Weaver's Week 2018-10-21

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Next door's dog: "Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap."


The Circle

The Circle

Studio Lambert and Motion Content Group for Channel 4, 18 September – 16 October

Take eight social media people. Put them in eight flats somewhere near Hayes in West London. And don't let them out.

The Circle Dan spreekt tot zijn schilpad. Oh, sorry, we're not doing Dutch anymore.

All alone in their little worlds, these eight people start to talk to themselves. They talk at the plants, they talk at their pet turtle, they talk out loud at the walls. It's all at the behest of some television producers, who have put little cameras and microphones in the flats, a screen in every room (even the bathroom), and created "The Circle", a voice-activated computer thingummy.

As voice-activated computer thingummies go, The Circle was charmingly low-tech. Some might call it a bit useless. At home, we might say, "Skippy, what's the weather going to be today," and it'll reply "Cloudy, might brighten up towards evening." The Circle will just go "ping" and slap a "shrug" emojus on screen. You don't need to know, you're not getting out.

The Circle Who's in? Pretty much everyone.

We might say, "Skippy, call Lexa," and it'll reply "Calling Lexa", and the rest is history. The Circle will just go "eep-orp" and print the message "Did you mean: open a private chat with Kate?" All communication is mediated by The Circle.

And by all, we mean all. You don't hear voices. You don't meet other people in the flesh, the only human contact is through the pictures they've chosen. There is no smell of other people cooking, there is no taste or touch. All you've got is text, emoji, and a handful of carefully-curated pictures.

"Thanks. Now I'm interested."

Quickly, The Circle established its grammar. The contestants had been encouraged to verbalise their thoughts, to think out loud. Not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the camera, of the producer. No other player could overhear them, so everyone turned their inner monologue into something we could all hear. Introspection rules on The Circle.

The Circle Freddie composes a message.

Formal communication between players was done through "status updates". (I'm writing a song for Europe #MyLovelyHorse [donkey emojus]) And there was the verbal punctuation, to get The Circle's attention ("Message: Does it rhyme, man? Capitals it's got to rhyme! [fuming] [volcano] Send").

The punctuation was omitted once an exchange of messages got going, otherwise we'd never know what to hear. For we viewers, conversations were spoken in natural language, and at almost a natural cadence – a little slower, and a little louder than normal. But then we'd drop out of "conversation" mode, and back into "monologue" mode, and it was never really clear that had happened.

The Circle made it much easier to follow the players' thoughts, for us to know what they were really thinking. They told us. They told us who they were getting on with, who they didn't trust, who they thought was being a complete divot, who was their best friend. On other shows, like Big Brother on Channel 5, we have to watch body language, and see who physically hangs out with whom. On The Circle, we know that if Hannah starts a private chat with Precious, they're up to something.

The Circle Each show was cut to music, contemporary and composed. Each flat had a different look. But we weren't here for the interior design.

"You just act like you're playing some boring game."

Any constructed reality show needs a strong cast. The Circle had a strong cast. Eight big characters arrived, and more followed as the series continued. There was an elimination more nights than not, leading to a series that was about the right length. 18 shows over 3 weeks proved long enough to build a coherent and complex narrative, but short enough to not feel like a burden.

The big four players – in at the start, and surviving until the end – show the depth of character. Dan, a laidback man in his 30s, was shown as the sensible guy of the group. He was a contrast to Freddie, young and camp and with a remarkable ability to shriek at the top of his lungs. Not only did it test the soundproofing in the block of flats, it tested the soundproofing of this column's house. Just by appearing on telly, Freddie can set off a rovalert in our neighbourhood.

The Circle Sian and Freddie are bonding. Again.

But we digress. The final four also included Kate, a woman in her late 20s; and Sian, a tall model. Now, Sian had chosen to downplay her physical appearance because she wanted to be judged on her character. It's a small deception, and one that might never have been noticed if Sian hadn't mentioned it so much.

Sian wasn't the only one to invent a new life. Earlier in the series there was a fake doctor, people took years off their age, someone played as their own grandfather, a mother didn't admit her baby existed so she could be appreciated on her own merits. Freddie chose to pretend he was heterosexual, and the part of Kate was played by Alex, using his girlfriend's pictures.

More on this later.

The Circle Kate.

"When he walked through the door, part of his arm touched my shoulder."

The competition metric of The Circle was simple. Every so often, players would be obliged to "rate" each other, on a scale from 1 to 5. Whoever got the most votes was the winner. They might get a reward, or the top players might be named "influencers" and invited to "block" (eliminate) someone else from the game. Basically, it's a popularity contest to decide the top people, and the top people remove someone from the bottom by whatever means they think necessary.

This didn't fill up an hour, far from it. So there were tasks. Some came through "news" on the "newsfeed", reheated press releases and "surveys" that the producers thought would spark an interesting discussion. Whether the discussion was interesting or not, we'd have to see it. Some other tasks were silly, some were serious. Paint what you think another player looks like, wear a different emojus from the other players. All earned the winners (which could be everyone) a reward, dates and such. But even dates in The Circle were different, taking place through a computer screen.

