The Circle is now back for its second run on Channel 4, with the social media-based game show attracting a cult following after its 2018 debut.
The show sees a set of hopefuls live alone in their own London apartments, communicating with each other only by the eponymous social network – which sees some contestants catfish their way to the top.
Those who are named the most popular on The Circle are deemed ‘influencers’, in with a chance of winning the show’s £100,000 cash prize, while the least popular are in danger of being ‘blocked’ – which sees them out of the competition altogether.
The first UK series was won by Alex Hobern, who posed as ‘Kate’ on the social media site using pictures of his girlfriend Millie.
But while we see the action filtered into a narrative on screen, what was it really like to be on The Circle as a contestant? We asked Alex for the lowdown…
How did Alex get involved in The Circle?
Alex first had his interest piqued by The Circle when he saw an advert for the show, which said it was looking for social media experts. Having honed his craft at UniLad, Alex decided to apply for the show.
“They gave me a call a few days later,” he told RadioTimes.com. “I was hungover at the time and they said ‘What would you do if you were on the show?’ and everything that I’ve seen over the years is women do better on social media than men. So I said I’d be a woman and the idea just developed from there!”
Alex was originally going to use pictures of models to create ‘Kate’ – before his girlfriend intervened.
“Millie was like ‘No. That’s weird. That’s creepy. Just be me if you want. Use my pictures and put your personality to it and see what we can come up with,’” Alex explained.
“Before I knew it, this whirlwind had happened and I was on TV pretending to be a woman!”
What is it like to live in the apartments?
The contestants in The Circle all live in their own purpose-built flats on their own throughout the experience – but that didn’t mean they were totally alone.
Although he never saw them or even communicated with them, Alex said it was clear there were a lot of runners [TV production assistants] on the show, who made the beds and even did food shops for the contestants when they were out filming other things.
“It’s a very seamless process,” he explained. “While you’re in the gym, or having some time on the roof, or filming your diary room, runners will make your bed, do your washing, put food in your fridge for you to cook.
“I cooked all my meals myself, but those who couldn’t really cook got ready-meals. I’m good friends with Freddie, who was runner-up, and he said he always had ready-meals.
“It was great – if that was your life, you leave for work and you come back and everything’s done, that would be fantastic.”
How did Alex cope with the loneliness?
It should be noted that The Circle is certainly not for the faint-hearted, with the contestants left more or less without human contact for the majority of the experience.
The bulk of the three-week time period is spent in that flat, with only brief respite away from the game to go onto the roof, or to go to the gym, or to record segments to camera.
“You’re not allowed outside, but you are allowed on the roof,” he said. “You never bump into anyone or see anyone.
“I was completely unprepared for the amount of isolation that there was. I didn’t bring enough things. I brought two books that I thought would be funny, so I brought George Orwell’s 1984, and I brought The Circle [Dave Eggers’ dystopian 2013 novel] in there, which completely messed me up mentally because that’s all I had.
“If you think about how long the show is, and you think about how many hours there are in a day… there’s no Netflix, there’s no TV, so you spend a lot of your time like, ‘What do I do?’.”
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However, there are ways for producers to oversee proceedings and to communicate with the participants.
“You’ve got producers through the ceiling who are talking through and communicating with you,” he said. “If I put a request to go up to the roof, they’ll say, ‘Okay Alex, you can go to the roof,’ and everyone else is on lockdown.
“So you walk your way up to the roof and you spend however long up there and you dread them coming back on and saying, ‘Time to go down now’ and you’re like, ‘No!’”
The isolation saw Alex really fixate on even the most menial details on the outside world. “I could see a car park from my window,” he explained. “I was staring out the window at that car park the whole time and I was like, this is all I know right now, is this car park. I was watching all the people come in and out, seeing who was late in on certain days and wondering why.
“You get really weird there. They were building the live studio in the car park towards the end, and I had no concept of time or days or whatever, because they take everything off you and you’re not allowed to know the time, and I was watching it being built until, one da,y all the lights were on in there and I was like, ‘Wow, this is it! Finally, I’ve made it, this is the last day!’.”
How did Alex prepare to pretend to be Kate?
Alex did lots of research to pretend to be a woman – having all the key facts about his girlfriend in a black book which he studied in order to memorise her mannerisms.
“I had this book of knowledge which I used and I woulD channel it every morning,” he said. “I’d read through it at night when everything had shut down and be like ‘Remember this. Remember this. Start a conversation about this.’”
But while he had Kate’s dress size, bra size and make-up routine down pat, Alex struggled with other general knowledge about women – which were exposed in The Circle’s regular games and quizzes.
“There was this question like, ‘There’s this girl band, four girls, on tour, who are they?’ – I said The Spice Girls and it was Little Mix and the amount of crap I got off the other contestants, like ‘You’re a girl, why don’t you know Little Mix?’ and I was like ‘This is way more complicated than I thought,’” he laughed.
“I think the game element was interesting. People were asking where the craziest place was you’ve had sex and I was thinking ‘How do I answer this like a girl?’ – Luckily, I managed to come through unscathed but there were some very close calls in there.”
And while Alex accepts that, generally, catfishing is seen as a negative thing to do, he believes his performance as Kate has helped raise awareness about the matter.
“I did originally feel guilty when I won, but people were on-board with what I was doing and the humour that I was trying to bring to the game as well,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be so hard on myself if I had my time again. I felt I shouldn’t have won the money because I was being fake. It really hit me hard. Now it’s like, no, I should have, because I won the game.”
The Circle launches Tuesday at 9.15pm on Channel 4