, thereafter, with LXX and KXX, both from X PR, in tow. During the interview, LXX interrupted 3 times to stress that I expected more opportunities than I had been given. I thought this very odd. We mentioned my book proposal and LXX observed that Studio Lambert would not like this. This is some 3 months’ after I had originally mentioned the book idea. So, it was not suprising to me that, having spoken to LXX, and despite having suggested she might like to take me on, she, too, found she had too much work. I was left, therefore, by Christmas without an agent and it was quite clear, by this time, that P PR were not acting as my agent, whatever had been arranged or suggested by Stephen, throughout this period or into the future.
I should add that, by this point, I was in a difficult position. Again, I believe this is a result of the circle. Your methodology follows very precise methodology developed by the British and Israeli armies to handle captives and specifically to put them in stress conditions to train them to resist torture. It is often used as a prelude to torture as it actively conditions the captive to be trusting. My partner, who is himself a torture victim, pointed this out to me recently and that I had previously done some research about this in the aftermath of his torture; indeed, it seems correct. Most of us, interestingly, have had issues with trust since coming out of the circle. For myself, I trusted anyone and anything for months’ after leaving the manchester site. This is not to suggest the circle or Studio Lambert were engaged in anything nefarious, but it is important, going forward, that you properly brief contestants leaving the circle that this may well be an effect and they must guard against it. Equally, I am afraid it is easier to manipulate us and we are more suggestable both on camera and thereafter when we come out of the Circle. If your team, therefore, start to tease contestants with job opportunities and then do not follow through, this is wrong. If we are promised things and none of it emerges, then, of course, we feel rightly disappointed. Because we have been conditioned to trust those people around us, and certainly those endorsed directly by Studio Lambert.
I had a job for a BBC programme that should have commenced the moment I left the circle. There was no contract (there never had been contracts though I was offered one in the few days following the circle) but I had already completed two series and I was expected to do the third. It would have taken up at least three months’ very hard work. I was anxious about whether this conflicted with the terms of your contract and both CXX and X PR assured me they would take legal advice for me and also speak to Stephen. I had an offer from another agency who were prepared to give me advice on a temporary basis about this, but CXX insisted I was in safe hands with your team. A few days’ later, I received an email from the BBC company executive saying that he was sorry to hear that I was unable to do his show. I had, in fact, not said I could not do the show, and I had specifically told his director that I was looking to see how I could do it. In the event, they hired a company to mimic my style and to do so badly: it damages the reutation I have worked years to build up. I asked both X PR and CXX what had been discussed with your legal team and they simply said that it had been my decison. The same terms were used by X PR when I asked about the progress of the BBC election blind date. I looked to your team for support but what I increasingly felt I was getting was manipulation and possibly even bullying. When I expressed concerns to CXX in confidence about this, they were relayed directly to X PR and my relationship thereafter seemed to lurch further into misery.
I must stress again that I like all the individuals involved and have consistently done my best to be supportive of each of them. I do not think anyone has targetted me maliciously or would have done so. However, I think there is an industry-wide expectation that, in the 6 months’ following a show, your team should act in this way: I do not understand the reasons and I do not accept the principle of “exclusivity” that you have enforced on me – especially because, in the absence of your actually developing a show with me, you have offered me nothing. A lot of time has been wasted. This is compounded by the unforeseen advent of Coronavirus which extends the time-period when I have been unable to take up work. With proper representation, I could already have been forging ahead and to your credit.
It seems to me, though, that X PR was stretched beyond breaking point during their tenure after the show. One of the team, indeed, quit to have a baby. What offers were made in October could easily be overlooked by December, so I understand the constraints and I am sympathetic to them. However, in the process, (a) I have neither been given the opportunities that I should have had, (b) I have not had the agency advice and professional support that I needed and (c) I have trusted people who were not in a position to be trusted, however sweet and positive they may have appeared. X PR were, in short, making the best of a bad situation. But I should not be the fall-guy for their issues nor should you expect them to do more than they possibly could manage.
What is most striking is that this is not an instance of a single misjudgement about the companies to whom you subcontract- it is doubled. The clear evidence of UNUM’s demonstrable failure makes my concerns about X PR all the more credible. The fact that concerns about both UNUM and X PR had been voiced repeatedly to your care team makes this significantly most important. Indeed, you continue to endorse shoddy behaviour by pandering to UNUM’s desultory and tardy “investigation”. The facts are clear enough- they failed in January- you called them out. They failed in March and you have called them out. How often and how much evidence do you need to have and how much damage have they already done? MXXX wrote to me to say that, despite their failings, I should, nevertheless, take up their option of counselling. That would not be appropriate, particularly as they seem incapable of accepting responsibility for they actions or following up to apologise to the others they have hurt and hurt badly. So, as with the illusory agent that X PR claimed to be, so, too, with an illusory care package. This is not a standard of aftercare that is appropriate and that you should ever endorse. I feel personally let-down, bullied and humiliated.
This sort of letter should never have to be written. But your system assumes I am the problem and that I can be managed, fixed, counselled. I think the problem lies with the quality of services you have chosen to represent you and, for whatever reason, it has failed. I think you have looked around the industry for a lead on how others have done the job and you have followed their example. Really, you are big enough to lead from the front and to change the way things are done. You do not want to be yet another company that offers entertainment at the expense of the well-being of the people you have used as talent. I know people in your company- I even taught one of you and you are better than that. Now is the time to reflect and to change the way things are done.
Finally, your contract specifies a need for signatures and deals with what is and what is not agreed about visual content screened by you. I was very clear about your not using my partner, NXXX, on screen. That you chose to do so against my expressed and repeated wishes and when I had specifically organised others to be filmed in the event that youever wanted a recorded message, is very disturbing indeed. The contract was between Studio Lambert and me and not between Studio Lambert and NXXX. NXXX is a vulnerable individual and a torture-victim. Whether you got his assent or not really does not matter; how you got it does not matter. You never got mine. I agreed to the project when it was first presented to me on the grounds that I was told at the outset that I would have pyschological support for nearly 2 years for myself and my partner. This was a significant issue as I have long-hoped to get NXXX’s post traumatic stress disorder properly addressed. I repeat: he is a demonstrably vulnerable individual. The moment the show was over, however, his contact with Studio Lambert stopped and I was pretty-well mocked for thinking that it would ever have continued. Indeed, there was nothing written down to suggest it would.
I had been told when I agreed to appear that your head-hunter was going to make me a “star”. I’m not sure that happened either.
Please remember, though, that I never approached you to be on the Circle. You approached me. But you cannot simply say whatever you think your contestants want to hear to persuade them to do what you wish. We might remember what is said and take it seriously.
I have repeatedly said that I remain loyal to Studio Lambert and that I support the Circle and the wider remit of your studio. Please note that this remains the case. I hope, therefore, in this long email, you will be aware that I have tried to make allowance for everyone involved, maybe with the exception of UNUM (and even there, I tried until they failed to respond to my last letter).
Despite my loyalty, however, I remain disappointed by the behaviour of a number of people- I wrote personal handwritten letters to a few people and some of these letters were passed on (or not) by X PR. Certainly, few of them sent any replies or even acknowled receipt. Maybe this is the tone of the new century, but I find it sad and discourteous.
I would like to see changes and I would like to play a part in effecting those changes in your studio if you will let me. I would not like to learn that you have done to others what you have done to me and I know from talking to people in The US series that they are received significantly more professional and focused support than anything we have ever received. This again suggests the studio is not at fault- the failings lie in the people to whom you have delegated responsibility. This issue of care is not rocket science- it is common decency. But there has been a breakdown in, and failure of duty of care.
I hope this is clear and I hope this sums up what we talked about this morning, or, at any rate, some element of my diatribe.
It was also lovely to hear laughter in the background- I love the sound of children and it focuses our minds a bit – all this stuff is just stuff, isn’t it? But if we get it right, it is easy for everyone. It we get it wrong, it is simply exploitative and nasty and it is not something we can really be proud of. I am interested in our heritage- and how we pass the best things we have to the next generation. I am intensely proud of my involvement in the circle and I am very protective of it. I enjoyed it and I believe that communicated. What has gone on since, I hope, will be established as a series of errors and I trust there will be efforts now to wholly correct these.
I am so sorry to have written at such length but I wanted to fully address all the things I spoke about this morning and that I had also spoken about to CXX, EXXX and to MXXX. Please compare notes if you wish and feel free to use this as a document for wider discussion in the Studio.
On 3 Apr 2020, at 17:00, Tim Harcourt wrote:
Thank you for your email and in particular for your feedback on UNUM. This has been addressed.
We have looked into all the other issues you bring up, including your time within and post the Circle, your relationship with X PR and our aftercare process. We are satisfied that the welfare plan we have in place before, during and after the Circle has been adhered to and shared with you at all stages. Naturally we are always open to improving elements of this plan and therefore we will share the contents of your email with the appropriate people within the company.
We loved having you play the Circle and, if we are lucky enough to have a third series, we would love to talk to you about potential opportunities to be involved.
A LETTER TO THE NEW MINISTER OF CULTURE:
16th September 2021
The Rt Hon Nadine Dorries, MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Square, London SW1A 2BQ
Congratulations on your new appointment. I wrote a number of times to your predecessor with suggestions that the DCMS committee looking into Reality TV that was suspended before it had completed its job, should be reassembled. It had taken testimony from only 4 Reality TV performers from a total of two shows. This is not a comprehensive investigation.
The OFCOM recommendations, as you are aware, do little more than confirm industry practice and perpetuate self-regulation that has led to numerous suicides and stress. I know you are familiar with the Reality TV genre. I was myself subject to considerable stress after being invited to take part in a Channel 4 show, “The Circle”. I cannot fault my treatment during the run of the programme but I was not prepared for the level of manipulation that followed this show. My experience and, having talked to many ex-Reality TV starts who share my concerns, has nothing to do with the routinely cited struggle with fame and everything to do with an abuse of power by production. In addition, the care package on offer was unavailable to at least two of us who sought help.
As the OFCOM recommendations were anticipated by the time I took part in the Circle, the guidance now promoted by OFCOM was exactly what was on offer, at least on paper, to those performers who took part in series 2 of the Circle.
It was and remains inadequate.
Two weeks’ ago, I was diagnosed with serious bowel cancer and I go in for surgery on 24th September. I am told that stress is a contributing factor so maybe, even if I survive, I can regard myself as yet another Reality TV casualty.
I do not want it to end there. I drew up a plan for better legislation, which I enclose with this letter. It uses bodies already set up and active in entertainment including the union Equity, itself amalgamated in the 1960s with the earlier Variety Artistes’ Federation, a group committed to supporting any performer, whatever their background or training. I believe my proposal would provide a better protection for performers while also allowing production companies to get on with what they do best.
I beg for an appointment to discuss this issue formally with you in person when I have successfully come out of hospital.
With best wishes again on your appointment,
Professor Tim Wilson
Mission statement and draft legislation
There are two aspects to reality tv that must be questioned if we are to accept that this is to be a safe form of entertainment that will continue to dominate our tv schedules for the foreseeable future.
I believe studios must work together with the Government to come up with a fully supported and coherent model to go forward. The media regularly features stories about mental health issues linked to Reality TV production, and if we are to save this genre for the future, we must work harder to ensure it is a more positive experience for all participants.
The two issues:
Issue ONE) Contestants’ physical and mental pain is the subject of mass entertainment, both during, and after their appearance on such shows. This merits an ongoing obligation by the Production Company to the participants and their families.
Issue TWO) Contestants are placed under contracts that bind them to studios for a considerable time after broadcast. Participants need independent professional support and guidance.
i) A revised code has been published to deal with these issues
There are 2 amendments to Section 7 (fairness) of the current Broadcasting Code (Fairness and Privacy) and one amendment to section 2 (Harm and Offence).
obtaining informed consent (7.3)
protecting “vulnerable people” (7.15)
It is noted in both cases that the length of and nature of participation is significant in determining what action should be taken.
