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.

Where does Reality TV lie?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Responses:

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.

Inadequate OFCOM

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):

https://inews.co.uk/news/media/ofcom-rules-broadcasters-due-care-mental-health-insufficient-former-contestants-943036

Ofcom rules for broadcasters to take ‘due care’ over mental health are insufficient, say contestants

Exclusive

There is a lot of concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis, Sophie Gradon and Caroline Flack

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY MARCH 12 File photo dated 22/1/2019 of Caroline Flack whose mother has said social media companies "fail to protect" people from abuse and comments on the platforms had a big impact on her daughter. Issue date: Friday March 12, 2021. PA Photo. The Love Island presenter took her own life at the age of 40, on February 15 2020. A new Channel 4 documentary is to tell the story of her life and death, as well as her experience of having issues with her mental health. See PA story SHOWBIZ Flack. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/PA Wire
Caroline Flack, whose mother has said social media companies ‘fail to protect’ people from abuse (Photo: PA)
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By Benjamin ButterworthLate Editor and Senior ReporterApril 5, 2021 9:17 pm(Updated 9:18 pm)

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.

Tim on The Circle
Tim Wilson was voted the People’s Champion (Photo: Channel 4)

“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.”

A link to the OFCOM text:

Statement: Protecting participants in TV and radio programmes (ofcom.org.uk)

and a recent news story from SKY:

https://news.sky.com/story/new-ofcom-protections-for-tv-contestants-require-broadcasters-to-take-due-care-over-their-mental-health-12266294


Further clarification from me-

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.

The Independent

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 Island or 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.

March 18th print edition

Media bias- History of Equity and VAF

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.

Reality TV update

Two articles have come out in the last few days, the first in the Guardian and the second online for the BBC.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-55847941

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/jan/29/gogglebox-staff-claim-toxic-culture-behind-scenes-of-hit-show

The BBC article offers little more to Jim waterson’s article than photographs and a bizarrely ambiguous statement about Tania Alexander who created Gogglebox and left suddenly in the middle of the 16th series of Gogglebox.

What seems clear to me is that bullying and aggressive workplace behaviour is never an isolated issue whoever is accused- it is generally linked to a general abuse of or struggle for power that seems to envelope the business as a whole and the BBC article confirms this when it makes it clear that there have been numerous complaints certainly to BECTU officials: I am disappointed, therefore, that so little has been done to sort this out.

It is often difficult to say where bullying begins though once it starts, isolated instances seem to explode all over the place. I have seen this happen in a number of places and in different countries and cultures- certainly, people have talked to me about the whole subject of bullying in the workplace. The Greeks have a very nice saying- the fish smells from the head. Allegations of bullying, then, suggest that a business badly needs some serious self-examination and a renewed sense of leadership and direction.

I have been concerned about the industry for some time, partly because of the persistent trail of misery that seems to dog this form of TV production. The catalogue of suicides and mental health problems associated with the various shows is harrowing and growing. It affects not only those we see on camera but also those behind the camera. If we want to save this form of entertainment, we need to act fast and go beyond what is in the futile (and now current) OFCOM regulations. I have suggestions- they simply need to be considered. Others may have better suggestions, but sitting on our laurels, or crowing about the publication of the OFCOM regulations will not now be enough. Nor is enough to change personnel or scatter psychiatry at former contestants as if they are the problem. This is an industry that needs root and branch reform globally if it is to continue and I think we have the expertise and the imagination to lead the way if we want to.

As for Studio Lambert, I can only say, at this stage, that I enjoyed the process of filming “The Circle” enormously and felt very cared for and protected while I was in the apartment bock in Salford. Whatever was going on was certainly not evident to me while we were making the show.


I agreed to do “the Circle” partly because I was aware of an article that had appeared in the Guardian following what is called “Crowngate”. It strongly suggests that Stephen Lambert set up his own studio, in part, as a moral crusade to reform the way TV documentaries and reality shows are filmed. This was published in 2007:

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/oct/05/bbc.tvfakery3

In 2010, RDF was sold to France. It has since been taken up by Banijay, and is responsible for a host of reality tv shows from Big Brother to Survivor, Masterchef and wifeswap as well as some scripted shows like Wallander and Black Mirror.

In response to the story that also appeared in the Daily Mail, here are a couple of comments. It makes for sad reading:

The Polygraph test

The Government set up a committee to investigate the phenomenon of Reality TV and to look into abuse particularly connected to suicides arising from participation in “the Jeremy Kyle Show” and “Love Island”.

