It is September 2019 and Richard Madeley is twerking alone in a high-security flat in Salford. The presenter is taking part in the second season of the Channel 4 reality show The Circle, on which he is catfishing as a 27-year-old PR girl called Judy. Dressed in a motion-capture suit, he is gyrating seductively, his lips pursed in concentration. The other contestants, who are oblivious to Madeley’s true identity, are watching an anonymous rendering of his movements on their screens. “Oh my God, that’s twerking isn’t it?” screams one. “That’s twerking!”
The Circle is not a typical reality TV show. Part popularity contest, part social experiment, part dystopian drama, its premise feels eerily relevant to the past 12 months. Contestants are moved into a refurbished block of flats, where they are confined to their own space and isolated from each other. The only way they can communicate is through a bespoke, text-based social media app called The Circle.
Contestants can decide to play as whoever they want: some choose to be themselves, while others decide to catfish (use a fake or partly fictionalised persona online for fraudulent or deceptive purposes; previous players have changed their age, race and gender). The winner is the person who, after three weeks, is rated the most popular by the other contestants.
“It sounds easy,” says Emma Willis, who presents the show. However, lockdown has made people realise “how hard it is when you take someone’s freedom and independence away from them”.
The Circle was created by Tim Harcourt, the creative director of Studio Lambert, who is also the executive producer behind Gogglebox and Naked Attraction. The idea was ambitious, even by his standards – people sitting alone and texting each other could easily make for flat, monotonous viewing – but it was given the green light by Channel 4 in 2018. “The idea just felt completely bonkers, like taking a WhatsApp group and turning that into entertainment,” remembers Gilly Greenslade, who commissioned it.
Despite the channel’s doubts, the test pilot – filmed over two days in a flat in east London – proved to be riveting viewing. The show was scheduled for a full run a few months later. The first season was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 2018, running for two weeks from a block of flats in London. A second season followed a year later, with production moving to Salford (and adding Madeley as a special guest). A celebrity edition for Stand Up to Cancer begins tonight, with the third regular series kicking off in a week’s time.
“I suppose The Circle is a bit like Neighbours,” says Harcourt, when asked about its appeal. “It’s just minor misunderstandings eked out over time. It’s quite soapy.” In the show, though, these misunderstandings are amplified by the isolation, remote communication and constant threat of catfishing. “When I’m with my wife at home, if I got a WhatsApp from someone, I’d maybe think they were being lairy, but she would just look over my shoulder and go, no, they’re just being brusque. In The Circle, you’re by yourself. You’ve got no voice of reason.”
The success of The Circle has led to spin-off series in France, Brazil and the US, which air on Netflix. The franchise has revealed cultural differences in the way people play: Harcourt says many of the French players were belligerent (“They really went at each other”), while the Brazilians were an “absolute laugh” and wanted “to party every night”. The American contestants were among the nicest; they tended to be more ethical and less inclined to catfish. “At the end of the meal, they wanted to stand up, hold hands and pray,” says Harcourt. “It was like: ‘What?’ You’d never see the Brits do that.”
Part of what makes The Circle so compelling is its casting. Rather than filling the flats with sun-baked, cosmetically enhanced twentysomethings, the producers pull contestants from all walks of life. The winner of the most recent UK season was Paddy Smyth, a 31-year-old account manager with cerebral palsy, while the early favourite, and third-placed finisher, was Tim Wilson, a flamboyant 59-year-old theology professor. Building this diversity is no easy task: although The Circle accepts applications from anyone, it actively headhunts “underrepresented, diverse” people to encourage them to apply. “No show would make a secret of that,” adds Harcourt. “That’s part of the casting process.”
Once you are on the show, though, your endurance is tested. Contestants are kept in ornately decorated rooms (designed in part to reflect their personality), with bright fluorescent lighting and several cameras. Windows must remain closed, for privacy, and TV and internet devices are banned. To pass the long hours, players can read, cook, play Jenga or scrawl out their increasingly paranoid game strategies in notebooks. They can also schedule a sliver of time on the building’s roof terrace, or in the gym or the whirlpool bath, as long as they avoid contact with other players (ear muffs must be worn while moving around the block). It sounds claustrophobic, but former contestants speak glowingly about the experience.
The actor and presenter Nadia Sawalha, who will appear as part of a duo in the celebrity series, says The Circle was like a “magnified holiday” that made her feel like “the president of the United States”. Smyth, the most recent winner, likens it to a “five-star hotel” and says that lockdown has been substantially harder. “If you want five cans of Diet Coke in The Circle, it’s there, hey presto. If you want any type of food, it’s there, hey presto. You’re looked after,” he says. “Plus, you always know that it’s going to come to an end.”
But the paranoia can be overwhelming. Because of the isolation and the lack of physical or verbal contact, bonds are formed quickly – and it can feel shattering when they are broken. The show highlights our instinctual craving for social connection and shows how swiftly we can unravel when we are left without it. “Everything feels so heightened,” says Smyth. “We’re taken aback by how quickly we can be deceived, how quickly we can deceive others, how quickly we can form connections. I think that scares us.”
