Earlier in my life I ran a youth drama group. We were called ‘Weekenders’ and we met, appropriately enough, on a Friday evening at the start of the weekend. We didn’t actually do much drama towards the end despite a couple of pantomimes when we started out. They were hard work, especially for the leaders, and after a few years I realised that the real value of the group was in creating a space in which the kids (age range was mainly 9 – 14) could be more or less themselves. They could push ideas about who they were or wanted to be and they would be taken seriously. Every week we would have what we called ‘circle time’ during which the group would sit in a circle and each would have the chance to share something of their week – a bit of news or something they found interesting – and everyone had an equal opportunity to voice their thoughts. I cannot lie and say it didn’t have its awkward moments and it was all wholesome and fun but the intention was clear and if they bought into it then it was a worthwhile exercise for all involved.
I am reminded of this because the second series of ‘The Circle’ is currently back on our TV screens. For those of you unfamiliar with the specifics of the show, it comes under the umbrella of what has become know as ‘reality TV’ and is comparable to Big Brother or Love Island. The basic premise of putting a bunch of strangers ‘together’ in an unfamiliar space and watching what ensues is now a fairly well worn trope, what differentiates a programme like The Circle from the rest – its USP if you will – is that the participants never meet their fellow competitors until they are ‘blocked’ (removed from the game) or the whole thing ends. The only means of communication permitted is through ‘circle chats’. These involve the exchange of worded messages via a set of interactive screens positioned in all rooms of each of the flats. They can be with other specific players or the group as a whole. At the start of the series or when a new player replaces one that has left they must set up their profile. This consists of a brief explanation of who they are, their ‘bio’, and a couple of photos that they hope will depict them in a way that everyone finds pleasing. The point is that this profile can bear absolutely no resemblance to who they actually are. They can make up a story and use pictures of friends or random people to back that story up. Or they can be themselves. It is in this detail on which a fairly mundane, it must be said, programme largely twists and turns.
I am trying to complete this before the series ends and we discover which approach has won the day. On one side we have a recruitment consultant from Liverpool called James who is masquerading as single mother Sammie. I understand that this is referred to in modern parlance as ‘catfishing’. His main profile picture is one of a real mother and her baby son. James, seemingly, has no qualms in deceiving the other players and manipulating them in such a fashion. Tim, who is Jammie’s main rival to win, is almost diametrically opposed to Jammie in virtually every aspect of his life and, importantly, very specifically in the way he is conducting himself in the show. Tim’s profile picture is of bearded man in his 50s with a cat on his shoulder. Tim is a bearded man in his 50s who has a couple of pet cats. The rest are split evenly into which camp they are in, though notably, only those in Jammie’s corner realise they are actually in a cabal at all. The ‘Circle of Trust’ is the somewhat ironic name for the Jammie ‘massiv’. Who will win is anyones guess. A large part of me wants Tim to prevail and strike a blow for integrity but, equally, this is a game and you cannot argue that Jammie is playing it remarkably well. I am not sure the rest of the viewing public are as ambivalent as me – the whole thing is, very aptly for our times, taking a very binary turn, but I am certain we all look forward to the point at which Tim and Jammie come face to face and the realisation of what they have been through dawns. Catfish meets cat lover – the fur will fly – meooooowwwwwwwww!
The parallels with our use of social media are as obvious as they are intentional. It is widely accepted that there is generally some, what shall we call it, embellishment in the way we portray ourselves on Instagram or Facebook. That’s ok, isn’t it? We have a fantastic idea of who we are or would like to be and this did not start with the introduction of ‘socials’. What we are now able to do is to tell the world our fantasies, we can introduce everyone to our future selves – they might even be able to help us bring them to life. This merging of fantasy and reality, you becoming you, is the way in which I think we start find true belonging.
In The Circle James can never become Sammie and I think he will regret that he didn’t make the most of the opportunity that this experience gave him. He never seems to relax, always stood up and pacing the floor fretting. Meanwhile, Tim who is obviously a long way to becoming the person he believes he is relaxes on his sofa with his cat by his side. Tim has from the outset been the most settled person in the show. He has had many anxious moments but never about who he is. Everyone else is somewhere between the two. James may well walk away with the £100,000 prize. That amount of money changes lives. He clearly thought that was the most important reason to be in the process when he started out. I wonder if the experience has changed that?
And what of my Weekenders? I have yet to see any of them starring in a Hollywood blockbuster but there is still time for that. Whatever they become, whoever they become, I hope they look back on those Fridays as fondly and as warmly as I do and feel that they made the most of the time we all shared.