Plunkett on TV: the power games of Rise and Fall

Channel 4’s new reality show Rise and Fall shines a light on power - how to win it, how to keep it, and what to do with it when you get it - at a time of unprecedented flux among Britain’s governing elite.

The idea took shape at production company Studio Lambert at the height of Partygate, and it’s entirely appropriate that it airs just as Boris Johnson gives evidence to the keenly-anticipated Commons inquiry this week.

A revolving door of chancellors and prime ministers have come and gone in Johnson’s wake, making Rise and Fall feel especially timely.

‘Watching how the powerful make decisions about the powerless is clearly a resonant subject and that’s at the heart of it,’ says Alf Lawrie, head of factual entertainment at Channel 4.

‘The question of what kind of people become successful and how they do it,  particularly in situations like modern politics, is interesting to explore. It’s a reality show and it’s designed to entertain but there are important questions at the heart of it, which is what makes it a Channel 4 show.’

The 18-part series, which began on Sunday (19th March) and will air over four weeks, puts 16 people of all ages and from all walks of life together, with the chance to win up to £100,000.

Split into two teams, the Rulers live in a luxury penthouse and decide how hard the basement-dwelling Grafters must work in order to build up the prize pot, which only a Ruler can win.

But as Liz Truss will attest, gaining power is no guarantee you will keep it, and Rulers who fail to curry sufficient favour risk being displaced by one of the Grafters. And is being a Ruler all it’s cracked up to be?

The roots of the show go back to 2021, when Channel 4 put out a call for the next big reality show to replace The Circle.

An appeal for a format that was about social hierarchies and dynamics but with a broad cast, Rise and Fall emerged from the development team at Studio Lambert run by the production company’s creative director, Tim Harcourt.

‘We wanted to created a competitive reality environment, kind of in the spirit of Upstairs Downstairs, in the hope of creating maximum drama whilst also saying something about power, wealth and the lack of it,’ says Mike Cotton, executive producer and deputy creative director at Studio Lambert.

‘Power was very topical at the time - Boris Johnson and Partygate - and the great disparity in society between the haves and have nots.’ His elevator pitch? ‘Succession meets Big Brother.’

‘We looked at lots of different ideas but loved this one because it felt like a very relatable and potentially aspirational question at the heart of it, which is how do you win friends and influence people?’ says Channel 4’s Lawrie.

‘How do you get what you want in life and how do you gain the respect of the people around you? That is a perennially interesting question and that is fundamentally the thing at the heart of this.

‘It’s fascinating how certain very strong personalities who have enormous charisma flourish, but also certain very mediocre personalities who lack any charisma but are very happy to attach themselves to coat-tails of other charismatic people, also flourish.’

Greg James was approached to present the show and quickly fell in love with the format. With the tone of a slightly mischievous ringmaster, the Radio 1 breakfast presenter brings a lightness of touch to a show where the rivalry can be intense.


Or, as Lawrie puts it: ‘He is a wonderfully reassuring and fundamentally decent presence at the heart of it, to balance some of the more Machiavellian edges of the show.’

Some of the work tasks set for the Grafters are also intense, including a memorable electrocution challenge - not quite as drastic as that sounds - in the opening episode.

‘Some of the work challenges our contestants take part in are slightly tortuously funny, and we felt his tone married well with that,’ says Cotton.

But after that hair-raising opener, what can we expect from future tasks? ‘They get bigger and better and all are loosely based on jobs people do in the real world,’ says Cotton. ‘What I can say is there is one based in a pet food factory that is particularly interesting to watch.’ The mind boggles.

After a year of preparation - including finding the location for the show, Transport for London’s glorious art deco former HQ in St James - various production and scheduling issues combined to make this a particularly fast turnaround.

Filming only began two weeks ago and will carry on up until this weekend when the finale will be shot, by which time the first six episodes will already have aired on Channel 4. Each episode takes a day to shoot and is edited over the following three days.

‘The fast turnaround puts the production under a lot of pressure but the exciting thing about it is we are broadcasting as we film - it’s one of those seat of the pants rollercoaster rides where you don’t know how it’s going to finish and there’s something fun about that,’ says Lawrie.

‘It’s a living breathing social experiment and none of us as we speak know what’s going to happen. Will the winner be some psychotic Machiavellian sociopath, or will someone truly kind and wise and caring for those around them end up flourishing?’

Draw your own real life comparisons if you want to, but we couldn’t possibly comment.

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