The Circle Mitchell and Kate date.

We mentioned that players would be eliminated from the game. These "blocked" players were given one final gift, the ability to see someone in person before leaving. It's a bit like the "last will and testament" from The Murder Game, except delivered in person and with the ability to talk to the ex-player.

The Circle relied on its own lingo: catfishes (pretend to be someone you're not), snakey (attempting to deceive), bro (any relative or friend other than an brother), and much more.

"He was a genius. I had goosebumps. Just watching him think."

Inevitably, the mask had to fall. The final episode began with a face-to-face meeting between the final four. Placid Dan was first to enter the room. Then came Alex, who had played as Kate. Dan’s face ran the gamut of emotions, shock and horror and anger and embarrassment merged into one. When they draw the next WTAF emoji, Dan will be the model.

The Circle TV Highlight of the Year.

Dan had his suspicions that Kate wasn’t all she pretended to be, and that Freddie was trying too hard to be seen as straight. By the end of the conversation, Freddie and Sian were still besties, and Dan had forgiven Alex. Just about. Had the cameras hadn't been there, we suspect a different outcome.

We mentioned earlier that Kate was constructed to be the ideal player. Alex Hobern (the inventor of Kate) went on to win the final players' vote, albeit by some fairly sneaky tactics. Knowing that Sian was more popular than Kate, Alex gave ratings of only 1 and 2 points to the other competitors. Others rated more fairly, more of the range from 1 to 5. When someone tried this on Come Dine with Me back in the last decade, the producers took them to one side, and told them not to be such a twit. On The Circle, everyone used these underhand tactics, and subterfuge paid off to the tune of £50,000.

(Alex also won the viewers' vote, for most entertaining finalist, adding £25,000 to his prize.)

Sociologists talk about facades, masks, faces. We might be dutiful around our grandparents, and louche down the pub afterwards. We might swear like a trouper at home, and be all "golly gosh darn it" in the office. The Circle allowed players to project their ideal person, a version of themselves that they thought would be the most popular.

The Circle Dan in his flat.

Turns out that – in this series – "popular" equates to "nice", "pleasant", "rubs people up the right way", "doesn't cause friction". There might be a brief reaction against a fiftysomething, but it'll soon fade once you get to know them. Prejudices are icy, they tend to melt away under the heat lamp of actual contact.

"My life is so edited"

The inventor of The Circle wanted to explore "the good and bad of social media". Their vision has to be compromised for broadcast. We didn't get a real social medium. We saw a stylised social medium, reduced to its bare essentials. All of the rough edges would make for complex and confusing telly, so they had to be filed down. We're comfortable with the show, which suggests it might have compromised a little too much for the digital generation.

The Circle Screen time: 24 hours a day.

The Circle was a television show in writing. Text allows for subclauses; internal punctuation lets you drift off at a tangent – perhaps wildly so – before returning to your main point. Television wants to go straight to the point, and the demands of television beat the demands of communication. At times, The Circle felt like we were watching an intermediate course in English, it used simple sentences, and everyone spoke more slowly than normal.

The rating metric was simplistic, and it was utterly obvious that someone would exploit it. This column has a theory: you cannot reduce anything to a number. Not people, not experiences, not television shows. If we were to say "The Circle: three-star entertainment", it would hide more facts than it reveals. How the series got more interesting as we got used to the style and the characters, but less interesting as newbies were voted out. How the final programme displayed every cliché in the reality series final book of clichés, right down to the gold tokens landing in the host's hair.

The Circle Gold tokens suit Maya Jama. She could collect some more, and bring live show co-host Alice Levine.

Given the show's makers, we have to question if we're being fed an honest account. Studio Lambert have form as unreliable narrators. In Love Thy Neighbour (2011), the company tried to portray the good people of Grassington as insular bigots, only to find that middle England is more welcoming than they wanted. It was a warped reality show, distorting the facts to fit the production's prejudices.

More recently, Tattoo Artist of the Year (2017) laid on its opinions with a trowel. The judge states an opinion, and the commentary repeats it back as the gospel truth. If we wanted to hear what the judge had said, but in a different voice, we'd have got Skippy to read out the subtitles on a six-second delay.

In fairness, we didn't feel misled by The Great Interior Design Challenge, and our problems with Buy It Now weren't questions of honesty. But we've been burned enough to be very suspicious of Studio Lambert productions. And nothing in The Circle inspired confidence.

Even in the first episode, we found about The Circle weirdly timeless. When was this happening? The light looked wrong for mid-September, it's like they could have recorded all of this weeks ago and done some slick editing after the fact.

The Circle As not seen on TV.

Careful viewing made it clear that we weren't seeing the whole of conversations. Though the editors tried to hide it, they'd occasionally let us see full conversations on the ubiquitous screens. Conversations where we'd only heard the half of it, and there were nuances not shown to the viewers. Obviously the show is going to be edited. Of course it is. We can't see fifteen hours of each flat each day, that's dull and takes too long. But were we being fed particular narrative points? Were we being given an honest account of each player?

