If you have never seen The Circle (Channel 4), this week-long celebrity special will be a bewildering, almost hallucinatory tour of contemporary popular culture. It’s a bit like those catch-up tapes they make for cabinet ministers so they don’t get caught out not knowing who was blown up in EastEnders last week. (Does that happen in EastEnders? It’s been a while.)
The format’s premise is that a group of strangers volunteer to be imprisoned in a block of flats, only able to communicate with each other through The Circle, an invented local social media platform. Through pictures and words they try to ascertain whether the other occupants of the block are really who they say they are, or if they are “catfishing”, lying about their identities. There are some other mechanics, too, involving “influence”, but I don’t understand them well enough to paraphrase them here.
For producers, the advantage of such a byzantine format is that most of this first episode is taken up by introductions. With the celebrities pretending to be other celebrities, in some cases there is a double or even triple layer of mystification. Rickie and Melvin, two Radio 1 DJs, pretend to be will.i.am. The rapper Lady Leshurr pretends to be the rapper Big Narstie. Loose Women’s Nadia Sawalha and Kaye Adams pretend to be Gemma Collins. Sam from Made in Chelsea and Pete from The Only Way is Essex team up to impersonate Rachel Riley. A drag queen called Baga Chipz pretends to be Kim Woodburn from How Clean is Your House. The viewer pretends to know what’s going on. At least Denise van Outen is herself. It’s something to cling to.
If this web of obscurity weren’t enough, proceedings are further complicated by the celebrities’ real-life relations with each other. Rickie and Melvin are able to say with confidence that something “sounds like Big Narstie”. Sam from Made in Chelsea follows the vlogger Saffron Barker on Instagram, and recently saw pictures of her on holiday with a boyfriend, so is surprised she has listed her relationship status as “single”.
Typing is un-telegenic, so instead the contestants spend most of their time dictating to the TV. The decor is not conducive to concentration. Each of the cells is decorated in its own “distinctive” style, apparently by toddlers on LSD. Before the ad breaks we are invited to donate £10, £20 or £30 by text. How much to make it stop?
Dropped into the middle of this garish nightmare is a short, sad film about a young woman called Emily Hayward, made from her own self-filmed footage over an eight-year battle with cancer. A concealed camera captures the moment she learns the cancer has spread through her body. We see the effects of radiotherapy on her speech and hair. In the final moments her wife, Aisha, explains that Emily has died. She was 24. The segment reminds us that this circus is in support of a good cause. It’s also proof that technology can grant access to the quiet moments with an immediacy drama can never replicate. By providing everyone with a camera, the smartphone also gives expression to the voiceless. For most of the contestants on The Circle, a bit of voicelessness would be no bad thing.
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