“It’s like living in ‘The Circle'”: what TV’s isolation reality show can teach us about lockdown

Producers and pasts contestants tell Toby Earle what they learned from their time on the prophetic Channel 4 series

It may be stating the very obvious, but it’s been a strange year. From daily shopping trips to spending time with family, every aspect of life has been affected by the emergence of the coronavirus – even the world of reality television.

Incredibly, contestants in the German Big Brother house were left unaware of the unfolding public health emergency until March 17, when they were informed about the spread of COVID-19 on live TV by host Jochen Schropp, who explained why he and a doctor were addressing them from behind a glass panel. The series isn’t due to end until next Monday (May 18) and some of the housemates are still living there.

Meanwhile, across the globe in the Canadian Big Brother house, contestants were informed about the spread of the pandemic and given messages from family members. Then, in late March, they were told that the government of Ontario (where the show is filmed) had announced a shutdown of all non-essential businesses. Less than a day later, the series ended, with the $100,000 prize donated to a COVID-19 relief fund.

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One month later, quite by chance, Netflix released Too Hot to Handle, a dating show ideally suited to an era of social-distancing, where overly amorous horndogs must give up shagging for four weeks in order to win $100,000. For many singletons out there, unable to reach their usual dating hubs in bars and pubs, the show was annoyingly relatable. But there’s another reality series that’s even more prescient right now.

It’s The Circle, Channel 4’s hit game show where players are isolated in flats, have limited time outdoors to exercise, are allowed the occasional Netflix break, and rely on social media screens to interact with their neighbours.

The series has also gone down well in France, Brazil, and the USA, where the number of applicants for the next series was “humongous”, according to The Circle’s executive producer Tim Harcourt. As we continue to live a life of lockdown, much like the contestants, we asked the team behind the prophetic programme – as well as some former contestants – to tell us their coping strategies for living alone.

The Circle
Alex Hobern won the first ever series of ‘The Circle’ back in 2018. Credit: Channel 4

Alex Hobern (winner, series one)

“I’ve had a lot of messages from people who may be struggling with mental health [during isolation]. My only advice is to speak to whoever you can. There are lots of free helplines out there and, particularly right now, there are people who are very understanding of the scenario. I’ve been encouraging people to reach out to those services if they need them.”

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Isolation tip: “Explore your creativity. I started writing a diary and I got into colouring, like I was three-years-old. I never knew there was such a range of adult colouring books!”

Toni Ireland (executive producer, The Circle)

“When we were first put into lockdown people kept texting me saying, ‘Oh my God, it’s like living in The Circle’. After a few years of placing people in the same experience, here we are living it ourselves.

“One thing we’ve taken from the show, and how players cope, is routine. We try to help the players with that. We make sure they go outdoors and exercise every day. Players have a lot of downtime as well, so they’re allowed items to occupy them and their different choices are interesting. Last year Woody Cook, Fatboy Slim and Zoe Ball’s son, took in a keyboard which he was learning to play throughout his time. A lot of jigsaws were done – very similar to our lockdown now.”

Isolation tip: “Stick to some kind of routine. Take in fresh air, and be creative where you can, but without putting too much pressure on yourself.”

The Circle
Brroke Odunbaku was voted off series two by the other contestants in episode 15. Credit: Channel 4

Brooke Odunbaku (contestant, The Circle series two)

“We were warned there would be some downtime in The Circle, so there’d be time for hobbies. I brought Kiki, my training head, to learn how to braid hair. I’m not saying everyone has to learn how to braid hair, but find a new skill, practice a language, or learn to bake. We didn’t have our phones, and we didn’t have the Internet, but at least we had time to go to the hot tub on the roof or in the gym. I don’t have a gym [at home]! And I was always baking on the show, but there’s no flour [in the shops] – I can’t bake anymore.”

Isolation tip: “Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not doing the ‘5K Challenge’ everyone is doing. I haven’t run outside once. Every time I’ve run outside, without fail, I’ve twisted my ankle. I can only run on a treadmill.”

Tim Harcourt (creative director, Studio Lambert – makers of The Circle)

“We installed the gym quite early on, because we thought contestants were going to need exercise. The lack of fresh air was always a consideration. In this country, people have been able to go out for a run or walk, whereas in France and Spain they haven’t been able to. I feel really sorry for them.

“Lockdown felt weird when it came into effect – the show seemed oddly prescient. The Circle launched in France on April 9 and the feedback there has been incredible. I think everyone feels, ‘this is our experience and we can watch it be game-ified on Netflix.'”

Isolation tip: “We’re able to see people’s faces on Zoom – and although we may miss physical contact, genuine human connections are still possible. The Circle taught us that right at the beginning.”

Previous series of ‘The Circle’ are available to stream on All 4 now

An application form to take part in the planned but unconfirmed third series of The Circle UK can be found here

FOR HELP AND ADVICE ON MENTAL HEALTH:

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