This builds what Ofcom already provides: “protection for members of the public from the inclusion in such services of offensive and harmful material” (319(2) of the Communications Act 2003(“the 2003 Act”)
This updates 107 of the Broadcasting Act 1996 which regulates against “unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes and unwarranted infringements of privacy”
The revised Ofcom code takes action about the public perception of Reality TV and responds to complaints about emotional manipulation, but it is unclear where the responsibility lies should viewers, participants or their families suffer serious stress after production is finished. The impact of Reality TV goes beyond the immediate participants.
The code, as it stands, is focused on broadcast product and should look beyond this. Much happens in Reality TV production that is never broadcast on television and broadcast content can stimulate public abuse. The production environment is as important as the production broadcast.
ii) The revised code fails to identify the difference between participation in a news report or incidental/ one-off appearance in a game show and participation in an extended Reality TV show like “Big Brother”, “Love Island” and “the Circle” which involve a period of enforced confinement (even if the participant is only briefly shown on screen).
It is unrealistic equally to expect such checks to be made of the public at the scene of a major tragedy, terror incident or casual vox pop.
Reality TV has become a gladiatorial display where entertainment can be at the expense of a contestant’s health and wellbeing. This is also an industry that can effectively enslave its performers. They become the property of the studio and are bargained, packaged, paraded or suppressed at the whim of a producer. There seems to be no protection on offer.
Contestants have often been lured into the show with stories of glamour and opportunity. There is no training and no support. Casting directors ramp up expectations and hopes.
A symbiotic relationship between producers, casting agents and the media has ensured this goes unchallenged. When there is a crisis, there are three routine responses:
The contestant cannot deal with fame
They cannot deal with the loss of fame
They knew what the show was about, and they participated willingly
I will question all three of these responses.
My paper offers three issues
The focus of OFCOM report & recommendations (April 2020)
Issue Two: Contracts, and Proposals
Issue Three: Agent and Union representation must be on offer before participation
Issue One: The focus of OFCOM report & recommendations (April 2020)
The first issue, being physical and mental pain, is the one that has been the focus of attention for the last 20 years, and is also the focus of OFCOM and government enquiries into flashpoints like the recent Jeremy Kyle show. The number of suicides connected to the Reality TV phenomenon is disturbing, as also the level of public abuse arising from a perception determined by edition and presentation is worrying. At its worst, Reality TV makes entertainment out of potential abuse and normalises that abuse.
Even successful formats and successful contestants express regret about being on the show and talk about the stress and poor mental health they have suffered since. 
This is the main issue the public witnesses and it has, therefore, drawn most attention. The solution proposed is a system of self-regulation and psychological care before, during and after the show. It is clear from reports that this care is often compromised, and the same team of counsellors and psychologists are also used to help the casting process of contestants, with or without either the contestants or the pyschologists’ informed consent.
It is therefore submitted, that to be effective, henceforth, psychological care must be wholly independent and be seen to be independent.
Psychological care cannot be the only support on offer. While British army offers injured and recovering soldiers valuable and necessary psychological support, it also offers professional training and rehabilitation.
The optics generated by the current Ofcom document are worrying
It suggests that we are engaged in a form of entertainment that either is using emotionally unstable individuals and incapable of properly identifying their problems before filming, or that the filming experience is so traumatic it creates a situation where psychological support is necessary.
It is also possible that individuals may feel they have been exploited after the TV show has been filmed.
Supportive counselling to negotiate a sudden transition into a new career would be efficacious and welcome, but what is currently on offer is presented as support for crisis, and a very necessary support. This sends a very worrying signal about the health of the industry itself. Moreover, it demonstrates a failure to provide for those who may only be beginning their mental health journey, and such help, therefore, comes too late.
It should (a) not be the proviso that “only people in crisis” receive support, as that is the minority outcome and (b) it should not negate other mental and physical struggles that contests go through before and after the show. There is more than one form of “valid” struggle, and it is well-known that earlier interaction with such support systems is more effective.
My own experience of Care
Though I believe the intentions were good, I know that the effort to help with the vulnerability we felt after “the Circle” went wrong. Although it has not been an easy journey for me, I am aware that others have had a much harder time, and I am very mindful that I was not the only casualty.
My concerns were not particularly raised during or before filming, but I was acutely aware of a lack of support both for myself and for others in the months following broadcast. I was also frustrated to be repeatedly denied access to independent professional support.
manipulation (mind-games) during and after production
denial of an agent
lack of union representation
serious abrogation of a duty of care following broadcast/ serious failures of the care system put in place
If we do not get it right, we are asking the public to accept entertainment at the price of a performer’s health, and thus make the viewing public complicit without knowing. Ofcom have asked producers to take full responsibility for a significant and growing part of our tv scheduling. Production companies should, instead, be there simply to make a show: that is their talent. Studio Lambert had the right instinct, therefore, to delegate care, but this process should now be governed by proper legislation and proper support. If we get it right, everyone benefits.
If we get it wrong, we add to a tally of suicides and mental health problems and there will be a point when this form of popular entertainment will be judged no longer viable or ethical.
This is a world-wide phenomenon and no country has yet got this right. We have an opportunity to lead the way and protect the Industry. We have a tradition in defining legislation to protect, secure and promote better entertainment in the UK. It is already a global standard, and a standard we must continue to uphold.
Issue Two: Contracts, and Proposals
The second issue of a binding agreement is more pernicious, because it effectively enslaves people who have no knowledge of the industry. Unlike journalists and actors who may also be placed under lengthy contracts and rigid confidentiality clauses, reality tv contestants rarely have agents or access to professional advice (from lawyers experienced in very specific entertainment contracts) before signing contracts. Equally, such contestants rarely have experience of the industry before they are thrown into what is often peak-time tv scheduling. They are also rarely granted access to independent agents beyond the production studio in the period after the show has finished filming. They are rarely granted access to independent agents beyond the production studio in the period after the show has finished filming. This seems unacceptable practice.
It is worrying that contracts are sent only days before filming begins allowing little time to take proper informed advice.
I am sure an agent would have worked much harder to protect my interests and made me less exposed to exploitation. An agent should have tailored offers to my skills instead of assuming a one-size fits all approach. The link between reality tv and influencer-status on social media is not automatic.
The instance of suicide and depression in the industry is staggering.
No government should condone such an unregulated and potentially abusive form of entertainment which may often be described as exploitation.
Issue Three: Agent and Union representation must be on offer before participation
I believe there are options for moving forward, but proper care of contestants/participants in Reality TV shows must go beyond cursory (and questionably independent) psychological care. I believe people who apply to be part of, or are independently approached to be part of, a Reality TV show must have independent realistic representation within the industry. This includes also Union support should they wish. This is a minimal professional option that is offered and expected of every other form of professional entertainment in the UK. As Reality TV occupies a significant portion of our TV schedules, it is essential that it is brought properly in line with professional representation and support.
If a participant does not have proper professional representation, it should be provided, and producers should ensure that it is in place before filming begins.
Proper payment for a featured role on tv. (at the moment the rate of pay seems to be on the lower end of scale for extra work and the tv presenter of Reality TV shows often takes a sum in excess of £600,000 appearing on screen far less than the contestants)
Accreditation with, or introduction to, independent representational agency
Union representation, which may involve a discussion with Equity.
It is regrettable that Reality TV has existed without proper support for the last 20 years, and it is shameful that in the review following the Jeremy Kyle Show, proper professional support was neither considered nor recommended.
In order for this lucrative form of entertainment to continue, these suggestions need to be implemented, or tragedies will continue, and it will become unconscionable for the public to watch and enjoy such shows.
There are a variety of reality show formats
Many engage members of the public for a brief time on TV shows
Some, however, give Reality Show participants more extended tv coverage and this alone changes the nature of the engagement.
This second aspect (more Intense Reality TV) is recognized in principle in the current Ofcom code (which recognizes that the length of, and nature of participation may determine the best course of support). I believe it should better articulate the nature of support for more Intense Reality tv and to further discussion about this is the purpose of my current document.
Someone who is consistently on TV for a period of weeks and plays a major part in our TV entertainment schedule should be treated as a professional and given professional support. I will detail what I believe this should be.
At the same time, proper independent support should be provided to participants. This challenges the central core that it is the production’s direct responsibility to oversee and fund support. I wish to suggest a way in which that principle of responsibility can be supported while a guarantee of genuine independence can be established.
A number of serious issues arise from this more Intense Reality TV.
From my own experience, I can confirm that contestants on THE CIRCLE are given one day off per week (in our case, a Thursday) and are filmed all day and night. This is arguably against current legislation governing labour.
We were also paid a stipend of £75 per day, which is under the equity minimum and less than an extra generally receives for paid film work.
This was despite the fact that we had speaking roles on prime time tv
We were taking specific direction (when to dance and how to dance for example; one contestant was castigated for not dancing)
The level of control exercised by production while we were filmed on set continued for months after filming stopped.
The current Ofcom document rests on the assumption that it is a code for the participation of “members of the public” in TV shows.
The advice is commendably broad and focuses on “due care” and protection.
The document is in reference to very specific terms of reference drawn up in 2019 after the collapse of the Jeremy Kyle show
What psychological support should production companies and broadcasters provide?
Examples of best practice.
Monitoring and registering how efficacious is the duty of care.
Unfair pressure because of the design of reality shows’ format.
What is the future of this part of the industry if there is not better regulation?
There are 2 amendments to Section 7 (fairness) of the current Broadcasting Code (Fairness and Privacy) and one amendment to section 2 (Harm and Offence).
obtaining informed consent (7.3)
protecting “vulnerable people” (7.15)
It is noted in both cases that the length of and nature of participation is significant in determining what action should be taken.
Protecting audiences/ the public from harm or offence or the perception of harm. Particularly, arising from the treatment of “vulnerable people” (2.17)
Ofcom already provides: “protection for members of the public from the inclusion in such services of offensive and harmful material” (319(2) of the Communications Act 2003(“the 2003 Act”)
This updates 107 of the Broadcasting Act 1996 which regulates against “unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes and unwarranted infringements of privacy.
These are two separate issues:
Recognize that harm may be done to individuals before, during and after broadcast, and
Such harm may also be done to individuals who watch the programme or otherwise as a consequence of the programme’s production
In addressing this, the new code goes some way.
There is ambiguity, however, in the code:
Participants in Reality TV shows are also “members of the public” This is acknowledged in a footnote of the consultation document (p 7) stating that complaints can be registered from any “person who appeared, or whose voice was heard, in the programme” under 130 of the Broadcasting act 1996.
There is an argument that reality show participants (in the form of Intense Reality TV) are no longer “public” but are performers. They are also, by definition, protected by the Broadcasting act of 1996 and their families are protected by subsequent acts and modifications. The representation of such reality show participants as members of the public cuts to the heart of the matter and allows for levels of exploitation that are truly astonishing.
Government and the Production companies are reluctant to make a distinction between the two forms of reality TV. It is convenient because it allows companies to make a lot of money.
The Ofcom regulations rightly highlight public concerns about mental health and wellbeing.
Ofcom was also mindful of imposing an unnecessary burden on broadcasters and production companies, ensuring that bolder and engaging entertainment can still be produced under these guidelines.
In fact, I would argue that we should be more honest and accept that there is a duty of care and that the only way to minister this is to ensure independent support is financed by production. I have suggested that this should be a tripartite offer of union accreditation, professional representation and medical insurance. Psychiatric support can be accessed by participants through the medical insurance option.
Concerns are raised that it is important that individuals will not be put at harm as a result of their participation (2.12 Consultation 2)
More extended commitment and appearance in a longer-running Reality TV show, however, requires a more targeted approach that matches the duration of contractual agreements.
If a participant is signed to a longer-running programme and will be featured on main-time tv schedules for a number of episodes, they should be treated as a professional entertainer and afforded professional support, including access to and membership of Equity and/or BECTU. They should be recognized as professional performers and afforded professional support.
Professional support, as envisaged, should allow for psychiatric care as well as tailored professional advice from the Arts’ industry. In most cases, this should be in the form of independent theatrical Management.
This transfers the care regime from the production company to a recognized independent Care provider and insurance agency. It ensures that participants are afforded legal advice from an independent management team familiar with the Industry.
