From beneath her fringe, black as a raven’s wing, Claudia Winkleman evinces no sign she knows that her new series, The Traitors, may be one of the BBC’s more enormous reality show flops. Ever the pro, outwardly she is full of wit and grace. But what, I wonder, is she really thinking as the hapless narcissists taking part in this extended extravaganza of tedium attempt to win themselves £120,000. As I watched the first two episodes – no need to thank me; I did this so you don’t have to – sometimes an image of the glorious Winkles would flash, unbidden, into my mind. I could see her quite clearly backstage, furiously stabbing out a text message to an agent who’d long since given up answering her increasingly desperate calls. “I’M A CELEBRITY GET ME OUT OF HERE,” the message said. And then: “YOU’RE FIRED!”
The Traitors reminds me more of The Apprentice than I’m a Celebrity, but exists in a different sphere altogether to either. Over-think a hoary format, and this is what you a get: a show that is complicated where it should be straightforward; which aspires to a vague cleverness where it should really aim only for rank stupidity. Though, having said this, the competitors are not exactly Mensa board members. “[It’s] the national anthem!” shouts one, on hearing the sound of “Auld Lang Syne”. Another, hoping to be chosen as a “traitor” by Winkleman – I’ll explain the rules in a minute – reveals that she kept trying to “manifest” this, which is, I think, the woo-woo word for concentrating ever so hard on something you really want. Ask this lot to burn a pair of giant wicker rabbits to the ground – this actually happened – and, even if you’ve given them a fuse and a barrel of petrol, no one can be absolutely certain an inferno will ensue.
It goes like this. In a remote Scottish castle – baronial gothic with turrets the size of Michael Gove – are 20 people who must work together to perform ludicrous convoluted challenges, the successful completion of which delivers more cash into the grand prize pot. But there’s a catch. This is a version of And Then There Were None. Among the contestants are three traitors, chosen by Winkleman. Each night, the traitors murder one member of the faithful (ie the non-traitors), and each afternoon the faithful get to banish one person they suspect of being a traitor. The game, then, is ultimately psychological. To stay in it, you must avoid being banished. You must also try to identify the traitors before they murder you. I told you it was complicated.
The competitors are very 21st century. Among their number is a BMX athlete, a cheerleading coach, a spa therapist and a solutions consultant (no, me neither, though I’m now thinking of employing one). Several of them have the deluded messianic tendencies we know from The Apprentice. Wilfred, a charity fundraiser, describes himself unironically as a “puppet master”. Imran, a scientist, keeps telling us he was the youngest person ever to get a PhD in his (unnamed) discipline. They’re all highly ruthless and desperate to win, but they’re also extremely badly prepared for Scotland. If Winkleman’s only concession to the heather is a Barbour and some Fair Isle fingerless gloves, the others are conceding nothing in the sartorial stakes. One turns up dressed like a pompom. Another wears a boob tube.
My favourite – not that I’m ever watching this again – is 72-year-old Andrea, a spit for Beatrice Mason, as played by Stephanie Cole in Tenko (younger readers: Tenko was a BBC drama of the Eighties about British women in a Japanese internment camp during the war). Andrea’s not having any nonsense, and I think (in about eight years, when all this is finally over) she’ll win. She may not be the best at the challenges – she sort of bobs around, hoping no one will get cross and throw her on to a wicker rabbit – but she isn’t boastful, Botoxed or boob-tubed. Winkles appreciates her, I can tell. You can imagine the two of them, having bribed the director to keep shtum, hitting the nearest Premier Inn together for an evening of laughter – the lunatics! the asylum! – over an OK malt and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.
BBC One, 29 November, 9.30pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince