Many of us have felt isolated over the last year but I had a taste of Reality TV “isolation” before lockdown. I never applied to be on “The Circle”. I simply received a call out of the blue on a wet day in Cambridge and I am still grateful for the experience and the deep friendships that I made both with other performers in that short time on the telly.
There was a downside as well. The underbelly of Reality TV is unattractive and, had I known more, maybe I would have turned down the show. Instead, as someone who has been inside Reality TV and has experienced, at first hand, the extreme stress of coming out of one of these shows, I am committed to talking and ensuring it gets better for all. Efforts to reform have been thwarted at the highest level and the “new” OFCOM regulations are a sticking plaster, a scab that endorses what is already common practice in the industry. This is a money-machine machine and one of the most powerful forces in media.
While I have been critical of the “Aftercare”, more a word than practice, “The Circle” itself remains remarkable TV and it is exactly what we need. It showed that isolation can be the foundation of friendship; it celebrated a deeper communication, whether performers were catfishing or genuinely themselves and it was both entertaining and nurturing. I speak regularly with my friends from the show.
Indeed, both Woody was there for me when, a week ago, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. It is scary and I value his support hugely. As I am writing, I face imminent surgery. But I know I will get on better by talking, however tough that may be. Silence must be challenged. We do not live in a vacuum. We live in a Circle. It is not perfect but we are better for the reciprocity it fosters.
I reached crisis-point about 10 days’ ago when, what had been minor rectal bleeding, dismissed over the last couple of years, led to a haemorrhage in my office. As I have a blood disorder on the haemophilia scale, I am not afraid of a bit of bleeding-and I have embraced it as a badge of honour with its esoteric “factors” as well as the influence of the mad Rasputin over the Russian Tsarevitch. It is a disease that links me to Queen Victoria who passed it to the royal princes of Europe. But this, frankly, was the stuff of nightmare. So, with the greatest sang-froid we could master, my partner and I put my clothes in the washing machine and went to A and E.
In the hospital, late at night, with my trousers round my ankles, I found out just how much impact a brief appearance on TV can have. A nurse lent over and asked if I was “Tim from the Circle”. I wondered, for a moment, what must have given me away. But I welcomed the diversion to chat about the programme. “Did you really never meet?” “We really didn’t,” I gasped as the doctor said, “That’s just my finger.” That nurse had exactly the right approach- it was a point of contact and she neutralised the terror with the warmth of conversation.
The NHS moved with speed so, in a couple of days, I was ready for a colonoscopy. I was warned the preparation was foul and that the procedure uncomfortable. In the event, both were quite manageable. I was fascinated by the progress of the Doctor’s camera and he kept up a careful reassuring description. On the monitor, it was like a “Star Wars” journey and, lurking in my colon like a capsized asteroid or a badly mangled “Maltese Falcon”, was my own personal cancer. There was no mistaking it.
Far from feeling isolated by the diagnosis, I feel invigorated to reach out to others who may feel lost or frightened at this time. It is frightening, do not doubt, to face a serious cancer. It is something that many of us fear and that, sadly, half of us will experience at some time in our lives but no one is truly alone, no matter how isolated we feel, no matter how silent are those hours after 4am when sleep eludes us and darker thoughts press. It is at those times, in the last week, that I feel an alliance with those friends I cannot see, just as I felt a growing bond, even a telepathic connection on the show with Sy, Brooke and James even though we had never met. It is the same alliance when I gaze into the eyes of my beloved cat, Bey who reaches up to rub noses. This is the message of the Circle: an unspoken bond that we are together. Conversation, language, even honesty is secondary. I would very much prefer not to be in this situation but we must deal with the Reality we face, not the Reality we want, and at the same time, I am in good company- Lynn Faulds Wood, for instance, who campaigned so forcefully for screening and Bobby Moore, the English footballer who died after years’ of being mistreated for IBS. His wife said his death had been “unnecessary” and she called for more awareness of Bowel cancer. I hope we have moved on since then, but I realise that, as a face from the Telly, as someone who the public got to know over the month-long series of “the Circle” on Channel 4, it falls to me to carry on their campaign and draw attention to something that can be overlooked or even dismissed in the early stages. This is now my Reality. It is deeply serious and something we need to be more mature about and more open to discussing. Speaking about bowel cancer, encouraging scans and action, I believe, will save lives. Knowing we are together gives those lives meaning.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.”