This ensures care is in place before filming begins, during filming and after filming. It also ensures that participants can assess independent career advice and support when they have finished filming.
This allows production companies and broadcasters to get on with doing what they do best and to concentrate on making content-rich and entertaining programmes.
If we do not get this right, there will be increasingly lessening public support for Reality TV in its current form, which in turn damages the industry.
 Production prompts may well determine how a performer reacts on camera, and this, in turn, may lead to broadcast something the participant regrets. See my interview with Jeff Varner, “Survivor” https://youtu.be/L-EsKaH6Yqk
 The editing “out of sequence” is surprising when this issue was what led to the creation of Studio Lambert and Stephen Lambert’s exit from RDF media. The pressure, in other words to “tell a good story” is something that, with the best intentions, a production company cannot resist. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/oct/05/bbc.tvfakery3
 There is a growing movement to boycott reality tv shows (though arguably what people say publicly and what they do privately as a “guilty pleasure” may also account for the popularity of the genre.). There may be a more negative movement against these shows should there be further linked suicides recorded.
 Reality TV is a growth industry in television and is ideally suited to filming under lockdown pressures.
 Production companies do not have medical qualifications or psychology training.
 Current practices may be challenged with contract fraud. In my case, I received a contract only a few days’ before filming began giving me little time to seek professional legal advice. The advice I got from two legal sources both overlooked significant details which would probably only have been caught by a legal practice specializing in theatrical contracts.
 Efforts should be made to avoid the impression of a restrictive covenant or non-complete clause. Such clauses should only protect the business and should only be enforced for the time-period that protects the business, so for instance until broadcast or publicity is finished. It seems irresponsible to condone the current 6-month control order that leaves participants at the mercy of the studio or production company well-after the show is aired.
 Until 1990 Equity membership was a requirement for all performance. Conversations that I have had with Equity suggest that a conversation with Simon Cowell determined the concept that Reality TV participants were not performers. This is something I contest as I was taking direction during the shoot and working on a prime time TV entertainment show for 22 episodes.
 Laura Whitmore who replaced Caroline Flack presented love island and was reportedly paid £600,000
Summary of conversation between Tim Harcourt, Toni Ireland and me (March 2021)
Wilson: Am I on Bluetooth? I shouldn’t be. These aren’t supposed to be working at the moment but. Um . Laugh. Nothing is clearly working. Oh I’m ok, jhow are you?
You’re looking wonderful. Your hair’s not piled up.
Toni: I know, it’s down today. You know
Wilson: We live for style., look I’m alone today. I’ve still got the bow tie on.
Toni: How’s bey?
Tim: He’s actually quite well. You know he’s had two heart attacks? He has medicine morning and night. And the older cat- I thought he was going to die in November or October or something, and the older cat promptly went out in sympathy and didn’t eat for 3 weeks. And got so thin, it was like looking at a sausage that has been left out in the rain. And then, you know you sort of nurse them a lot, and they both started perking up to life again: it was like looking at spring. And now Bey is almost back to himself- Though he screams blue murder I think fame went to his head. I can’t switch on- I’m surprised he’s not here actually, I can’t switch on a camera or put on the TV without him coming and sitting in front of it.
Tim: Hello TIM!
Tim Talks about dog
Wilson: Ah I’ve seen photos- he’s lovely. Gorgeous. I was just talking to Toni- I’m afraid when rather than if- when my cats die, and I think it will happen together, I’m determined to get a cat and a dog- that’s what I originally wanted: I wanted –I went to a cattery which sold me my oldest cat with ringworm which I didn’t know about and I took her home and I thought she was lovely and I took her to the Vet and the vet said “oh you mustn’t have any other animals, “ and shaved her. She looked like a sort of Ren and stimpy, one of those more recent cartoons. With a few tufts of hair at the end of the tail- she lived in my dressing gown pocket which is why she is so sort of clingy now. – for about 2 months. And before I got her I went to a dog – is it a doggery, I don’t know. Maybe that’s something you do on the M4. Anyway, I went to this dog place and I saw all these little golden retrievers, a week old, and one of them came up to me and peed all over my leg and I thought that’s the one I’ll take. And I put down quite a heafty deposit. And then went to get the cat. And was told I couldn’t have any other animals so I had to ring up the doggery and say sorry can’t have you, lost my deposit. Didn’t say why because I thought that would cause more fuss and – you know you have to get the order of events correct and eventually I got a second cat for hanim and she hated him, and its only now that they’re just about tolerating each other. She’s so old- she can’t really hiss and scratch as much as she used to. But she’s the sort of lady you would cross the road to avoid. But she loves me and that’s all that’s important and now they’ve both gone a bit silent because they get medicine morning and night and they don’t like it and now she tolerates NXXX which is something of a blessing after 17 years- Tim, I like the haircut.
Tim: Thank you. Self-administered.
Wilson: It’s slightly monastic.
Tim: I’m quite enjoying not having to managing it. Just shave it once a week- one of my boy’s is having a piano lesson.
Wilson: Don’t worry. I’m immensely proud and impressed. What’s he up to?
It would be much worse if you got him violin lessons so count your blessings.
Tim: I know, yeah. He played the drums recently. When he quits- that’s a happy day.
Wilson: NJ played the violin.
Tim: He did.
Wilson: Thankfully when I met him- when I was teaching him, I met him when he was 13,thankfully he was playing rather brilliantly then so , but his mother told me how miserable it was. For the first two years. It takes 2 years before you can produce a note that isn’t unpleasant.
Tim: Some would argue more than two years I think.
Wilson: It depends on your technique.
Tim: Not quite as nice as the piano. Thanks so much for chatting to us today, thought it would be good to touch base with you, see how you were.
Wilson: Thank you
Tim: And I know you’ve been voicing some thoughts and Ideas and we’d love to talk about them and I know you’ve got a few criticisms and we’d like to hear that.
Wilson: Well, I’ve been scrupulously careful not to criticize the cast in any way. And I think they need as much support as possible but
Toni:There’s been terrible bullying on the internet
Wilson: It’s horrible. I was heartbroken
Toni: It’s really shocked me this year. I know Towie put something out as well last night- their cast as well.
Wilson: I haven’t seen that. People are in lockdown. They’ve got nothing better to do than be nasty.
Tim: yes, I think that’s exactly what it is.
Wilson: equally one’s got to set a standard where we actually need to be encouraging niceness or kindness. At the same time, doing something exciting. I’ve been a little critical of some of the twists, but I was talking about it with Necati a few days ago –
Tim: what do you like and what do you not like?
Wilson: Oh I detest your twists. I detest them. I just think they’re demonic and I think if I had been Emma I would have resigned on the spot having to do it. It’s like looking at Milton’s satan sliding down the tree of life, purring into the camera and saying “I’ve got a new twist for you” but – the twists themselves I don’t object to
Tim: what do you think of the clone twist?
Wilson: Oh I hated it but it was compelling. I hope its come across what I’ve been saying- I really dislike this, but do watch it. So I’ve been playing both sides a little bit but it just struck me that it was very nasty. And it is one way to go- I mean Big Brother I believe went that way- I’ve not really got round to big brother yet but I’ve had a chat with Pete Bennett so I’ve had my introduction to big brother (giggle)
Toni: he was in series 7
Wilson: well, nXXX watched all these things so he would call me in to the other room and say Look at Pete! Or Nikki and I’d go in and I’d sneer a little and I’d go back to my work and now I realize that I’m plum-bang in the middle of this world,
Toni: you must watch more reality then, Tim
Wilson:The last year- I cant say I’m an aficionado because I grump away at it but it is compelling.- the thing that I would say which would please Tim is that this is like looking at Trash and trash is the stuff that makes up our history. This is the stuff that’s going to survive. Such an important part of our television output. And its been going on for long enough now that it’s really got to be looked at properly and no one’s doing it here.
Tim: Do you mean in an academic manner or a psychological manner?
Wilson: I’m not either of those. I’m completely lightweight (giggles) – no, people spend too much time looking at psychology. This has to be looked at in terms of what its doing creatively. And it think its doing something quite interesting creatively. The problem is since it started, it’s got hooked up with the idea of how do we identify it. People have said, “Oh this is a game show”, and its not a game show. It’s either a superannuated game show or its something slightly different. And I think its drama. I think you’re creating drama without telling everybody that you’re doing it. In its best form. And that’s Stanislavsky.
Tim: the reality?
Wilson: You are literally putting into practice the thing that happened down the road from where I lived in Moscow. By casting carefully- I mean you’ve got the best cast that you’ve ever had this year. Without any doubt. There’s not a weak link there.
Tim: but its not got you in it Tim
Wilson: It has me bitching from the sidelines.
Tim: that’s a bit hard, commentating.
Wilson: It doesn’t matter really does it as long as one’s stirring up interest but, I think you’ve got the best: Manrika is spectacular.
TIM: I love Manrika.
Wilson: well, I think she’s pretty but she’s got a brain as well. Tally was the weak link- until you did the twist. And then she’s defined by that twist, but I think she’s got a lot more depth to her. And that came out in adversity. There’s a lot of jumping about which means I long for Vithun and for Natalya. Natalya just does serenity naturally. Vithun sometimes looks as if he’s switching off. You just want that calm to place against all the jumping. There’s a lot of jumping.
Tim: Who do you want to win, who do you think will win.
Wilson: I’m pretty certain I know who’s going to win. You know that, Tim! You know my thought on this but I think Natalya’s going to win. I’d love Vithun to win but I don’t think he will. I think he’ll be out in a few days’ time. Any of them, I’d be delighted if any of them won. I just think they’re all lovely. I have no gripes with them, I like penny as well- has she gone (some indistinct conversation about Penny and Pippa confusion) I thought you were breaking a secret there-
I was chatting to NXXX about this – I’ve got the word tart going in my head and its not that- clone! If, for example, I was in casting, and Toni came up to me and said “oh I want to be in the Circle” and I thought “You’d make a great player”, and when we had sung a bit of “King and I”, I thought absolutely, You’re in. but you didn’t know who to play and I’d say “why don’t you play a man! Let’s keep the same initial”- and I give you Tim’s identity / profile. Tim comes along and says he wants to play in the game and I give him Toni’s identity- this isn’t beyond casting after all- and then put you both in on day 1-It would be an extraordinary moment.
TIM: I love that twist.
It’s a much nicer twist that getting somebody to go back in because they already know who they’re dealing with so it comes across as malicious. But if you both go in at the same time, it comes across as extraordinary and you’ve got two people who are genuinely confused. And similarly with the assassin thing, which also comes across as malicious, as it was presented but if you were to take a late entrant and put them in and say you’re not allowed to have your own identity but you can take someone else’s identity for so long and that person could go round everyone’s profile, but again they have the disadvantage of not knowing who anybody is, and everybody’s saying “But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that!” It wasn’t me. “But I had a conversation with you.” That would be funny as well.
Toni: It’s a good idea putting them straight in.
Wilson: Putting them straight in, at a disadvantage but at the same time there is an opportunity for them to win their place. This is what you’re telling them. And you have to make it clear I think that This is my game and I make the rules. It’s mary Poppins’ land. And I don’t think that’s coming across at the moment.
TIM: You don’t think its coming across that the circle is slightly mischievous?
Wilson: I’m hearing a lot of noise. About it being unfair. And I’m thinking- but its not a game. It’s a magic trick- its just fun and the production is in charge and the production makes this an interesting story. (oops Tim, you’ve frozen- you have become icon-like)
Do you know how I knew that James was fake?
TIM: my connection is unstable
Wilson: its life, Tim/
TIM: you’re hearing a lot on noise.
Wilson: worry not, I’m fine. The reason I knew that James was fake was because every time I tried to draw him, I ended up drawing an icon. There’s a point at which- what your players need to get to: the more twists you throw at them, the less they’re likely to sink into this and the less they’re likely to get this -and in a way will be at a disadvantage and then you have to keep piling on twists because the performers can’t take the programme forward, they can’t shoulder the narrative – they don’t have powerful enough relationships to support the programme.
