Newspaper piece

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.

Asylum mess

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.

What the Bloody!

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.

As Hashu might say, “What the Bloody!”

Something else is clearly going on.

#ThinkB4UPost

A new campaign has begun – #ThinkB4UPost

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.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-56747017