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that ITV bosses traded the one show for the other. Both clearly have problems. I do not think the Ofcom report fixes these and the committee meeting questioning as broadcast and recorded here falls short of thorough.

The committee hearing was hijacked by a lengthy debate about the efficacy of the polygraph test, a key prop in “the Jeremy Kyle” show. The show gave its viewers the impression that the test was definitive but it also protected itself in contracts by saying there was a margin of error. The committee wanted to know what was the range of that margin of error. Frankly, that diversion was a blessing for the production because it took attention away from far more serious issues about aftercare and the preparation of contestants.

The “jeremy Kyle show” was drawing on the success of “the Jerry Springer show”.

The Lie detector or polygraph

This is a basic test that measures physiological response to questions. Much of the work on polygraphy has been done in the US. Where the assumption is that if someone does not want to do a polygraph test, then they have something go hide. The first recorded example is in 1921 by William Marston though there are also versions conduscted by John Larson. The range of accuracy is between 70-90%, with the higher percentages advanged byThe broadcast committee meeting debate about lie detectors must have been a Godsend to producers: there is already conflicting documentation and it draws the debate away from the issue of responsibility. The producers, accordingly, resolutely refused to answer a question which has actually been asked routinley for about 40 years. The answer like the question has not changed in that time. Leonard Saxe, PhD, (1991) observes that much of the popular understanding of the text is a misnomer. The term “Lie detector” is false as one can only infer deception by analysing a series of physiological responses to unstandadised questions, typically in the form of  CQT or GKT (concealed test) which is why courts routinely reject information gained from such tests (eg: U.S. v. Scheffer, 1998)

The debate about the polygraph goes beyond “Jermy Kyle” however, because Government has been pushing to get the polygraph established as a working tool here in the UK. It was targeted particularly on sex offenders and issues of domestic abuse. (laws in 2007 and 20014 but trials actually going back as far as 2003). In other words, the questioning here in this video may have had a political purpose beyond that of the Jeremy Kyle debacle.

Newcastle university research led by Don Grubin and published in 1918 concludes clearly that “A specific ‘lie response’ has never been demonstrated, and is unlikely to exist”

Further research in Manchester university also in 2018 by Andrew Balmer is equally cautious about the value of the Lie detector.

The committee investigating Reality TV stopped meeting in the run-up to the last Election and has not been reconvened. An anodyne report by Ofcom has been published. It puts into effect nothing that has not already been anticipated and enacted by the bigger studios, though it certainly notes that “vulnerable individuals” should not be used, a welcome addition that would certainly rule out a return of any show in the “Jeremy Kyle” format.

I have drawn attention elsewhere to the Gladiatorial nature of Reality tv. “jeremy Kyle” offered something slightly different though equally popular in its day- It was a return to bear baiting and cock fighting or cock throwing. Simply to look around at street names is to recognise how popular these sports had been in the past. Indeed, the oldest pub in England, “Ye Olde Fighting Cocks” takes its name from the sport.

It is shameful that a civilised society still tolerates this sort of entertainment. We might as well bring back hanging as a public spectacle.

PTSD

An Australian academic Dr Godfrey White has written:”There is enormous potential for risk, and nobody is really following these people up or watching over their welfare,” He was talking about Reality TV. “An industry standard should be created and producers should be held liable should anything happen.”

—————–

I was directed today to a very interesting article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which listed a range of symptoms. With the exception of Alcohol abuse, I recognised every one of them.

PTSD was a subject that I thought I knew as 20 odd years’ ago, I found myself dealing with the aftermath of a very traumatic situation. My partner, Necati had been introduced to me and over the first few months that we were together I began to piece together the alarming story that had brought him to Athens. He had been held in captivity by the Greek navy in Hania on Crete and after a while, detained in a cage under the open sun, he was taken to the bathroom, raped and badly beaten.

Necati and I did not have a common language and, therefore, the details of the case took time to emerge. Once I learnt what had happened, however, I was determined to get justice and to try to help him. In the process, we were met with the most appalling wall of bureaucracy and I am afraid I have had little patience for this sort of rubbish ever since. Actually, I think we have surrendered so much more in the last 20 years to the bullies of bureaucracy and this has been made much worse by the recent lockdown. I have, in fact, for example, been without a bank account now for over a month. It is not for want of trying to access the service. In the end, it boils down to the simple fact that what on offer is not delivered, but that failure is masked by the most appalling runaround of endless telephone calls and emails that never seem to go anywhere. It reminds me alot of my time in Greece 20 years’ ago. In both Greece and later Russia, I found there were masters of the sort of mindless bureaucracy that simply stops progress.