Tim: I think that’s a fair point. You can have two many twists
Wilson: have the twists and really entertaining ones for every person who comes in later in the game so they become iconic because of the twists that they came in with. As you come in later, you don’t stand a chance of winning. Except by accident. If you’re in the Paddy position. So it’s just possible that Pippa could win but highly unlikely but she would win by accident, Though she would’t win then because she had achieved something herself.
TIM what if Dot or Natayla won?
Wilson: My money is on Natayla all the time. I think she’s the right sort of person. She’s got the right personality, credentials, she looks good on camera. Everybody else is making too much effort. Dot is making far too much effort. What is extraordinary about Natayla is that she effortlessly goes from the character into explaining what she’s done. She is worth her weight in gold. Whereas Scott, he’s an actor and he doesn’t know which part he’s acting and when he’s not acting- he’s always performing.
Toni says something-
Wilson: well I think joyce was a better version of that catfish and also chaotic. And very funny. That’s the joy of having two people doing it because you’ve also got the drama of the stuff in the apartment itself. You’ve got to make every character who comes into the show significant in their own way. Not just coming in to play the game, but coming in with trumpets blaring and the other cast don’t know this. And that makes it exciting. It makes it exciting for the viewer. That’s where I’d be coming from.
The other thing is the industry just needs to find a way to make it safer and the ofcom thing isn’t the route.
Tim: well, what do you think should be done?
Wilson: well, everything that’s in the OFCOM proposal you were already doing. And you’ve still had bumps. That proves that’s not the way forward. And I think you ought to be leading. I think you ought to be going to the secretary of state and saying Look, you shouldn’t be getting your hands dirty with aftercare.in any way, because – its not your job. And if it goes wrong, then you are blamed.
Toni: do you think this should be done by someone else? what do you think the solution is?
Wilson: the solution is to use the professions that already exist. So you need to put pressure on equity.so people have independent representation to start with., so one of the deals- because you don’t get very much out of this- one of the deals is a temporary equity card so there’s that professional support for the people who are performing because they are performers number 1. . Number 2 there should be some sort of – oh, tim’s disappeared again…
Toni: he’ll be back.
Wilson: ok- I was talking about Union representation if people want it, so that if there’s a problem, its not down to the people in the house to sort this out or down to the runners- there is an organization which will rally behind and say ok, Look. There’s an issue. And it’s not down to you this is the point. You’re putting people through very strange working environment and there is no way they can be prepared for that. So you need to prepare somebody else. Or another organization for that. There needs to be a distance between you and the people who are cast. Somebody who’s got their backs. Who can say actually we know what’s going to happen and you’re going to be ok, don’t worry.
And iyt can’t be you who says this. You can’t run with the hare and the hounds.
And I think the after care should be in the same form- it should have nothing to do with studio lambert. At all. I know you use psychiatrists/ psychologists and they’re partly useful for the casting process – very useful- so you shouldn’t then use the same people because there’s a question mark over them. You just need to delegate all that elsewhere
Something countered by Toni)
Wilson: I know this, but it doesn’t stop the paranoia. And this would stop that completely,. It would also make everything seem completely professional.
Toni explains at length that studio Lambert have the players best interests at heart.
Toni: We love watching you and we wouldn’t want you to think we don’t care.
Wilson: But you get a very strange experience after the show is finished. I got the most extraordinary bump: it was horrible. I would describe it as a love affair, I felt dumped. Utterly dumped. I absolutely adored studio lambert and you and I’ve tried to maintain as much of that as possible but I felt abandoned. It was like a divorce that I never requested.
Tim: being in our hands and looked after, talking to us.
Wilson: every moment of the day, suddenly being delegated to people I didn’t know.
Toni very indistinct)
Wilson: that’s the point- you would already have a relationship with something that was independent. And the relationship with Studio lambert would be that nice relationship, now its stopped. What we’ve got is this thing where we’ve still got a strained relationship and we don’t know where we’re going.
TIM: taking your dumped analogy, you have a love affair and then every month they come round and sleep with you?
Wilson: Or borrow your china. (giggles all round) That’s exactly it. And it’s soul-destroying, Tim.
Toni, say it was an external company, what would it be-
Wilson: well I think all these companies exist. If everybody who is cast is given to a reputable theatrical agent, that automatically puts them at a distance from you.
Toni; An agent though- I don’t
Wilson: yes, some agents are trustworthy, some are not, believe me, I’ve had a look at them dodgy jungle as well, but its about getting and maintaining that distance –you’ve both gone quiet.
Tim: I thought you were going to say something
Wilson: (Laughter)I was waiting for you to cut in at that point. It’s called an edit Tim.
Tim: I totally see your point about how psychology is part of – obviously they participate – and a consenting adult and because they oked you- they have a vested interest in – you feel they’re justifying their earlier actions. I don’t think the agent is the right direction.
Wilson: the agent – what do you do afterwards. I know my case is peculiar and I don’t want to overstate my case but literally I should never have outed myself on the show. It’s caused all manner of problems and I looked myself up on the internet the other day- I don’t know whether you ever do this, but I very rarely do it- I found that I have now become a professor emeritus. Which I think was only a matter of time. Under Russian rules I’m still professor which is something of a relief but it is shocking. They haven’t paid me in 5 years or so. We can now say goodbye to ever getting paid. Part of the thing is the Russian lawwhich is very negative about gay people being involved in education. And you only have to put my name into Wikipedia and there’s photographs of me and my partner – lots of stuff that I was careful about before I did the show. I was never closeted, the line was just look at the colour of my socks, draw your own conclusions.
Toni: I suppose that came from the press pack
Wilson: It came from the press pack. And gareth rather wisely pointed out, you don’t need to be so coy about it because it’s already public knowledge and I thought Oh right. So I mentioned my partner’s gender. But I wasn’t originally doing so and I didn’t know. And it’s not a reflection on you because – you couldn’t have known – the law also changed at about that time.
Toni: obviously we would never have broadcast this had we known.
Wilson: the effect of the law really changed about 2 months after I came out of the show. And it was then not a 20pence fine, but 7-22 years in prison. There was a person called Maxim who had made an innocuous youtube video. And he was forced to leave the country.
TIM: Not a dancer?
Wilson: no – plenty of dancers who have real problems. My problem was I didn’t have enough fame to brazen it out- I’m not Stephen Fry. But I’m splattered all over the place enough to be an interesting scalp. So that was one thing. And they backdated my retirement to before the circle even happened. They’ve taken an event where I went round to see the rector of the university to be shown my new chair- my new office as the new professor of theology- the first prof of theology in MPGU, it was very exciting and they took all these photographs of me and they gave me various medals and things- and they’ve now posted all this to give the impression that I was going to negotiate a better relationship between the UK and Russia. As a retired professor. Complete rubbish. I’ve had a lot of trolling. I think there’s probably an entire office in the Kremlin busy (hoots of laughter)
So there was that- and you don’t know what to do when you come out so you turn to the people who happen to be around. You either get information or you don’t and there’s a vacuum and you don’t know what’s going on. And you’re very lost.
Tim: compounded by covid
Wilson: utterly. But we became dependent. That’s the effect. I know we’ve talked in the past about this R21 technique, but everything you do in order to get a good performance in the show were things that were done to necati before he was physically tortured. They’re stress triggers. Designed to make people compliant, so in television terms, they’re designed to make people talkative and energetic on television. In torture terms, they’re designed to make people obey their captor. I don’t know whether either of you have done it but it takes a long time to recover from that.
Toni asks for more details about R21.
Wilson: so R21 technique was designed by the british army and the Israeli army, NATO, to prepare soldiers for withstanding torture. You deny people time, that’s the first thing, then you deny them control of warmth or cold, you give them continual instructions, there’s a lit of noise.- I don’t know whether you ca=me into my apartment when I was there, but the noise of all the dysons was exradonary. It felt like a factory.
Toni: this year we had aircon!
Wilson: congratulations. I was speaking to ALEX LAKE THE OTHER DAY AND HE WAS SAYING that he went in with lots of knitwear jumpers because his wife knits and he said he couldn’t wear any of them.
Tim: we filmed them in a heatwave.
Wilson: yes I know! Absolutely. I think he did very well. And I liked his trousers. He calls them trousers- I call them pyjamas -I suggested it looked like Katherine Hepburn in “Philadephia story”. And then you have very loud colours and stuff, and all this is designed to stress you.to make you feel you are not in control so gradually you cede control.in fact you cede control very quickly. If you’re wise, you give control to production on day 1.and the production looks after you. And that works. Oh tim’s disappeared again…
It really is like talking to God. Or talking to myself- we both share the same monosyllabic culture. Tim! Tim..
So you’re doing all this stuff, it makes good tv but afterwards,-I was giving my phone number to people on the street. without thinking about it because somebody asked me a question, I’d say yes of course.
And it causes all manner of problems, you need that protection when you come out.and its more than just going through things and saying are you alright. Do you fancy killing yourself? You need support because it’s something that most people have never done and its quite a shock to the system. My coming out of it and NXXX saying this is exactly what happened to me. And we then have to deal with all that again.
Toni: how is NXXX?
Wilson: Oh he’s fine. Everything’s ok.
Tim: what about the R21?
Wilson: we talked about it once before and you said am I accusing you of perpetrating torture. No not at all. I’m saying coincidentally you’re doing the same thing. For actually the same result- You want somebody to be obedient or at least compliant so they make good tv so they’re vulnerable because vulnerability reads. You didn’t have to do that to Vithun because he comes across as the most vulnerable creature in the universe. But most people needs abit of support. And its part of actors’ training. They do this. They want to project vulnerability- but how do you do that quickly? There isn’t an alternative but you have to find a way of setting up a support system for people afterwards. and I think the ofcom thing is very glib in thinking that psychiatry is the solution to everything. What you need is a feeling that you’ve got somebody who’s got your back. And that has to be independent of your company.so you need two spheres- you’ve got the company which does its thing and you’ve got something else- which is all for you and I came up with this idea that its like eliza Doolittle and you do your Henry Higgins thing – somebody said it was Pygmalion but in fact I was thinking of My Fair Lady because obviously I want to break into song.but at the end of the show, she’s been transformed for a joke which is the circle!~ you change from what you’ve been to something entirely different and then, what do you do then? And there isn’t a route , no path- you can’t go back to the life you had- unless you’re so clever and life is so clearly cut that you can =go back to it, in which case go back as fast as you can.
Toni: that’s interesting. We try and encourage people to go back to the life they had before. (and she says a lot that is indistinct)
Wilson: I certainly didn’t I did when I came out because it had been ramped up, and you optioned me- at the same time, everything else disappeared, so you were not telling me to go back – and there was little option of that. In my case everything went. I had a BBC job I should have done and you know they wrote back and said I’m sorry you cant do it. I never said I couldn’t do it. But you know the BBC is cheap- it never gave me a contract.- it started throwing contracts at me the moment I came off the show. but it never gave me a contract before hand- never in any of the series I did. Oh Hello!
Tim: (about his son) they have these remote piano lessons by phone.
Wilson: has the piano lesson finished now?
Tim: for one of the boys it has.
Wilso- so there we are, and er- it can get very dark really. Because you just don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re lost. And eliza says what’s to become of me and I looked and I thought the only thing possible is selling bikinis on assos or doing Only Fans and I cant see myself making much money at either (laughter)
Tim I’m sure you would support me in both ventures.
But its really odd and I thought the only thing that’s left for me now is telly. And I can’t go back to my university. I can’t go back to doing all the stuff backstage.- I’ve done more animation in lockdown than I have for years but I’ve still not quite finished anything.
Toni asks what I am doing.
Wilson: well we’ve got some little projects. Lined up but it doesn’tr make money. Its not something to survive on – I’m finally being able to do the sort of thing and to break through the traditions and set out something which may actually end up being significant. Bringing illustrations to life that are not primarily for children. Particularly. So I’m looking at the original illustrations for Dickens. A project for Edward Lear – literally I’ve just been writing a preface for a new book in Albania so it will be translated into Albanian- so I think I’m now an international authority on Lear which is rather nice. I’ve got an encyclopedia entry and I’ve got a preface in Albania.
Tim: is Albanian a serbo corat language?
