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The Circle finalists on getting through isolation

After living through a month of isolation on a Channel 4 game show, finalists are heading back into lockdown for the second time.

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Isolation, heavy social media use, and being stuck inside with only a few sanctioned activities a day – this is a brand new reality most of us are experiencing for the very first time. But for a small group of reality TV stars who spent a month in isolation on The Circle, Channel 4’s latest breakout success, this is a past life they’re reliving after thinking they’d left it behind forever.

The Circle is a game show in which people compete to become the most popular person on a fake social media platform called “The Circle” – often catfishing or putting on fake personalities to make themselves more likeable. Contestants live in complete isolation in flats all in the same building and can only communicate via this interface, playing games, having private chats, and “blocking” (ie evicting) the least popular people several times a week. Although contestants are able to go to the roof of the building they live in, as well as the gym, they do not speak to any other people beyond a producer or showrunner, and don't have access to television, the internet, or their phones. The finalists who make it to the end of the show experience this period of isolation for nearly four weeks, and in the first season this included a week in hiding preceding the show’s start. The prize for the winner is £100,000. 

Dan Mokasu was a finalist on the first ever season of The Circle in 2018 and was also a contestant since the first day, meaning he spent an entire month cut off from the outside world. “Even when we were in hiding, we weren't allowed to watch live TV, we obviously weren't allowed to read newspapers, we weren't allowed to do anything really,” Dan tells me. “And then of course once you actually got on the show, you were even more limited. You can't do anything, essentially. It's really like primitive stuff to keep yourself entertained.”

During the show, viewers can catch glimpses of contestants playing puzzles, reading books, or doing yoga between bouts of messaging. For Dan, a month of this wasn’t necessarily cabin fever-inducing, but he did say he felt cut off and often bored. “I definitely felt disconnected,” he tells me. “We had even less [to do] than we do now.”

James Doran was a finalist on Season 2 of the show who, like Dan, was in it from the beginning. However, he tells me that he suffered mental health problems both in The Circle and after he got out, and even had to be signed off for stress and anxiety when he returned to work. He says the loneliness combined with catfishing for an entire month (playing a single mother named Sammie) made him incredibly paranoid and the only human contact he had was “the kind of conversations you’d have in a lift” a couple of times a week with show producers.

“I don't want to put a light mood on it, because it's a really serious situation,” he says of now being in coronavirus lockdown, “but I think it's a walk in the park comparing it to The Circle. I'm around my mum, my brother, I can speak to my girlfriend whenever I want to, I can go outside for a walk – you can't do that stuff in there. We couldn't use any technology, we had no sense of time… we couldn't plan our days.”

Although he felt at ease with this far more lax form of isolation, James does say that many parts of this are far more intense than his experience on The Circle. “When you're self-isolating in The Circle there's an end goal,” he says. “We knew how long we were going to be in there, whereas with this situation we don't know how long it's going to go on for. No one's going to win 100 grand when it's over. There was an angle, there was a target, there was something to try to get, to keep determined. It wasn't like ‘this filming might be extended for a few months and I might still be here then’ – it's that uncertainty that a lot of people are stressing out about.”

James has been using his Instagram account to help people struggling with isolation, creating videos on how to stay sane during lockdown and setting up an account to show people what exercises he did when he was stuck inside during filming. 

“I don't want people to read this and think I'm just talking about my experience on The Circle,” James adds. “I genuinely want them to know that I care about other people, I'm not like 'oh I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt.'”

Paddy Smyth, the winner of Season 2, tells me that he is a “chameleon” and found he was able to quickly adapt to his isolated surroundings when he joined the show. “It definitely takes a toll on your psyche because it's just a different type of environment than we're used to,” he says. “But I actually found it quite relaxing being there.” 

In many ways, Paddy thinks that being cut off in The Circle is better than the lockdown we’re experiencing now.  “You can't go outside because it's bad for other people – if I went mad or if I needed air [in The Circle], I could do that,” he says.“If you take that out of it, I don't really mind being in isolation now – what I do mind is that that's a game show and this is affecting our livelihoods.”

Paddy is a social media activist for disabilities and is particularly vocal about mental health. “Even though you are social distancing, it means physical distance,” he says. “Keep in touch with your loved ones and speak to your friends a lot.” He also said to embrace isolation. “I find that, trying to fight something, you go into a state of panic... especially right now, you kind of have to go with the flow and take every day as it comes.”

All three finalists I spoke to had advice about how to stay engaged during isolation. “There are a million things that you could do,” Dan says. “Learn a language, reorganise your wardrobe, talk to your pets, phone a family member… Do your mum a favour and just clean up the house!” Paddy and James conducted an Instagram Live earlier in March, giving their own tips about how to combat cabin fever. Both suggested puzzles and reading, and giving yourself something to do each day to look forward to, as well as looking after your physical health. “Take care of your body and your mind will follow,” James says.

But above all else, the one thing they valued right now that they didn’t have in The Circle was the ability to speak to the people they love. “The conversations you’d have [in The Circle], it wasn’t like deep questions,” James tells me. “ And it's not the people you want to be speaking to, is it?”

“It wasn’t the conversations you would have with someone you're connected with, which is really what's important,” he adds. “Keep in touch with those people now.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.