I looked at the list of symptoms and I wondered if either he or I suffered from PTSD after we got back from Greece. Certainly, he received very little care when he got back to the UK which is frankly disturbing given the high profile we now accord mental health. Thank God for Princes William and Harry!

Here is the list:

Hypervigilance

intense physical reminders of the event

irratability

irrational and intense fear

(alcohol abuse)

hyperacusis

difficulty concentrating

lacrymosity

panic

mood swings/ depression

insomnia

anger

tense muscles

work and relationship problems

memory issues

loss of interest

sense of a limited future

emptiness

avoidance of people and places

isolation

frequent periods of withdrawal

flashbacks

nightmares

distress

feeling suicidal

self harm

suspicious of others/ blaming others

guilt/ shame

weight issues

exhaustion

unexplained

aches and pains

overreactions to minor situations

fear of being alone/ agoraphobia

cortisol issues, skin complaints. scarring, tinitus

I am not sure I personally suffered that much after we got back from Greece. I was very focused on taking the case forward and I was busy writing to our legal team and to politicians in Greece and the UK. We amassed a huge number of responses from a very interesting range of people. It is touching how often people who are very important and busy, at the heart of government, take the time to write a letter explaining that they cannot do much but wishing well: it means so much. We do not need a solution- we need support.

In the wake of Necati’s case, I think my patience wore thin particularly with bureaucrats. I have learnt to deal with this but recently, after “the Circle”, I have found it has got difficult again. I am intensely aware of the inadequacy of the system. I want to change it. Maybe that is unrealistic.

In the year before I met Necati, I found myself at gunpoint in my own home and it was a frightening and maturing event. I had never really seen a gun before. I remember my father had a couple of plush purdy’s but for all his efforts to persuade me to go shooting, I whimped out and put my fingers in my ears. there was a farmer down the road who used to take me off with a single-bore shotgun and I enjoyed being around with him. I remember beating the pheasants out for him and I think I may even have tried a few shots- at targets not birds. But it was not my thing and by the time I got to Ratcliffe and was faced with joining the CCF, I was determined never to fire a gun.

I remember very well that the physics’ teacher, called Robinson, made a great fuss and poked fun at me when I objected to firearms: he wanted me to use the term “rifle”. I remember saying in a great meeting with all my peers around me that “a gun is a gun ad I will not handle one.” So they scowled and put me in the Scouts, which I hated just as much. I do not think Mr Robinson was intentionally unkind. I think it was that he had never met a boy who did not want to play with a gun and was prepared to say so.

But from quite an early age, when it has come to the crunch, I will speak out.

After the incident in my home, when I stood in front of a small gun intended to kill a kurdish paramilitary called Arif, I found myself opening the door to another group of paramilitaries who said they had been sent by the Greek navy to “take us out.” Oddly, they were led by the same Arif, so I gave them tea and told them to park their guns in the corner. “Would you like milk?” I remember very clearly asking them. There was a further incident when people came to our house with guns and necati and I hid behind a cabinet and waited for them to go away.

All of that should by rights have generated some sort of PTSD, but I am not so sure it did- not in me anyway. Certainly, I had nightmares and woke Necati up regularly with strange nocturnal behaviour. It died down for a few years but I gather it has started up again more recently. Necati calls it “the entertainment”. Necati, in turn, would have great mood swings and take against individual people – it has had lasting and uncomfortable implications.

I like to think that, like the great broadway and hollywood star, Will Rogers, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” It’s not quite true. And I know very well that I can happily accept the fact that I dislike someone’s views (intensely) and, at the same time, actively look forward to meeting them. This would genuinely be my attitude to Nigel Farage so I was disappointed when, after “the Circle”, I was stopped from participating in a show for the BBC when it was hinted I would have lunch with Anne Widdicombe. Of course, I know there are people who dislike me- alot. And I am riddled with guilt and self-doubt about how that ever happened. Generally, though, I find once I meet someone, it is often impossible for me to hold a grudge whatever they may think of me. We may not quite become bosom buddies but I can generally elicit a smile or a twinkle in the eye and that humanity is enough for me. Who cares if they disagree with me! Life is too short to spend the time persuading everyone to accept my point of view. And if for ten minutes I accept someone else’s views, well, there are then ten minutes when I have asked myself what it is like – it’s my effort at empathy. And who knows, when I think about it, they might have been right all along. There’s thought for the humility tract!