It’s a language which is impenetrable. I can do one word in it Its Ilyria! Youand I should be really excited- They’ve actually got buildings that go back to the fall of Troy! Well at least the 10th or 11th century BC. I’ve got a project which will eventually come off but I’m not big enough to do it yet. That would be me going round Edward lears’ journey and swopping between me and him because we share the same birthday.
Tim: his journeys in Greece?
Wilson: Northern Greece and Albania and Mount athos. Would be great fun and so he drew a huge amount as he was travelling. So my conceit was to go tothe same places he drew and then redraw them and then animate through them and put- and use the limericks as well. At some point, that will see the light of day but the other thing is slightly different but it’s the same sort of area. Can you use animation to do something other than entertain children. or do titles for television. I’d happily do both but my titling days seem to have disappeared. Which is really annoying. Its ok. It will come back I think if I can survive long enough. You look into the void and with lockdown , I haven’t worked since the Circle. It’s a bit frightening.
Tim and Toni: there are a lot of people who are in that situation. Not enough is made of it. What we call freelance- projects here and there, not enough is made of it.
Wilson: what I have learnt over the last year is a) I’ve started to learn about survivor and the early American reality shows- you think the circle has a tone of viciousness- nothing compared to survivor. I only did it – I do it podcast by podcast, I only agreed to do it on condition that I would be introduced to participants fro the early shows. So I’ve met them. One of them was in prison. – because they paid him his winnings and and said they’d taken the tax off and the IRS didn’t accept this. (noises of incredulity) and he ended up in prison because he refused to pay extra.. horrible story. Nice man. What I realize is most people who come out of these shows, either all they do is reality tv – which is a bit sad- or they’re just miserable. And I’ve not yet met anyone with a brain who’s happy.
And that worries me because its been going now for 20-odd years.
Toni talks about social media- it adds to the pressure.
Wilson: yes. I don’t think dealing with social media is the whole solution.
Tim: it’s a deal with the devil
Wilson: the whole thing is a deal with the devil. In order to survive you have to make sure you are not the devil. That’s the biggest thing. You have to put something, institutions in the way and I think they exist.
Discussion about Netflix-
Wilson: they were very different shows.
Tim: they are different.
They are a little warmer I’d say.
Wilson: than the british show we’ve just been watching? But it’s still much darker than our show (series 2) It’s nothing to do with you Tim, its to do with the players. They all think this is to do with strategy and allegiance. I remember in season 2- the strategy and the allegiance came from the players! I mean they may have been prompted a little bit. God knows whether they were but I remember GXXX said to me, “do you think there’s any allegiances?” And I – yes, It’s called the Circle. its friendship. I couldn’t see beyond this. I had no idea there was a circle of death or triangle of terror.
(something I cannot hear)
and its quite clear in this season everyone is determined to win.
Where you need to come in is to set that bedrock of friendship because actually, they’re all running around like headless chickens. In a way you can’t call it the circle at the moment, it’s the eggshell, the shattered round table. The fractured circle. Fractured from the moment they go in.
You wouldn’t have some of the anxiety. And therefore the drama if they had cemented their relationships earlier on but you would have more heart, and I don’t know how you do that if people are going in determined to risk all to win. They will risk all to win, that’s the point, because they’re all competitive. You don’t need to up the ante in that- they’ll do that themselves.
I had always thought of things like Mrs Doubtfire- “oh poppets” and looking after the children but in fact but in fact it’s mary poppins- this is a game and it’s on my terms. And you have to wave a magic wand and just – that circle has to be more glittery.it has to be so wholesome. and homely, then everybody will rebel against it. and I promise you they will.
This will just go wild. the more you purr at them, the more they will scratch. the other way round, it starts to get really nasty. and I don’t think you’ve made that leap from series 2 to series 3. I think you’ve made u need to pull back and do a rethink if I can be so bold as to suggest this. I would love to help out in any way
Tim: you’re one of our famous players -super intelligent. That’s why we like talking to you.
Wilson: I remember the other day, Necati was saying to me is it going to be billy or Gemma. But your edit gave it away. Having been watching survivor, I knew halfway through the show it was going to be Billy. Billy had to go because you were favouring him.
Toni: you’ve become the expert on reality tv.
Wilson: I was sad to see billy go because he was beginning to grow in the circle. And it was rather sweet. He was never going to win
Toni: a really good lad
Wilson: do give him a virtual hug from me- he’s a n absolute sweetie. One of the problems with the two Tally things is- if , for example ,orange tally had won, you couldn’t given blue tally a goodbye video.
Tim: yeah we knew that.
Wilson: I thought you would know that!
Toni: you’d have to sacrifice (then lots of laughter)
Tim: not everyone always gets a goodbye video
Wilson: Believe me I could reel out 20 twists for you that would make you come across as incredibly kind.
Tim We should get you in for a week in production.
Get me into your development team if you want to but you need me on camera
Tim well we’re in the process of developing ideas. You could do a week of development.
Wilson: I’d be delighted. You could put me into a tardis and whizz me into people’s rooms if you wanted to -any of that sort of thing is possible. You’ve got to instill a warmth back into the series because that was what was there in series 1 though it wasn’t fully developed, and series 2 that’s certainly what I thought- I’m sure it’s what Woody and Ella thought. It may not quite have been what Paddy and James and Georgia thought but they all projected it- this is the point. And paddy gets very proud of his circle of terror and then we chat and I said but you were just creating a smaller circle. still creating friendship. And he glows with pride. He gets 20 feet taller.
It’s very nice to see. But James- and with your edit, because you’re editing live, you have some things you can’t explain, so for example, you couldn’t explain why sy came to visit me, because you didn’t have all the tractor conversations, which were niche- but equally you couldn’t explain the relationship that James and I had forged., which was independent of the thing because james – he’s got emotional intelligence that you could smear the room with. And those people who understood that communication in words was limited were the people who were successful – woody ella I hope I do a bit. James definitely.
Toni: you were very successful
Tim: I was reading the edit, I’m afraid most of the time. And ,on one occasion, I know I was uncontrollably laughing because I was giggling so much about what you would do with the cross editing. and I was right! That was the Katie-Jay exchange. I was rolling around on the bed because I was thinking of the cross edits. That you have to cross edit here. and you did! You did exactly what I thought you would do.,You had to. It was inevitable. And the other day, somebody sent me a clip of the scene of woody touching his arm and saying “I’ve got goosebumps”. When I was trying to tell him what james had said without telling him – and I knew he got it. And in my mind, that was a close up. And in fact it’s a long-shot. because I’d not seen it, in my mind, it’s always been a close up, but it was exactly that moment. You exited exactly the moment I expected you to edit. Sorry for anticipating these things- it was lovely
Tim: you’re a tv producer at heart.
Wilson: No, I’m more of a cloned version of Larry Grayson. Put me in front of a camera and everything will go wrong- charmingly so. Actually on that subject, The hustle thing, it was very interesting. But I think not quite right for me.
Tim: we couldn’t sell it at all as an idea here.
It’s just been picked up for a second series in the states.
Wilson: I’m very pleased. It was very good in the states. And your fellow nailed it. I couldn’t have done that because your people seemed to think of me as a sort of logician. I’m not. You understand this Tim don’t you,.I could barely do philosophy- it’s bizarre that I teach it- I always tell everyone I stop at the 17th century. Because that’s about the point when it becomes difficult. But bertrand Russell- did you have to do Russell? In classics?
TIM: I had to do western philosophy.
Wilson: unendurable mush. I mean. Plato I’m fine with- I’m not inspector Poirot or Sherlock Holmes,. I’m a hirsuit version of miss marple. I’m miss marple or mary poppins
Some conclusions by Tim- repeating the week of production development theme
Wilson: But I also think if you were to lead a delegation to the secretary of state, we’d get rid of the Ofcom thing, which is a sticking plaster and really bad in the end. There will be suicides. and then they’ll wonder what’s going on. and I’m really happy to stand with you and – or whatever but it would be so much better coming from studio lambert
Tim: yup. Let’s talk again.
Wilson:let’s have another session anytime. It’s so nice we all share the same initial. we’re all interchangeable
* note: you will see that Tim admits he could not sell the hXXX programme which explains why the pilot I did was not filmed in the way they promised- was simply around a table- by that time, the project was never going to go ahead. The nonsense I was later fed in April last year by NXXX and the other producer was simply and disappointingly lies- specifically, that the Channel 4 boss had only just been appointed and had not made any decisions about the programme (but liked the concept) and that the head of talent in Channel 4 had not had a chance to think about talent. Tim’s indiscretion makes it clear that the show was scuppered much earlier.
They were using it simply to keep me in play.
** there is alot of me chatting to fill in long pauses- essentially, Toni and Tim had little to offer (their plan was to offer me the week of production and to ignore any of the criticisms I levelled) so, in the end, I saw this as a ruse to trap them into going to the secretary of state. that worked and I leaked that in an article in the independent later.
*** I thought I did not pull any punches but in fact, I softened alot of what I said. There is enough documentary evidence in emails/letters I wrote that Tim had seen- so enough is on record.
**** also we all know that I predicted Natalya to win. slightly absurd conversations about who I thiought would win!
my sense as I did this chat is that I was fairly kind to them and gabbled away to fill the gaps. But when I look at it in text form, it is clear they had nothing to say at all.
******My only clear plan as this went on was to ask them clearly to go to the secretary of state and I think this is quite clear and I was able to say publicly that I had asked them. So I did my job. I think I knew within a few mins that this was just a fiction telephone call so they could claim they had called me and spoken.
Conversations with UNUM:
Here is the email exchange with UNUM.
This began with a phone call to UNUM that I made on the evening of 2nd March 2020.
I spoke to two people at UNUM, the second was the “manager”, Greig, who effectively told me I was not covered for his help by the Studio Lambert contract. But he promised to check the contract as I was insistent, and to get back to me.
I also asked him to confirm exactly how the contract with Studio Lambert employees differed with the contract that covered circle “contestants”. This second point was never addressed.
1) Begin forwarded message:
Subject: Unum LifeWorks
Date: 6 March 2020 at 13:31:48 GMT
I was calling to gain your consent to make contact with the company on your behalf to clarify the company entitlement.
Would you also be able to scan a copy of the letter you quoted over to me so we can follow up with the company to ensure they are giving out the correct information please?
We have checked on our end and as i suspected, employees only have access to our service while employed by the company or up to three months after leaving.
Operations Supervisor | LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell
2) Begin forwarded message:
Subject: Fwd: Unum LifeWorks
Date: 9 March 2020 at 14:12:20 GMT
You do not have my permission to contact the company “on my behalf” or to divulge to the company any indication that I have had contact with you. This is about confidentiality and I expect that to be fully respected.
But, as I know you have already been approached by other people who were part of the programme, and that you told them you were not certain about the coverage, you may and should contact the company and ascertain what is supposed to be the coverage.
I am moreover astonished that you failed to clarify this when other cast members contacted you a few weeks’ ago. This is disappointing and certainly questionable and I shall expect a full response about this omission when you have conducted your research.
this is the text of the email we were sent-
If we return for a third series, all previous players MUST keep us across any and all press they decide to do around the series, before the interviews have taken place.
You have access to a further two psych sessions with MXXX, and these are due end of January and end of March 2020. You do not have to speak to MXXX, but we find it’s helpful as someone to chat to as you continue settling back in to normal life. If you feel you want to speak to her outside of these scheduled times, please let the Casting Execs know, but do not contact MXXX directly. Your first port of contact should be UNUM support detailed below.
You have access to 18 months of UNUM support (until April 2021). They are a free confidential 24-hour counselling support helpline. It offers access to a professional counsellor at times when you may feel the need to talk to someone. You can use this service for many different things and unrelated to The Circle. You will be able to access face to face counselling through LifeWorks. To access this, you can speak to a counsellor at LifeWorks who will then assess the situation and either refer you for traditional counselling or CBT, as appropriate. The first session would be set up within 5 days of the call, and you would be referred to a counsellor on the LifeWorks network, which can either be close to your home or work, whichever you would prefer. If after speaking with the service you would like to speak to production this is of course still available, but we would like to remind you what you talk about with Unum is completely confidential and won’t be shared with production.
