The next Big Brother? How The Circle breathed new life into reality TV

Simple and relatable, the Channel 4 contest embraces its questionable morals – and viewers can’t get enough

In 2010, Channel 4 held a fake funeral in the back garden of the Big Brother house, in its final outing for the network. Thus marked the passing of its landmark franchise, and with it the channel’s reputation for reality TV (Big Brother, of course, later carried on on Channel 5, though it was never quite the same). Little did we know that the producers of The Circle would, some eight years later, bring the channel back to the forefront of reality programming. Simple, relatable and perfect for socially distanced filming, the series – which concludes its third series on Friday – has proved increasingly popular, and now numbers among Channel 4’s most-watched shows, alongside Gogglebox and Taskmaster.

A true Frankenstein’s monster, The Circle is an amalgamation of the biggest reality hits of the past 20 years. It fuses Big Brother’s panoptical paranoia and northern narration with Towie’s constructed arguments, and Love Island’s gameplay: “Alert!” is arguably the new “I’ve got a text!”.

Living in luxury Salford apartments, contestants are secluded – interacting exclusively via their profile on a social media app. Playing as themselves or “catfishing” (playing as someone else), they compete in a popularity contest in which the loser risks being “blocked”.

Debuting in 2018 to little fanfare, The Circle has stealthily, steadily grown – as has the prize pot (initially £50,000, now £100,000). Preceding the most recent, third series we were even treated to a brief but brilliant special in aid of Stand Up to Cancer. Early comparisons to Celebrity Big Brother quickly proved redundant – rather than a vehicle for fading stars attempting to revive their careers, this was a test of wits. As Blue’s Duncan James soon found out, fame wasn’t the name of the game – he was given the boot within 24 hours by a Gen-Z YouTuber who had no idea who he was, but not before revealing that he had once pooed himself on live TV.

The third civilian season had the added challenge of not broadcasting live for the first time (the whole series was filmed last September). Would viewers switch off if they weren’t able to influence the show? It would appear not. Despite some baffling programming from Channel 4, where broadcast schedulers appeared to throw darts at the calendar, The Circle seems to have found its footing. By shifting away from viewers’ influence, producers have had free rein to meddle without fearing the wrath of wronged voters. While twists may have tipped slightly into excess in the final week (we didn’t need a new player days before the end), for the most part it has been brilliant.

‘Manrika, an early fan favourite … torched the foundations of her carefully built empire.’
‘Manrika, an early fan favourite … torched the foundations of her carefully built empire.’ Photograph: Channel 4/PA

Who can forget the look on “geezer gal” Tally’s face as she woke up to discover someone else was impersonating her in a Game of Clones? Or the toe-curling love affair between smitten Manrika and soldier Felix (actually Natalya, who is a military police officer who wears thigh-high boots while doing the dishes)?

In relatable scenes of monotony, we’ve seen contestants struggle to keep themselves occupied. Players have battled ovens and smoke alarms, mucked about in fancy dress and snacked relentlessly – catchphrase generator Scott (playing as his nan) revealed an affinity for battenberg cake that bordered on obsession. But while these moments scratch the voyeuristic itch, we’ve really been there for the drama. We were given a fascinating insight into trolling through The Circle’s anonymous games – where, liberated from repercussions, players gleefully attacked one another. Even lovable sap Vithun couldn’t help unleashing a dig at “#CircleSibling” Manrika, later getting his comeuppance by being eliminated at her hand following a tearful confession.

The buzzword for contestants this year has been authenticity. Ignoring their own treachery, players eulogised the virtues of honesty while – for example – impersonating a twentysomething NHS nurse (actually a 47-year-old former Gladiator, James Crossley, AKA Hunter). In excruciating scenes, we saw him later reveal a gross irony deficit as he indicted Manrika for duplicity before storming off the set.

Grappling with the extreme boredom of isolation, the contestants’ paranoia has whipped them up in to a frenzy. Manrika, an early fan favourite, descended into Daenerys Targaryen territory with just a week to go – torching the foundations of her carefully built empire. Ruthlessly assassinating allies, she developed her very own Judas kiss: every time she assured a player that she “had their back till the end”, they found themselves on a train home within 24 hours.

While early reality TV marketed itself as a social experiment, discouraging overt strategising (it was outright banned in Big Brother), The Circle deliberately casts players who are willing to play fast and loose with morality. Some catfish contestants have been more honest than those playing themselves, and the intricate web of lies spun across the series has led to both heart-rendering connections and cringe-inducing situations.

Monstrous by design, The Circle embraces the unnatural nature of reality TV. Created to cause conflict, it revels in its twisted gameplay. Besides, as we live our own lives of seclusion – interacting almost exclusively via social media – it feels more than relatable. Luckily for us, though, we will be tucked up at home if and when Manrika and Felix do finally meet, far from the icy chill that will surely envelop the room. If those simpler days of Big Brother taught us anything, sometimes it’s better to be a fly on the wall …

The Circle airs tonight, 10pm, Channel 4, with the finale at 10pm on Friday


Michael Chakraverty

The GuardianTramp

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