The broadcaster and journalist Kaye Adams, the other half of Sawalha’s pair, says there were moments when she felt “pathetic” and on the “road to madness”, due to all the paranoia and deception: “It did make me realise that your rational brain can go out the window really easily. You start thinking: ‘What did he mean by that apostrophe? That was a really aggressive apostrophe.’” Shesays she could not have done it on her own. “If it hadn’t been for Nadia calming me down, I would have found it genuinely upsetting.”
For regular contestants, there is also a tumultuous aftermath to deal with. Being thrust into the public eye is a shock to the system, especially if you used catfishing tactics. Busayo Twins, from series two, was targeted by trolls when she catfished as a 24-year-old white man called Josh, to “test the theory of white male privilege”. She has since deleted all her social media accounts. James Doran, who came third in the last season after catfishing as a single mother called Sammie, was also criticised for being “ruthless” and “manipulative”.
Smyth came under fire, too, with trolls claiming that he had played for “pity votes” and used his disability to win. “I’m doing really well now, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t gone through depression,” he says. “After winning a show like that, you’re on such a high, then you go down to such a low … It was so hard for me to get my head around.”
Harcourt stresses that psychological aftercare is taken “incredibly seriously” by the production team. All contestants are given a thorough psychiatric evaluation before appearing on the show, while an on-set psychologist works with them during filming and in the weeks after. They are also offered access to a private healthcare company, which promises round-the-clock counselling and mental health support.
While Smyth acknowledges that the welfare provided by the production team was “amazing”, he says he still needed to seek additional help. “The production company does make you fully aware of what to expect,” he says. “They don’t sugarcoat it; they let you know. But until you go through it, you don’t really know.”
Other contestants, such as Wilson, believe the production does not do enough. Although he praises The Circle’s “artistry” and “spectacular” editors, he feels the private aftercare offered in the months after was not sufficiently responsive or hands-on. “I had the most wonderful edit and I loved the experience, but I hated what happened afterwards,” he says. “I was left feeling wrung out and abandoned. I have never been quite so miserable in my life.”
He says his appearance on The Circle wreaked havoc with his career and that the high-to-low psychological trajectory left him unexpectedly traumatised. “When people come out of these shows, what are they left able to do?” he says. “They can model Asos bikinis … But I can’t go back to the life I had before.”
Reality TV aftercare has been put under serious scrutiny in recent years. Almost 40 people globally have died by suicide after appearing on a reality show, with many former contestants speaking out about the irrevocable harm appearing on such shows has had on their mental health. In 2019, the UK government launched an inquiry into reality TV’s duty of care, but there has been little progress in terms of regulatory policy.
Because of this, Wilson – who acknowledges that The Circle has one of the best aftercare processes – is actively campaigning for systemic change in the industry. The “exploitative” nature of reality TV shows could be softened, he says, with improved union powers for contestants and more effective independent watchdogs. In a statement, the producers did not comment on this idea, but said that the duty of care for its contributors is of the “utmost importance” and that the company prides itself on its “robust” aftercare protocols.
Studio Lambert has been heavily criticised in the past for its work culture. Earlier this year, a former Gogglebox employee alleged that the filming conditions were “inhumane”, aggressive and not Covid-compliant, defined by excessive working hours and a bullying atmosphere. Studio Lambert said that, since March 2020, all its shows had been produced with Covid-safe protocols. It added that it “takes the welfare of its teams extremely seriously across all its productions and has a number of measures in place to encourage people to come forward with any concerns they may have”.
In 2019, Chris Ashby-Steed, a former Gogglebox contestant, spoke out about the aftercare provided by the company, saying that he felt like a “failure” who was “left with scraps” after leaving the show. At the time, a spokesperson for the production company said: “Chris has not contacted us since he made the decision to leave the show. Duty of care is of paramount importance and psychological support is available to all Gogglebox contributors before, during and after appearing on the show, should they wish to take this up.”
Harcourt says: “We constantly communicate with contestants before they go on the show, after they come out of the show and long after they’ve left the show. All of our shows at Studio Lambert involve members of the public playing a game or being on TV, so it’s something you take really seriously.”
He blames the press and social media and says that the production team does what it can to psychologically prepare contestants to deal with both elements. “The social media that is out there at the moment has definitely had an impact on people who are in reality TV shows, and I definitely hold that more responsible for their mental health than reality TV.”
Either way, viewers are still hungry for it. While it is easy to portray reality TV as the problem, Harcourt says there is still plenty to celebrate in the industry. After all, as well as being entertaining, these shows can be interesting and uplifting. “I think shows can be nice,” he says. “I think The Voice is a nice show, I think The Circle is a nice show, I think Bake Off is a nice show.”
They are also – despite years of oversaturation, more popular than ever, particularly among younger viewers. “I feel like there’s a new cycle of reality TV that has learned a lot from the past and then sort of renewed itself for that young audience. I don’t think these shows are going away.”