You can access the service via:
WEBSITE: unum-uk.lifeworks.com (you’ll need your user ID ‘unum’ and password ‘lifeworks’ to hand): a library of downloadable materials and interactive tools. You should mention you’re part of The Circle.
FREEPHONE: 0800 048 2702: confidential support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
MOBILE APP: Download the mobile app from the Apple App or Google Play stores; simply search ‘Lifeworks’ and look for the Lifeworks logo. Or you can download the iPhone app here, or the Android app here. The user ID and password are the same as the ones you use to access the website.
I called Greig around 2pm to suggest that he checks his notes for 13th January. He tried to “explain” a) about the employee agreement and how I did not qualify and b) that he could not look into details of someone else’s calls. It turns out that following the debacle in January, Studio Lambert had called UNUM to establish exactly what was covered by their contract.
Begin forwarded message:
From: Tim Wilson <email@example.com>
Subject: Fwd: Unum LifeWorks
Date: 10 March 2020 at 12:29:02 GMT
to further clarify, I called you on 2nd March at 19.51 and it has taken until 10th when you just called me to tell me that the contract your company agreed with Studio lambert is something you are prepared to honour.
This is in contrast to the email you sent me on 6th.
You were equally evasive when another cast member called you in January. Both of us were frustrated by your initial response when we called and I remain shocked.
I await a full and formal written apology by return and by post.
4) Begin forwarded message:
I demanded an apology in writing by post which never came and a copy by email within 20 mins. It took about 90 mins.
Subject: Unum LifeWorks – Private and Confidential
Date: 10 March 2020 at 15:47:25 GMT
As discussed, I am following up on our conversation with this written explanation.
I can confirm that as a former contestant of the show “The Circle” you are entitled to use our service to access support.
I do apologise that you have had to wait for this confirmation and have had some conflicting information up until now.
We have now added this information to our system so that it is immediately viewable when anyone calls.
As mentioned on our previous calls, this is not how we typically operate. We predominately service either current or former employees of organisations up to 3 months after they leave.
If you would like to discuss this further then I would be happy to arrange a further telephone call.
Please don’t hesitate to call me directly on the numbers below should you need any further assistance.
I subsequently spoke to a senior manager at Lifeworks and never got what I would consider to be an apology. Tim Harcourt confirmed that the matter had been “addressed” on 3rd April.
This is what is routinely cited as “Robust aftercare.” I dispute this term absolutely. It is untrue and cannot be claimed after I drew the attention of senior execs to this story.
It is a thoughtful idea put forward by Shabaz and some of the cast members of Circle 3. I am very happy to endorse, participate in and champion the positive and valuable message it sends- specifically, that anonymous nastiness on the internet is shameful and worrying and needs to end. We all have a role to play in calling for better behaviour.
I think, incidentally, that this campaign, and others like it, needs to be buttressed by legislation that ensures the culture of internet anonymity, which permits both trolling and cloning, becomes unacceptable. This, I am afraid is a much bigger job, and needs to be addressed globally. But #ThinkB4UPost is a very valued step in the right direction and ideas like this need to be encouraged and promoted with enthusiasm.
I was therefore pleased to see the BBC taking up the story.
The BBC posted a piece about the Campaign and particularly focused on hate-mail that Manrika received during the show. The article, however, proves to be a curious piece that mixes what is a very reasonable campaign with some disturbing hints and I thought it might be worth pointing these out.
The two issues that worry me are, firstly, the idea that this campaign alone will be sufficient to turn round the problem at the heart of Reality TV and secondly, that Manrika, like some other past cast members (who must have participated in a quite different production to the one I knew), talks about the 24 hour access that has been given to psychiatric care.
I am afraid this level of care was certainly not the experience I had and was not an experience I know many others from both my series (2) and the earlier series 1 had received, even if this might have been what was intended. Indeed, I can cite 2 people who attempted to access care, and they were kept waiting for up to 10 days without a response because the care team that we had been assigned to did not recognise that we were part of their remit, so I am frankly flabberghasted by some of these over optimistic statements.
There is a big difference between what is intended and what was delivered.
When I brought this issue about a serious failure in the duty of care to the attention of production a year ago, I was assured that the question of aftercare would be addressed and would be put in place. My concerns, and the specific cases I cited, were acknowledged and accepted by senior execs in production. I am, therefore, hopeful and I assume that better care is now available. However, the article that has been printed by the BBC gives a very strange impression when it juxtaposes Manrika’s positive comments about aftercare with mine, and provides no explanation. That may be the result of over-hasty editing, but it suggests that Manrika and I refer to the same experience- we do not.
The passage of time can make things better and companies can learn from their failings. I note, for example, that the production company is today no longer relying on the company they used last year to provide psychological support. That is some progress!
I am, therefore, delighted that Manrika’s experience is more positive than the one I witnessed and experienced, and, equally, I salute the efforts of the current cast to call for a kinder internet, but that is not enough in itself. We need to ensure that those who participate in these shows can leave them having had a fully positive experience, that they receive independent professional and responsible support that assists production and enables production to get on with the job it does best. The people who participate in these shows should have such a positive experience that they act as ambassadors for the show- instead, there is a host of people carefully measuring their language against their contractual obligations.
I would hate to think the #ThinkB4Upost campaign ends up in the same bag as the Caroline Flack #BeKind campaign, both well-meaning and positive messages but open to being appropriated by TV Companies that might be seen as complicit in nastiness. These campaigns should not become the sticking plaster for the industry. they should not become another version of the OFCOM “rules”. These campaigns are thoroughly worthy and they help us to remember basic good nature but they cannot eclipse the need for wholesale change.
And also, when I look at what reality TV has become, I would not like people to think that the real problem is the audience!
It is barely a week since the death of Nikki Grahame: she was just one in a long list of casualties that have grown from the Reality TV phenomenon. It is perhaps glib to say, as journalists have done, that she could not deal with fame- she was vulnerable from the day she was cast and I think the show and the industry should take greater responsibility for the continued health and wellbeing of those they use. I can think of no other form of entertainment that is so measured in death.
The Secretary of state needs to reconvene the committee that began taking evidence after the Jeremy Kyle show, it needs to recognise that the current OFCOM “regulations” are neither new nor efficacious and at the same time, it needs to encourage organisations like EQUITY and established theatrical agencies to provide the independent support that is so evidently lacking.
I am astonished that for the third time, I think, OFCOM are peddling a completely vacuous document as something significant and indeed once again claiming it is a new “publication”.
Very little has been added since it first appeared as a draft document in 2019, and even then, it simply puts into writing current practice alreday used on reality TV shows. It was the result of a hastily convened and then equally hastily disbanded committee meeting of the Digital, Culture, media and sports committee- this is hardly the “wide-ranging” investigation that Adam Baxter claims. To be more precise, the committee heard testimony from 4 “contestants” or participants who came from 2 reality tv shows. That is hardly what I would term “wide-ranging”.
It fails absolutely to define what Reality TV might be and indeed also what might constitute “vulnerable”, the two major planks of the text and of the recent publicity. I will add more details tomorrow.
Meanwhile, here is the text of an interview I did for “the Independent” today which will be printed in tomorrow’s edition (6th April):
Former reality TV contestants have warned Ofcom that new rules designed to protect their wellbeing do not go far enough.
The guidance introduced on Monday requires the makers of some of TV’s biggest show to take “due care” over the welfare of people who “might be at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in a programme”.
The change comes amid heightened concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, and the show’s presenter Caroline Flack.
But contestants of some of TV’s most successful reality shows say the change in rules will do little to help.
Tim Wilson, who appeared on Channel 4’s The Circle in 2019, told i: “Production has got used to controlling its participants and continued to do so long after the show is over.
“Indeed, the Ofcom legislation gives them further licence to do this. It is absurd to think that the same team of psychologists who are used in casting should be offering support afterwards.”
The Oxford-educated professor is now calling on Studio Lambert, the production company behind his series, to ask the Culture Secretary to “rethink of the Ofcom rules and recognise that what is now trumpeted is not fit for purpose”.
He added: “We have to buy into the illusion, which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.”
Luke Marsden, who shot to fame on Big Brother, aged 20, now speaks regularly with reality TV stars who have struggled with their post-reality TV lives.
Davina McCall leads Big Brother evictee Luke Marsden from outside the house (Photo: Getty)
“I’ve spoken to ex housemates who signed on to the dole a few years after Big Brother because they didn’t know what to do. In their heads, they were thinking I can’t sit in an office, I was on a big show,” he said.
“Some of these contestants come out and they tell me they are very depressed a few months later, when nobody cares about them.”
He added: “They [Ofcom] need to set a very clear plan, where you talk to phycologists at key points, and they force you to have it, because some people don’t realise what they’re going through. It’s all very fluffy what Ofcom has released.”
Adam Baxter, Ofcom’s director of standards and audience protection, said the changes were made following a wide-ranging review with affected parties.
“People taking part in TV and radio programmes deserve to be properly looked after,” he said. “Our new protections set a clear standard of care for broadcasters to meet – striking a careful balance between broadcasters’ creative freedom and the welfare of the people they feature.”
To be more precise, it seems wrong to throw psychiatry at a problem in the hope of fixing it. Psychiatry has a valable role to play but here it is compromised. For teh very same Psychiatrists who are used to cast the show are also used to provide counselling afterwards. Either that or we are fobbed off to organisations whose psychiatric support staff prove entirely inaccessible.
2)There is no effort in the OFCOM report to define reality tv. This was actually the first question my MP asked me- he is on the ball while others are not. Is it a game show, a constructed drama, unscripted entertainment, a variety show?
3) there is no definition of vulnerability and this, anyway, was already part of the OFCOM remit to protect both participants in tv production and to protect the audience, especially the vulnerable.
4) Much of the OFCOM document is simply well-meaning and vacuous words- verbiage to disguise a hastily published document. These words effectively try to demonstrate that any decision belongs, and any ills that happen as a consequence of participating in a show belong, entirely to the participant whether recruited or applying for the show. No amount of box-ticking psychology, however, can deal with the fallout when things go wrong, especially if the psychology team is run by the production company itself (as OFCOM seems to recommend). This is either onanistic or delusional. It also avoids responsibility. It is not about care- it is “careless” in every sense of the word.
-the only new content in the document is that shows are obliged to inform participants but that information in practice is likely to be misleading
– things change in production and it is perhaps as inappropriate as getting a magician to explain how a magic trick works before submitting it to a paying audience.
-we have to buy into the illusion which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.
-That body exists! It is called Equity. Equity, therefore, needs to decide whether its role is primarily to validate a performer’s training or to protect all performers from the possibly irresponsible and unfair activity of management. The old Variety Artistes Federation understood this fully and accepted that many performers came into the business in different ways- and were, therefore, all open to exploitation by theatre bosses and, therefore, deserving of protection. The VAE merged with Equity in the early 1960s and accordingly lost its distinctive and very worthwhile remit.
-We have a situation now where upwards of 30% TV scheduling is filled with reality tv and therefore with performers often working for expenses or a derisory “displacement free”- less than minimal wage and, yet, at the same time, commanding prime time slots on TV channels for an extended period- they are utterly at the mercy of a production company that controls the edit, the hours they work as well as their access to media and proper representation after the show has ended.
It is for this reason that I have now formally asked top executives of Studio Lambert to join me in approaching the secretary of state, the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden, to urge a rethink of the OFCOM “rules” and recognise that what is now trumpeted as new is not fit for purpose – it is the result of a half-completed job and the DCMS committee must, therefore, be reconvened and admit proper evidence that must be given by those who have experienced what it is truly like to take part in these shows.
There are a variety of show-formats on tv. Two are of interest because today they have been confused. One is “game show” and the other is “Reality TV”. Today, we tend to use the word “contestant” rather too readily when we talk of “Reality TV”. I would prefer to use the term “participant” or even “performer.”
I think the confusion is, in part, intentional. It is a smokescreen, all part of a much bigger magic trick.