I am very proud that after we took Greece to the European Court of Human Rights, and won- and that I still remain friends with people who were loosely involved in the ordeal. And I have done my best to keep in touch with my many Greek friends.

I hesitate to go back of course, just as today I equally hesitate to go back to Russia (because of their heinous new laws against gay people). I am optimistic, but not stupid. But Greece remains my spiritual home even if I never set foot again on its soil.

And that brings me to reality tv and PTSD. This is the bit that is buried deep in the article that only the persistent will ever bother reading! Because I have PTSD. Finally, after all these years and so many adventures, I have all the symptoms. It is remarkable. I have more symptoms than Necati had or has! I am a wreck!

I know that some days I feel immersed in exhaustion and I struggle to get things done. But I have years’ of training, firstly as a monk and then as an animator and I can generally get down to some project or other, often of my own devising. I have tried to fill the last few months with creativity, publishing my efforts on youtube and instagram but always trying to push the envelope technically.

I rarely sleep. I fret over a multitude of nonsense or I write (like this: it is now 5.15 am).

Yet, so far, I have managed to pull myself together for my regular tuesday podcasts and the occasional live instagram session. It is really nice to interact and it makes me feel there is still a purpose in what I do.

I rarely go out. I try to keep busy, because if I stop, there are memories and thoughts.

But the flashbacks seem to be spread over a long period and the turmoil of the last 12 months seems to have unearthed lots of nonsense in my head about everything, all the way back to my childhood and being bullied at school by my art teacher. Accordingly, I have turned that into a project and, on the advice of a very astute Australian academic, I have started writing and a proper book is finally emerging.

There are three people who have addressed some of the issues that I have identified in my research into the phenomenon of reality tv. They are all Australian. Australia is certainly the place where there has been advances in the study of Reality tv as a serious phenomenon. (Though I think they have not got it right either – or yet) I must confess here: I had never watched the genre before I was contacted by “the Circle” production – not even “Strictly!” But since coming out of the circle, I have made it my mission to watch as much as I can tolerate and to talk to people who have been in some of the principle shows.

The experience, for the most part has certainly scarred them. It has not been easy for them and it is not something I would ever willingly recommend. Of course, people ask me on instagram live what they should do when they apply, or whether they should apply and I cannot quite bring myself to say unreservedly, “don’t”, especially when they go on to tell me that I had inspired them. I try to emphasise the positives: certainly if you are determined, apply and go on the show- you will have a great time filming the show but make sure, I advise them, that you secure a good agent before you start filming (that is easier said than done); make sure you have independent professional support because that is what I lacked and I still lack that. Talking to others, I realise that the lack of professional support from people who understand the industry and who are independent of the production is the common denominator – a sense of loss and confusion that follows when you are no longer the focus of a tv show. In the case of the more intense shows, like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” where contestants have been under observation for a protracted period of time, there is a feeling that there is no more control. Our life was minutely managed and now that is suddenly taken away. We yearn for that control and respond absurdly with great pleasure to anyone who tells us what to do. Just as we did in “captivity”.

Again and again, I hear of people coming out of these shows who are manipulated into making very bad decisions. This is quite different from the madness that follows those contestants who were painted badly in the show- who go on to be abused in pubs (like Lottie Lion the other day, and like James/ Sammie who was sent death threats after “the Circle” finished), whose real life is made a nightmare because they embraced the dream of being on the telly, because they followed direction from the producers and because they put themselves out there- because people in the street think they “know them”. They do not. This is a manufactured image. It is not reality.

We know TV can be abusive. I was inspired by the lead Stephen Lambert gave when he started the studio that produced “The Circle.” The story is covered in a guardian article of 2008 which descibed how he resigned from RDF Media over what was then called Queengate, that is the rediting of a sequence to sex up a sequence where the queen was being photographed by Annie Liebovitz. While RDF was exonerated by the Wyatt enquiry, Lambert remained concerned that a scene had been edited out of order in a sensational trailer to give the impression that the Queen was walking off in a huff. When it came to Reality tv production, I felt I was, therefore, in much better hands than most. The people who were producing “the circle” had a moral compass.

But much Reality tv has been about deceiving the viewer and exploiting te talent. Because of contracts and secrecy, there is very little serious work done about what is a very popular form of entertainment, and there is very little effective governmental control. This is the Wild west of modern tv.

