My odyssey on a BBC Three ‘Social Experiment’ Documentary

Written By Alexander Finer |

It is not every day that university friends tag you on social media post regarding a BBC Three audition for people who love debating:

The promotional poster that was circulating across social media

My friends joked:

“Alex you must do this, you love being controversial!”

“You’re conservative, good chance to offend a few people, this audition is for you!”

How flattering. I knew then, judging by their reaction, I should probably apply. I mean, I potentially had a career ahead… Piers Morgan, watch out, I’m coming for your stage.

If I were to tell most of my work colleagues, family and friends that I was going to have to travel outside of university life from Lyon to London for a BBC Three audition, they would say I was lying. But I did, and quite the journey it was; this is my experience from the whole saga of the trip.  Hopefully, you may learn something worthwhile from the story of my do’s and don’ts of reality TV.

Hopefully, you may learn something worthwhile from the story of my do’s and don’ts of reality TV

When I arrived at the stunning Grange Langham Hotel in the West End part of London, I was ushered in to wait among other nervous, pale looking faces until I was called to the interview room. During this time, we were asked to converse and open up discussions with our fellow candidates. First topic, the relationship between gender, veganism and feminism. Well, many identified under different genders and typically were feminist or vegan; safe to say I felt slightly out of place, but a great time to test my vocal cords … and other people’s patience.

Grange Langham Hotel | Photo Credit: Ewan Munro

The first candiate introduced by identifying as a vegan-feminist on the basis of her strict moral compass.  Nonsense: I quickly remarked, you can’t be both a feminist AND a vegan. Everyone abruptly laughed, “why not”? Laugh they may- (Here comes Piers) I asked her: “Do you believe it wrong to kill sentient life?” She said yes.

I then asked: “Do you also believe women have the right to choose?” to which she also replied yes. I finally replied smugly (admittedly conservatives often do), “If you believe that then you can’t believe in both, as abortion means killing a sentient life, at a certain point”.

After I got a round of applause from some pumped-up men, some tears from her and a real scolding from the other women, I decided it was best to remain silent.  Finally, I was called up, shown to the interview room, which had two astonishingly bright lights and was surprisingly baking hot. I sat down, got questioned military-style by an older gentleman that I could barely see and a young producer that sat next to him. They started by asking me to present myself in one word. Independent was apparently the wrong answer. This is when the interviewing (or rather the interrogation) began.

He explained: “So, you’re just describing yourself.  I just want to know the real you.” He kept testing me by saying that if I changed my answer, he would let me on the TV show. Alas, I would not be fooled so easily.

He then resumed to show me pictures of a dead woman that had been brutally murdered and asked me if I should support capital punishment. As this was another test-  I was instinctively inclined to say no. Again, he reacted with disgust; he pretty much accused me of immoral behaviour and finished by adding that I was evil and uncaring. How accurate.

He kept testing me by saying that if I changed my answer, he would let me on the TV show. Alas, I would not be fooled so easily.

Well, that went well I thought.  If it’s bad, then it must be great news I reasoned. I left, thinking they would be in touch. How could they not? Remember this is a performance; they want you to be the monkey, see what you do and how you behave under pressure-  I imagine this was part of their candidate sorting process to see if we were genuine. I shortly found out that I got accepted for the program and had to set off for Liverpool, under two conditions: we were not going to be told what the program was about, and we were not allowed phones or electronic devices. Fine, I thought – what can go wrong.

The next day I met the other nineteen winners (if we can call ourselves that) and piled on the coach to go to the unknown location. It turned out to be the famous Thornton Manor- the BBC must have had a budget increase or something, certainly not from my unpaid subscription (an investigation has been opened!). Ben the presenter introduced himself and showed us around, while we were informed that the crew would be filming us non-stop during our stay.

It was the next day when we were summoned to the living room, that I found out I was going to be talking about sexual harassment. My mind raced, like a bad first date. Taxi please- well my time here is up, #Timesup and thanks for the grub (maybe that’s where the budget went).  No wonder they kept the topic quiet, people aren’t going to sign up to political and social suicide. You can’t win on this show, you just lose. Two options here: religiously side with the women, keep face and look virtuous, or look like a dirty, dodgy criminal and say sexual harassment claims and the media have gone too far. Well, I’m f***ed either way, aren’t I? 

Not a great time to say “Hi mum!” on TV.

Alex Finer pictured above, positioned second on the second to last row

Back to the program, we were shown a three-part video about a newly appointed bartender called Cat and her manager Ryan. Things start out fine, but Ryan starts to make comments about her smelling nice, while Cat behaves flirtatiously. This develops further as Ryan tries to give her an unwanted kiss outside her house. This leads to a tribunal. While at different stages of the narrative we had to vote on whether Ryan’s behaviour towards his colleague qualifies as sexual harassment. For the most part, there was a dramatic divide in the group, but opinions didn’t actually split along expected gender lines either.

There was in fact, a squad of strong-minded women who actually sided passionately in defending men-  one girl felt sorry for Ryan after his overture was rejected “you can’t feel but sorry for the guy”.

Another added “she never said once: no I don’t want this. How can you blame him; how can you ask him always, to see all the signals?”  while another said, “I do think that women have a more of a responsibility to speak up.” I was saved; no need to hide now. These were some powerful women, more so than me. Although, I think I was still sparking intense emotions from some but far less of a cosmic backlash than I expected; well that was until Twitter came along.

Finally, we voted on whether we believed Ryan’s behaviour could be considered sexual harassment. It was a fairly even response from our group but some girls surprised the guys by supporting Ryan in our group as it deviated from what we expected. On the other hand, some of the viewers at home were more angry than anything else; they took to Twitter to vent: “Some internalised misogyny going on with some of these young women” And “in fairness, a couple of the women too. Victim blaming.” many describing the responses as “disgusting”.  Some pretty harsh critics. So much for having your own opinion.

*  *  *

We rounded off the programme with group photos and a bit more glamour. Overall, I’d call this a success. The program was well received with over a million views and second trending on BBC iPlayer and had reviews from national outlets. It was a fantastic experience.

But I learnt a very important lesson, the experience actually engaged me in a difficult topic, I wouldn’t have applied on the show if I had known what the topic was going to be about. But it worked out great in the end, no hard feelings, and no bloodshed; everyone managed to express their views calmly, no one can call us snowflakes.

My best advice then is don’t be put off from discussing difficult topics publicly, even if you think you don’t have the ‘right opinion’ or are too afraid. You may learn and grow from it. Heck, you might actually have your mind changed.

Watch here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p06x0jv5/is-this-sexual-harassment

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