A “game show” is about a contest and probably involves a prize. The great game shows of the past, like “Generation Game” and “Sale of the Century” exploit the skill of the host so that the contestants are simply incidental to the plot. Indeed, we rarely remember their names. (One of them was Major Tom). The prize might not be that great but the razzamatazz surrounding it is something drummed up by the charisma of the presenter. We can think particularly of the way Bob Monkhouse made the cheapest prizes seem drool-worthy.
Other game shows would include “Mastermind”, “University challenge”, “Catchphrase”, “the Price is right” and so on, going back to Bruce Forsyth and “Sunday night at the London Palladium”. Many of these shows drew on American formats, some were home grown- all made compelling viewing, partly because ordinary people were celebrated in a minor but significant role on the tv. And, in so many cases, those ordinary people had a great time going away with a token “blankety Bank chequebook and pen”.
Reality TV, in contrast, drew on the game show formula as a Mcguffin to drive the story and provide some sort of energy and direction. I think that most Reality TV falls into two quite different categories and neither is really a “game show” as such.
The first is the “fly on the wall” documentary (like the family) and the second is the heavily produced format like “Big Brother” or indeed the show I know best, “the circle”. It would be wrong to think of this latter category as a slice of genuine “reality”. Instead, it is a contrived situation that showcases a drama that is itself completely arranged and edited by production even if individual performers may be able, briefly to hijack the plot. That is not to say that it is ever scripted or that the participants are fed lines or follow a script, but rather that the casting is sufficiantly careful that events, confrontations and scenarios can be anticipated, developed and played out in an ordered and coherent way. This is, in other words, like making “Eastenders” without telling the actors what they are supposed to say. If the camera records events 24 hours a day, the likelihood is, given enough encouragement, the participants will finally say exactly what is expected of them. Some may call this “manipulation” others would call it “production”.
Of course, there is always the possibility that something better will crop up as cameras roll and I am sure that a good production company will adapt and amend their scenarios to showcase a brilliant performance or one, rather that production can use to good effect. I am pretty sure, for example, I was never expected to stay in “the circle” beyond a couple of weeks at most. I have to salute the great and imaginative Tim Harcourt for thinking on the hoof of giving me an Alpine Horn and instructing me to dance. Production may not have known when they cast me that I would throw myself into anything – but I will and I very much wanted the show to be the success it was.
The idea that this form of TV is about a prize or cash-gift is frankly farcical though inevitably the cast is persuaded to say that this is the reason they are “playing”. This is the reason they “applied” to be on the show. I balked at doing this- it seemed like greed and it seemed absurd: I was never winner material for one of these shows.
And, in most cases, as I have said repeatedly, these performers did not “apply”. They were recruited from social media platforms, youtube, modelling agencies and so on. The producers know exactly what sort of mix they want and who they are looking for in order to spark the drama they intend to create. This is a magic trick and we, the “participants” are a glorified version of the legendary Debbie McGee. Paul Daniels’ show would never work without her collaboration and these “Reality” shows would not work without the willing participation of the cast of “participants”, all signed up to NDAs and promising not to reveal the way the show works.
That would be fine if that was as far as it went. But the production companies have grown in influence and power and what seems to happen today is a level of manipulation and bullying that has made particiupation in Reality TV almost intollerable and goes on long after the show has been filmed and aired. The catalogue of suicide that dogs these shows should be no surprise because the participants have been party to a cruel joke, have often been signed up to a gagging clause but, more than that, have been prevented from seeking proper representation, professional help or support from anyone outside the suffocating control of the production offices.
I have spent a year feeling stifled and deceived. Instead of the secrecy and the knowing wink that dear Debbie might give to her husband Paul Daniels, we are controlled and fenced in lest we give away the secret of the show, assuming we have worked out what that is! We are treated as untrustworthy, we are unpaid fodder. We are treated like the poodle in a dog act, rather than the magician’s assistant. I will not play the poodle.
I would like to celebrate the new seasons of “the Circle” but I can only do so by celebrating what I know is good. This is the brilliant concept, the astonishingly clever editing, the direction, the story-telling and the trust that we, the “participants” place in the producers, the voice of God and the camera crew on a 24 hour basis. This is a magic show of the highest quality. There is no choice, or precious little: it is like being offered a card by a first-rate magician. There is no choice- I am palmed off with exactly what the magician intends that I should select.
In this way, six months’ ago, I predicted the winner of Season 3 of “the Circle”. I am absolutely convinced that my prediction is correct, although at the moment, as I write, there is no one in “the Circle” cast who conforms to the description I have given! That will not stop my conviction, believe me. So I wait to see if I am right.
This is not, in any way, to downplay the parts played by the other participants- whether they have been persuaded to “catfish” as a nurse or as an “uncle”, or whatever. All, in their own right, are giving astonishing performances. They are, whether they know it or not, performing as themselves. And that, take it from me, as someone who has done this job, is not an easy call.
I think, however, Participants should be paid properly for providing first-class entertainment. I think they should have proper theatrical representation and proper union support. This is not a business that can be sorted out with the magic wave of Psychiatry, however much I fully support what Pyschiatrists and psychologists do for us. Until we acknowledge what is really going on, we shall continue to have problems. But to pretend that “Reality TV” is a super-Game show is to live in a fantasy, or to be like the child who marvels at a Paul Daniels’ trick and thinks that it is “reality”. It is a trick. There is no shame in a magician’s trick. It is not a conspiracy: it is magic! And it is deserving of applause. It would be deceitful if we passed it off as “Reality”.
There is only so long people will believe a lie.
“Reality TV” is a business that needs to clean up its act before anyone else is hurt. I have personally asked senior management in Studio Lambert, who made “the Circle” to join me now and to lead the way in making the industry demonstrably safe. In a conversation I had last night, they acknowledged it was even worse in the past but hinted that there is still room to make it better. I take heart from that. While people are still dying, while people are still in despair after doing these shows, or angry, or lost, we know “Reality TV” is still doing damage to the performers they use. I hope, therefore, that others will respond to my offer and that we can make TV safe.
Last year I won the public vote on Channel 4’s social-media-inspired reality series The Circle. It was new to me and I had a blast. I was awed by the way editors jigsawed together the unrehearsed activities of the performers, myself included, to create coherent and compelling drama.
My experience has inspired me to look more closely at the phenomenon of reality TV. I’ve binge-watched numerous shows and spoken to dozens of contestants, particularly from the longer shows where the cast members are isolated together for a period and attract prime-time audiences such as Love Islandor The Circle. This is TV that allows us to “see ourselves as others see us”.
Reality TV is about character. Prize money might seem important but when it comes to making a watchable series only two things really matter – that the cast is vibrant and that the editors know what they are doing. When I was in The Circle, I felt at home. I trusted production completely and it did me proud.
But the psychological effect can also be harsh. I know of many participants who have struggled and reached for proffered help that is simply not there. Sometimes, they can feel betrayed or manipulated, or that they lost control, both during the show and afterwards. The readjustment is hard.
It is hard, also, if one is recruited as I was. The flattery in being called up out of the blue on a cold rainy day in Cambridge is the first step in a progressive surrender of self that can take a long time to recover.
To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided
In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Eliza Doolittle works hard and wins the bet for Professor Henry Higgins, she asks him, “What’s to become of me?” It is a question any reality TV participant could ask: how do we avoid or repair the damage? How, indeed, do we ensure that the game is remembered as a positive experience? That, surely, is in everyone’s interests.
Those who take part in reality series would perhaps suffer less and certainly be better protected if we had status within the union for the creative industry, Equity. I do not understand how a union founded in the closing days of Music Hall to cater for artistes of all types, could snub reality TV. Equity explained to me that they reasoned participants were “performing as themselves.”
But that is the point: reality TV players are still demonstrably performing; in the case of The Circle, are often also “catfishing”, sustaining a character over the course of many days – a demonstration, if ever there was one, of the Stanislavski Technique, routinely taught in drama schools around the world. Whether Equity likes it or not, we are actors in a television drama, entirely dependent on production because we are ignorant of script, plot and conclusion. We are also often ignorant of the audience response.
The current approach – backed up by contracts that often duck a performance fee – arguably mischaracterises our activity and prevents participants from unionising just as it discourages us from being represented by reputable agents. But the point remains. What are we doing if we are not performing?
Because there is no separate protection for participants, production is often forced into a pastoral role, leading to some of the work being subcontracted or performed directly by staff often unsuited or wearing too many hats. To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided.
Government efforts to make reality TV safe remain incomplete. In over a year of hearings, only four contestants ever offered any evidence before the Culture Committee. The inquiry was wound up hastily, and ultimately endorsed current practice and promised psychiatry as a cure-all.
We must make every effort to ensure the TV programming we put out nationally is safe, and that viewers can be comfortable watching it. They should not have to learn later of the catalogue of suicide and misery that dogs production. In the end, it is not just about the tiny group of reality TV performers, but about the millions of viewers who want to tune into a feel-good show.
We have to ensure that reality TV merits proper independent support for participants. Exposure on TV should be life-enhancing. If this is an industry worth saving – and I think it is – it is professionalism that is needed.
There are people in the media whose experience and profile is such that they can demand and effect change for the better. Often, however, they do nothing or, worse still, they exploit those loopholes and shady practices that they must have known were wrong, even if, at the moment, they are not strictly defined as illegal.
There are two major problems: the first is that stories about the media are dull- no one wants to read about how the story was acquired- we want to hear what the story is about. The other problem with calls to clean-up any aspect of the media is that it is reported by the self-same media. In the end, it will always morph into a story about individuals because that is always safer than a root and branch clean up. Of course, that is a well-trodden path- the media loves stories about its own. It is self-obsessed, narcisistic, onanistic.
There are a number of media stories at the moment, almost all as significant, in their own way, as the phone tapping scandal a decade ago, and what is shocking is that these stories involve some of the same characters and deal with the same issues of privacy and control.
My own concern is about the future of Reality TV. It could be said that the potential abuse of a small group and their poor experience of exposure to TV is a modest and fairly irrelevant story in the times of a major pandemic. However, it changes slightly if you look at it from another angle, because today, Reality TV occupies a major role in tv scheduling and therefore the viewing public is treated to hour upon hour of reality TV shows. The public is entertained on prime time tv by a group of people who are often unpaid, who may well be manipulated and /or exploited and whose experience continues to be miserable long after the show has aired. I have counted 43 suicides linked to reality TV and this is simply the high-profile stories that have been reported. In other words, the public is watching and therefore unwittingly encouraging what amounts to a gladiatorial spectacle. People have died in the service of providing cheap entertainment.
It gets much worse because these shows rake in money and make the producers very very rich and powerful. The longer this goes on, the more influencial these production companies and these producers will become.
I am very disappointed that a union like Equity fails today to represent reality TV “stars” as a matter of principle. I have been told of a number of conversations that took place in the early part of this century when Equity was told, and accepted that Reality TV stars were performing as themselves and therefore did not merit representation by the “actors’ union”.
While I would question whether we were performing “as ourselves” or indeed why the verb “performing” itself does not merit greater consideration, the fact remains that the union Equity seems to have completely forgotten its own history and the part that was played by the Edwardian Music hall in developing union representation for performers.
Before there was British Equity, the Variety Artistes Federation was set up on 18th February in 1906 making it an older union even than American Equity which did not form until 1913. Indeed, in 1907, it was the Variety Artistes Federation that staged the first performers’ strike for 22 days, initially at the Holborn Empire and drawing support from stars like Marie Lloyd, Marie Dainton and Gus Elen. But it also had the backing of Kier Hardie, the effective founder of the Labour party. The VAF took on what was then a massive industry- with a count in 1875 of 375 music halls in London alone along with almost the same number of houses spread around the provinces. Marie Lloyd summed it up rather brilliantly thus, “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well.” In 1966, the VAF merged with British Equity.