Was the choice of content made to push a particular point? The series had a lot of flirtatious banter, sometimes on the verge of more meaningful relationships. Were these encouraged by the producers? "News items" were made available, points the producers wanted to discuss. Were these chosen to advance other storylines? Was anything done to push forward a particular contender, or to knock someone else back?

There is no shame in falling for a catfish, we're all going to be deceived. The shame lies on those who misrepresent the truth and don't plan for being found out.

There are many questions of trust. All reflect back on social media, on the questions the producers want to ask.

The moral we took away: there is no shame in falling for a "catfish", we're all going to be deceived. The shame lies on those who don't think through their lies, whose fake persona is slapdash. The fault lies in people who misrepresent the truth and don't plan for being found out. The problem is liars who think they can flannel and assume they won't be caught out. It's almost as if Studio Lambert were the right people to make a programme on distortion, given their track record as unreliable narrators.

"That was the best weekend of my life"

The Circle Who's in? Six people remain.

Anyway, The Circle did well in the ratings. Raw viewing figures weren't spectacular, a million and change just before the final, but the audience skewed young, and skewed upper class. That's good news for advertisers. And it's good news for Netflix, the internet video company has bought up some more series to be made and shown around the internet.

It'll be interesting to see how well this works. After the opening show, this column didn't see the first week, and only caught up with the show in its final days. There was a community who saw it from the start, and who discussed it on their social media. These discussions were nuanced, intelligent, witty, in a way that the show wanted to be – and was at times. Buddy-watching a show helps to build an audience – or can help people decide they don't like the programme.

But we found The Circle still worked when we watched in arrears. It's a drama, the winner is determined by the other players, and not by the viewers. We didn't lose much from waiting a week to see the shows, and it'll still be interesting in some months time. Any longer and the show might start to date badly – this series won't prop up The Challenge Channel in 2024.

Where can The Circle go from here? Kate, the player too perfect to be real, has been done. What other facades can players adopt? There's the hook for series 2.

Top Class Update


Hamilton and Cardwell met in the opening quarter-final. It was a nailbiter, Hamilton had the better of the first half, then Cardwell nicked points here and there, and tied the match going into the final buzzer round. Cardwell squeaked ahead, winning the match 33-31.

Overchurch played Y Bont Faen in the next match, and the Pet Subjects round proved crucial. Overchurch scored a full 6 points on The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, Y Bont Faen managed just 2 on Ed Sheeran. It undid Mr. Winwood's strong work in Test the Teacher, and allowed Overchurch to race ahead, 34-29 the final score.

In the bottom half of the draw, Stanley took on Cedar Park. Stanley raced to a massive lead, reaching 20 points before Test the Teacher, and took five points from "Murder Most Unladylike" (and if we don't say it's a fine read for the CBBC audience, HazelAndDaisyFan will kick our shins). 42-21 the final score, another runaway win for Stanley.

Much closer between Seaside and Queen's in the last match. Queen's didn't score well on the first bonus round, lakes of the world, and this would prove to be crucial. A very close match pinged this way and that, both sides were perfect on their Pet Subjects. Seaside won the game on the buzzers, 33-32; we're sorry to lose Queen's, we'd have been sorry to lose Seaside as well.

Top Class can be like that. One of these four winners will come out the series victor, and we'll say which in three weeks!

This Week and Next

It was the annual MIPCOM awayday in Cannes this week. Owing to a mixup at our travel agents, the UKGameshows representatives ended up in a supplier of gardening equipment, Canes. And, owing to the size of The Circle, we'll hold over the recap of new formats until there's room.

Until then, here's the BARB ratings for the week to 7 October.

  1. (nibbles on carrot) What's up? Doctor Who the top-rated show of all (BBC1, Sun, 10.90m). Strictly Come Dancing is knocked down to second (BBC1, Sat, 10.88m) and third (BBC1, Sun, 9.9m).
  2. Burn-off continues on Channel 4 (Tue, 8.9m), and is still ahead of The X Factor (ITV, Sat, 6.25m). BBC1's weekend does well, HIGNFY (Fri, 4.85m) and Pointless Celebrities (Sat, 3.85m).
  3. Top game on BBC2 was Great Local Menu (Tue, 2.05m) ahead of University Challenge (Mon, 2m) and Mock the Week (Fri, 1.85m).
  4. The Circle (C4) continues to recover ground, Friday's episode seen by 1.25m. That's ahead of Big Brother (C5, Thu, 1.1m) and Celebrity Juice (ITV2, Thu, 935,000).
  5. Also big on the digital tier: Taskmaster (Dave, Wed, 745,000) and A League of Their Own (The Satellite Channel, Thu, 660,000).
  6. Spare a thought for ITV4's Chooseday strand: high-budget Take the Tower has missed the channel's top 50 in the last fortnight, no-budget Football Genius scrapes in at 103,000. We'll look at both shows next week.

Calibrate your calendar, Only Connect (2) returns (BBC2, Mon). There's no Peter Simon on the imported Double Dare (Nickelodeon, from Mon). And it's the final of sports quiz Y Ras (S4C, Fri).

Photo credits: Studio Lambert and Motion Content Group

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