When people complain about the way they have been treated, we hear the refrain, “Oh you knew about the show before you applied to be on it!” So it is your fault. Yet, in my experience, the majority of contestants in a great range of programmes have been scouted and head-hunted. there may be lots of applicants to participate on a show, but few of them will make it to the camera. the producers know what they want. They know exactly what will make good tv.

They know exactly how to do their job. they know at least how to produce the tv show. I question whether over the last 20 years there has been a great improvement in the way reality tv participants have been cared for.

Much of the better work about care is being tried in Australia. We are lagging behind messing around with pompous, meaningless, sententious, vacuous and frankly ridiculous documents like the one currently proffered by Ofcom as well as half-hearted Government committees blandly discussing the merits and control of what remains a largely unregulated growth industry in Television. (the document is here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/192580/further-consultation-protecting-participants-tv-radio.pdf)

Jamie Huysman started an organisation in 1992 called AfterTVCare. There is nothing like that here. Dr Michelle Callaghan has focused on the way people may reveal more than they want to on national tv and then have to live with the consequences. She talks about the exaggerations that can occur in editing, and the manipulation of the contestant’s image. Essentially, she draws attention to a key concept which, I think, needs more than just psychological support. It needs professional support- this is about a loss of control. That loss of control might begin on screen but it can also and often does continue off screen.

It is not just the people in the street who think they know you because you were seen on the telly. It is also about abusive contracts, manipulation and misinformation conducted by people who think they know what is best for you , or what they want you to have, or what they want you to stop having. I was appalled to hear, for instance, of the story of the first winner of “Survivor Borneo” and, indeed, to meet Richard Hatch. I think we got on tremendously but I was still horrified by the story he told me. Because of a muddle about whether production had paid tax on his $1million winnings, he was arrested and sent to prison where, because he refused to recognise that he had done anything wrong and because production failed to support him, he served 4 years. It made headlines. It kept the show in the papers but I think it was questionably ethical and it was certainly exploitative. Richard used very blunt anglo-saxon terms to describe the major producers of the show.

Prison or suicide? It should not be like that. Neither should people be so damaged by the experience of reality tv that they must face up to years of pyschiatric care and/or counselling to recover from the ordeal. Entertainment should not be so traumatic. So, I think the public would be appalled if they learnt that the only proposals made by Ofcom are self-regulation and more psychiatry.

It’s a niche interest and yet a major form of entertainment. And the stories about the problems of those who have been on reality tv commands headlines in the tabloids.

It is as if we are to endorse a form of gladiatorial spectacle where our entertainment is precisely at the expense of the entertainer’s health and well-being. This cannot be right. It is exploitative and it would make me as a viewer feel dirty and complicit.

Yet it has been ongoing for over 20 years, and I think over 40 suicides have been recorded. I can think of no other form of entertainment that is measured in such misery.

Of course there are forms of work that routinely offer psychiatric support. I am hoping shortly to visit the PTSD centre for the army and to talk to the magnificent people who run Help for Heroes, and their efforts to rehabilitate those who were injured in service. But the army also offers very astute professional support and training in skills and education.

The government is failing us in throwing the ofcom proposal at us and in closing the committee that was looking int recent scandals linked to the Jeremy Kyle show and to Love Island. If we do not do something, we are in danger of undermining public trust in this very vibrant form of television.

The Ofcom proposal was published in April. There is nothing in that document that was not already in force when I entered “the Circle”. “The Circle” anticipated Ofcom’s report and was already doing everything Ofcom would say it should be doing. So it begs the question- why am I suffering from PTSD?

Vanessa Sierra

I was dismayed to catch a youtube clip from Vanessa Sierra who was a contestant on the Australian version of Love Island.

Vanessa brought up a number of issues that are of concern. Though she is not very precise about it, she implies bullying on and off set as well as a failure by the company in their care of duty. It is horrifying to hear that she appealed repeatedly for help and got none. There is also a reference to “box ticking”. More worryingly, she talks of a suicide attempt and her approach to restoring mental health. The points she makes about routine and a support system are vital. What, I suspect, made it so difficult for Vanessa was that the people she had trusted on set were then scattered and remote as she moved back into everyday life, or rather as she moved into a new version of everyday life.

My heart goes out to Vanessa. I drew a picture of her last night – in fact, I attempted a number of pictures and in the end, drew a picture based on one of her publicity shots.

Vanessa Sierra by TIM

 

Terrace House

I was shocked to read about the death of Hana Kimura. She now joins an increasingly long list of reality tv talent driven to depression and suicide.

terrace house

It is awful that this has happened.It is personal. It is tragic. It has happened- again.