The VAF was a very odd thing- because it was representing artistes who were, strictly speaking, and by today’s standards, self-employed. The power of the music hall producers, however, by the Edwardian period, had reduced performers to the status of dependant wage workers. And although “the red nose rather than the red flag” was a charge hurled at the union by other emerging unions, the VAF was far from lilly-livered and was picking up a tradition of determined collective bargaining that went back to the Music Hall Artistes Railway association of 1870 which negotiated special rates for tickets and travel between venues. From what I can see, membership was based on need and there was certainly no closed shop. By 1917, as a result, the VAF began operated a sliding scale of membership fees ensuring that everyone on stage had access to representation, that it set up standards of employment and pro forma contracts, health and safely measures and provided help in times of illness and bereavement.
Equity itself was formed in the 1930s with the backing of Robert Young and began almost immediately to operate a closed shop policy of admission which continued until the Union reforms of the 1980s and persists today in that evidence of sufficient paid professional work must be provided before a card is issued.
Sadly, I think Reality TV does not want unionisation and many Reality TV shows operate in a deeply questionable fashion – for example, those that involve performers in an immersive and protracted experience, tend to pay them a modest rate of about £70 a day, well below the fee that would be guaranteed for playing as an”Extra” on a tv show. The problem is further compounded by the veil of secrecy which hangs over much of this and few Reality TV “stars” have access to professional support from experienced agents or experienced media lawyers. Should we be grateful, then, for even this modest recognition/ gruatuity or Tip? Maybe. But this payment is explicitly not a performance fee. It is sometimes called “expenses” or a fee to “cover inconvenience”, a “displacement fee”- displacement fee? It makes me feel like something stuck in an S-bend. Whatever its name, though, this payment is not for “performance” and so specifically rules out any chance of unionisation or representation.
This is bad enough, but I am appalled that a seasoned organisation like Equity can allow this to happen -on their watch. It has not happened, after all, by accident and it has not happened in ignorance. In 2012, Robert Vogel said that Reality TV occupied 20% of scheduled TV output. I believe that figure is now significantly higher. In other words, Real actors and full-time Equity members are being driven out of TV studios by the popularity and ubiquity of Reality TV. At the same time, Equity’s stance enables abusive behaviour and sets a standard that is unacceptable and would have been championed without doubt by the Variety Artistes Federation.
Of one thing I can be sure, Marie Lloyd would have been appalled and would not have kept quiet.
‘The idea is bonkers’: the secrets behind the success of The Circle
The isolating, app-based Channel 4 show feels eerily relevant to the past 12 months. Former and current contestants discuss the experience – and the struggle of readjusting to normal life.
t is September 2019 and Richard Madeley is twerking alone in a high-security flat in Salford. The presenter is taking part in the second season of the Channel 4 reality show The Circle, on which he is catfishing as a 27-year-old PR girl called Judy. Dressed in a motion-capture suit, he is gyrating seductively, his lips pursed in concentration. The other contestants, who are oblivious to Madeley’s true identity, are watching an anonymous rendering of his movements on their screens. “Oh my God, that’s twerking isn’t it?” screams one. “That’s twerking!”
The Circle is not a typical reality TV show. Part popularity contest, part social experiment, part dystopian drama, its premise feels eerily relevant to the past 12 months. Contestants are moved into a refurbished block of flats, where they are confined to their own space and isolated from each other. The only way they can communicate is through a bespoke, text-based social media app called The Circle.Advertisement
Contestants can decide to play as whoever they want: some choose to be themselves, while others decide to catfish (use a fake or partly fictionalised persona online for fraudulent or deceptive purposes; previous players have changed their age, race and gender). The winner is the person who, after three weeks, is rated the most popular by the other contestants.
“It sounds easy,” says Emma Willis, who presents the show. However, lockdown has made people realise “how hard it is when you take someone’s freedom and independence away from them”.
The Circlewas created by Tim Harcourt, the creative director of Studio Lambert, who is also the executive producer behind Gogglebox and Naked Attraction. The idea was ambitious, even by his standards – people sitting alone and texting each other could easily make for flat, monotonous viewing – but it was given the green light by Channel 4 in 2018. “The idea just felt completely bonkers, like taking a WhatsApp group and turning that into entertainment,” remembers Gilly Greenslade, who commissioned it.
Despite the channel’s doubts, the test pilot – filmed over two days in a flat in east London – proved to be riveting viewing. The show was scheduled for a full run a few months later. The first season was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 2018, running for two weeks from a block of flats in London. A second season followed a year later, with production moving to Salford (and adding Madeley as a special guest). A celebrity edition for Stand Up to Cancer begins tonight, with the third regular series kicking off in a week’s time.
“I suppose The Circle is a bit like Neighbours,” says Harcourt, when asked about its appeal. “It’s just minor misunderstandings eked out over time. It’s quite soapy.” In the show, though, these misunderstandings are amplified by the isolation, remote communication and constant threat of catfishing. “When I’m with my wife at home, if I got a WhatsApp from someone, I’d maybe think they were being lairy, but she would just look over my shoulder and go, no, they’re just being brusque. In The Circle, you’re by yourself. You’ve got no voice of reason.”
The success of The Circle has led to spin-off series in France, Brazil and the US, which air on Netflix. The franchise has revealed cultural differences in the way people play: Harcourt says many of the French players were belligerent (“They really went at each other”), while the Brazilians were an “absolute laugh” and wanted “to party every night”. The American contestants were among the nicest; they tended to be more ethical and less inclined to catfish. “At the end of the meal, they wanted to stand up, hold hands and pray,” says Harcourt. “It was like: ‘What?’ You’d never see the Brits do that.”
Part of what makes The Circle so compelling is its casting. Rather than filling the flats with sun-baked, cosmetically enhanced twentysomethings, the producers pull contestants from all walks of life. The winner of the most recent UK season was Paddy Smyth, a 31-year-old account manager with cerebral palsy, while the early favourite, and third-placed finisher, was Tim Wilson, a flamboyant 59-year-old theology professor. Building this diversity is no easy task: although The Circle accepts applications from anyone, it actively headhunts “underrepresented, diverse” people to encourage them to apply. “No show would make a secret of that,” adds Harcourt. “That’s part of the casting process.”
Once you are on the show, though, your endurance is tested. Contestants are kept in ornately decorated rooms (designed in part to reflect their personality), with bright fluorescent lighting and several cameras. Windows must remain closed, for privacy, and TV and internet devices are banned. To pass the long hours, players can read, cook, play Jenga or scrawl out their increasingly paranoid game strategies in notebooks. They can also schedule a sliver of time on the building’s roof terrace, or in the gym or the whirlpool bath, as long as they avoid contact with other players (ear muffs must be worn while moving around the block). It sounds claustrophobic, but former contestants speak glowingly about the experience.
The actor and presenter Nadia Sawalha, who will appear as part of a duo in the celebrity series, says The Circle was like a “magnified holiday” that made her feel like “the president of the United States”. Smyth, the most recent winner, likens it to a “five-star hotel” and says that lockdown has been substantially harder. “If you want five cans of Diet Coke in The Circle, it’s there, hey presto. If you want any type of food, it’s there, hey presto. You’re looked after,” he says. “Plus, you always know that it’s going to come to an end.”
But the paranoia can be overwhelming. Because of the isolation and the lack of physical or verbal contact, bonds are formed quickly – and it can feel shattering when they are broken. The show highlights our instinctual craving for social connection and shows how swiftly we can unravel when we are left without it. “Everything feels so heightened,” says Smyth. “We’re taken aback by how quickly we can be deceived, how quickly we can deceive others, how quickly we can form connections. I think that scares us.”
The broadcaster and journalist Kaye Adams, the other half of Sawalha’s pair, says there were moments when she felt “pathetic” and on the “road to madness”, due to all the paranoia and deception: “It did make me realise that your rational brain can go out the window really easily. You start thinking: ‘What did he mean by that apostrophe? That was a really aggressive apostrophe.’” Shesays she could not have done it on her own. “If it hadn’t been for Nadia calming me down, I would have found it genuinely upsetting.”
For regular contestants, there is also a tumultuous aftermath to deal with. Being thrust into the public eye is a shock to the system, especially if you used catfishing tactics. Busayo Twins, from series two, was targeted by trolls when she catfished as a 24-year-old white man called Josh, to “test the theory of white male privilege”. She has since deleted all her social media accounts. James Doran, who came third in the last season after catfishing as a single mother called Sammie, was also criticised for being “ruthless” and “manipulative”.
Smyth came under fire, too, with trolls claiming that he had played for “pity votes” and used his disability to win. “I’m doing really well now, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t gone through depression,” he says. “After winning a show like that, you’re on such a high, then you go down to such a low … It was so hard for me to get my head around.”
Harcourt stresses that psychological aftercare is taken “incredibly seriously” by theproduction team. All contestants are given a thorough psychiatric evaluation before appearing on the show, while an on-set psychologist works with them during filming and in the weeks after. They are also offered access to a private healthcare company, which promises round-the-clock counselling and mental health support.
While Smyth acknowledges that the welfare provided by the production team was “amazing”, he says he still needed to seek additional help. “The production company does make you fully aware of what to expect,” he says. “They don’t sugarcoat it; they let you know. But until you go through it, you don’t really know.”
Other contestants, such as Wilson, believe the production does not do enough. Although he praises The Circle’s “artistry” and “spectacular” editors, he feels the private aftercare offered in the months after was not sufficiently responsive or hands-on. “I had the most wonderful edit and I loved the experience, but I hated what happened afterwards,” he says. “I was left feeling wrung out and abandoned. I have never been quite so miserable in my life.”
He says his appearance on The Circle wreaked havoc with his career and that the high-to-low psychological trajectory left him unexpectedly traumatised. “When people come out of these shows, what are they left able to do?” he says. “They can model Asos bikinis … But I can’t go back to the life I had before.”
Reality TV aftercare has been put under serious scrutiny in recent years. Almost 40 people globally have died by suicide after appearing on a reality show, with many former contestants speaking out about the irrevocable harm appearing on such shows has had on their mental health. In 2019, the UK government launched an inquiry into reality TV’s duty of care, but there has been little progress in terms of regulatory policy.
Because of this, Wilson – who acknowledges thatThe Circle has one of the best aftercare processes – is actively campaigning for systemic change in the industry. The “exploitative” nature of reality TV shows could be softened, he says, with improved union powers for contestants and more effective independent watchdogs. In a statement, the producers did not comment on this idea, but said that the duty of care for its contributors is of the “utmost importance” and that the company prides itself on its “robust” aftercare protocols.
Studio Lambert has been heavily criticised in the past for its work culture. Earlier this year, a former Gogglebox employee alleged that the filming conditions were “inhumane”, aggressive and not Covid-compliant, defined by excessive working hours and a bullying atmosphere. Studio Lambert said that, since March 2020, all its shows had been produced with Covid-safe protocols. It added that it “takes the welfare of its teams extremely seriously across all its productions and has a number of measures in place to encourage people to come forward with any concerns they may have”.
In 2019, Chris Ashby-Steed, a former Gogglebox contestant, spoke out about the aftercare provided by the company, saying that he felt like a “failure” who was “left with scraps” after leaving the show. At the time, a spokesperson for the production company said: “Chris has not contacted us since he made the decision to leave the show. Duty of care is of paramount importance and psychological support is available to all Gogglebox contributors before, during and after appearing on the show, should they wish to take this up.”
Harcourt says: “We constantly communicate with contestants before they go on the show, after they come out of the show and long after they’ve left the show. All of our shows at Studio Lambert involve members of the public playing a game or being on TV, so it’s something you take really seriously.”
He blames the press and social media and says that the production team does what it can to psychologically prepare contestants to deal with both elements. “The social media that is out there at the moment has definitely had an impact on people who are in reality TV shows, and I definitely hold that more responsible for their mental health than reality TV.”
Either way, viewers are still hungry for it. While it is easy to portray reality TV as the problem, Harcourt says there is still plenty to celebrate in the industry. After all, as well as being entertaining, these shows can be interesting and uplifting. “I think shows can be nice,” he says. “I think The Voice is a nice show, I think The Circle is a nice show, I think Bake Off is a nice show.”
They are also – despite years of oversaturation, more popular than ever, particularly among younger viewers. “I feel like there’s a new cycle of reality TV that has learned a lot from the past and then sort of renewed itself for that young audience. I don’t think these shows are going away.”