Here is an advert for the forthcoming series 3 of “the Circle”. I believe it is due to be transmitted in March. I have now been asked a couple of times to be part of the programme.
I am very cautious and the advert makes me more so.
Having been on the show, I find the printed advert very uncomfortable reading and the TV trailer below is much the same content. Some “Previous residents” may have indeed “experienced an overwhelming urge to win £100,000”. I am pleased I was not one of them, however much I was asked what I would do with this prize or what I would do to get this prize. I was grateful and remain grateful to have won the viewers’ vote and I still do not fully understand how the prize money for the viewer’s vote was deducted from the prize money that was offered to the overall winner, but clearly the “circle of trust”, in the final reckoning, was played by the circle producers, rather suggesting that “the Circle” remains fully responsible for what goes on in its care whatever its advert may allege.
When I was approached about doing the show, I was told “the Circle” was a game about popularity and friendship. That is the game I played. I thought it was about trust and bonding that went beyond the deceit of catfishing. It was that sense of trust, I believed, that should continue beyond the show and that should be the message of the show.
To be fair, the tv advert is more careful about what it says than the printed advert. If the printed version of the advert, particularly, describes the new season of “The Circle”, it is no longer a show I would recognise or that I was on (it is different); that is perfectly reasonable, of course, things change, but I feel uncomfortable that its advert implies I am included in the “previous residents” and that their reports are also my reports. I should add that the last paragraph of this advert, which is partly reproduced at the end of the tv trailer, therefore, is deeply misleading. It would be wrong to think that all previous residents “have reported a rise in cringing, frenemies, flirting, suspicion, sarcasm, a need for power and an overwhelming urge to win £100,000.” None of that describes me on “The Circle” at any point during filming. Indeed, I would be genuinely horrified and genuinely worried if someone believed that described me or my behaviour on the show.
I have seen the American show “survivor”. Every week, now, like clockwork, I watch a new episode, starting with the first show in 2000 and discuss it with the players who were in that series. I assume the new episodes of “the Circle” are now modelled on “survivor”. The format is there. The back-stabbing and the deceit are built into the ethic of “survivor” in a way that they were not built into “the Circle”. Maybe after the success of The Circle of trust, it was inevitable that the show would change, and that is perfectly okay with me. I just do not want the production publicity to imply that I was part of that.
On the anniversary of the death of Caroline Flack, I am worried that there is now a show that promotes itself as a vehicle for deceit and backstabbing, self-doubt, self absorbtion, suspicion and greed- all this in the name of entertainment. I am worried that this is a show to which my name is linked without any qualification. I take heart, however and I trust that, along with these changes in tone, the new series may come with the enhanced and effective aftercare regime and the fully independent professional support throughout that I have repeatedly called for. It is very difficult being a Catfish and doing it successfully. Catfish need proper support.
If this is the entertainment of the future, we need to make sure we look after the entertainers. The new “Circle” can lead the way in this. That would be a development I would wholeheartedly endorse.
It is with the greatest regret that I now add that I have received a message today from the circle Production company promoting the work of the same lacklustre aftercare service that failed a number of participants so spectacularly last year. I have been asked a couple of times if I will take part in some form in the circle 3 and celebrity shows, but I am afraid I cannot in all honesty now do so. I am so sorry.
I will, however, take part in podcasts already arranged with other companies and I wish the contestants in each Circle show and the production team all the very best. I trust these shows will be as joyous and as much fun as were the shows I watched last year and as was the season 2 in which I participated so enthusiastically.
I hope that, on reflection, The Production company will put in place proper and robust care in line with or better than the recommendations I have made and I trust this will lead to well-considered and effective legislation from the Government. We can lead the way in making this popular, huge and growing industry safe.