There are many reasons why this seems to happen -so often. On the one hand, there is the trolling and online abuse which is ear-marked by very fine campaigners like Bobby Norris, but on the other, there is an institutional abuse that seems to have ringfenced the reality tv world since the early days of America’s “Survivor”. However mild its form, it never seems to go away.

For the record, I think I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the British show The Circle. I never applied to be on the show- I was headhunted by a producer and I had not watched that show nor much reality tv at all before I agreed to enter the apartment as a contestant. Put bluntly, I could as easily have been head-hunted by a programme like Traffic House. I could as easily -now- have been a victim of social media trolling as Hana was. My heart, therefore, goes out to Hana and to her family.

It is time to wake up to a double reality-

Firstly, that if this is the sort of tv we want to see, and I would suggest it is a very interesting and creative approach to tv, then we, the viewers, need to show responsibility to those people who are providing our entertainment. We can never send hurtful messages. A hurtful text is never just a joke- it is always hurtful. We must think before we send. The adage about “sticks and stones” which I remember repeatedly as a child is complete rubbish. Words always hurt. We need to be kinder.

Secondly, we need to ensure that those who produce reality tv operate under a more transparent code of practice. This means proper and effective aftercare, but it also means a level of honesty throughout the production that might compromise the way these programmes are currently made- maybe that needs to be an adjustment we should be ready to make.

Survivor

I am doing a weekly podcast for an American group devoted to the “Survivor” franchise. As far as I know, I am not to be paid but as the programme is now in it 20th year and 40th season, there are literally years’ of episodes to go before I even get half-way through the broadcasts. That may demonstrate naivite on my part but it also, I hope, gives me licence to speak out fairly boldly.

What is odd is that, unlike “the Batchelor” and “the Batchelorette” which were infamous for suicide, the “Survivor” series seems to have got by on what is frankly a diet of appalling abuse without much of an adverse affect on its contestants. Certainly, their early contracts were absurd in their attempt to silence and suppress the talent after the show, certainly the level of nasty tasks makes almost any other reality tv show seem tame, and, at the moment in season 1, though I am told not so in future seasons, the commentary is fairly modest in its irony and in the way it presents a storyline. Later series, I am told, will see a more nuanced recap at the beinning of episodes and a narrative bias from Jeff Probst -allegedly- that would make Emily Maitless’ line of reporting seem very lame indeed.

If you go to the podcast here-

you will hear a debate with the wonderful Mario Lanzo (not the singer but the writer, Survivor historian and psychiatrist) about an alleged manipulation of a vote- it is only an allegation though it is backed up with books and I understand with a court case, so the allegation might be well-founded. We are very trusting in the way we accept what we see on tv. It is not reality at all.

Lucky

For my part, as I say, I was very lucky indeed. The story that I was shown to be part of was actually, for the most part, the story that happened. Of course, there were scenes that never made the edit and I am sorry that the audience never got to see my conversations about tractors, ordure and farming with Sy: I think this omission explains why he visited me after he was blocked. No other narrative works in fact. I was also looked after terrifically well on the circle. Reality TV is a spectrum and I was fortunate enough to have found myself at the positive end of that spectrum.

I think Hana Kimura has been very unlucky but the industry itself, the whole spectrum, must take stock. Every time there is a death in the industry, people like me call for change. But change is dismissed and a few more sticking plasters are clumsily applied to the way this very profitable industry progresses. It cannot be just that people “have difficulty adjusting to fame”, or responding to “trolling”. By 2016, there were 21 deaths recorded in the States among reality tv contestants. That count is significantly higher if it is computed globally. It shows a serious problem in the making, or actually in reality and it does not take account of the innumerable counselling sessions that have dealt with depression brought on directly as a result of participation in one of these shows- counselling in other words that has stopped that appalling suicide rate being even higher than it already is.

It is not, to me, at all surprising that there should be problems: this is an industry that needs guidance- that has two or three different and contradictory images as Hollywood had in its own hay-day(sic). So, I have to ask, with all honesty, how can we have a business model marketed as entertainment that is predicated on such a high level of misery? In some shows, contestants have been wilfully humiliated, or manipulated to be party to the humiliation of others, they have been victimised by sleep deprivation, plied with alcohol and they find they have been selectively edited or they bitterly regret what they said in moments of weakness. They have been promised all maner of future success. Moreover, whatever screening process may have been conducted, everyone knows that emotional instability makes for good tv.

It is not enough to shrug and say “this was a Faustian pact.”

As I said, I was lucky.

Sadly, Hana Kimura was not.