Fizzy rosé. Two words that will never be used in the same way again due to season two of The Traitors, when a corker of a twist saw fan favourite (and bona fide homosexual icon) Diane meet her scream-at-the-TV doom after sipping the glittering stuff from a poisoned chalice delivered to her by smiling assassin Miles.
Can you believe that? We could never have predicted how well it would turn out,’ says Mike Cotton, the show’s executive producer. The show’s challenge is that although we establish the rules and game, we also take a step back. We have a fantastic cast, and we’re also really lucky.
For those who are unfamiliar with the BBC’s Bafta-winning classic, where have you been hiding, beneath host Claudia Winkleman’s fringe? Here’s the lowdown.
Adapted from the Dutch original De Verraders, the cloak-and-dagger tournament requires a group of participants to collaborate to fill a prize pot worth up to £120,000.
Claudia selects many ‘Traitors’ at the outset of the game, while the others are anointed as the ‘Faithful’. They must strive to ferret out the turncoats among them, and remove one member every episode following a mega-awks round-table debate.
Every night, the traitors’murder’ one of the faithful. If the Faithful expel the Traitors, they’ll share the money; if a Traitor lives to the end, the wealth is entirely theirs – mwah-ha-ha!
Set behind the 19th-century walls of Ardross Castle in the Scottish Highlands, the UK version debuted on the BBC in November 2022 and quickly became TV’s most talked-about drama.
The second season has brought additional watercooler moments – or, for those of us who work from home, something to talk with a not-so-curious cat. I’m overwhelmed. We completed season one and were blown away by it. “We were slightly terrified with season two, and it’s the same again,” adds Mike, who is also the deputy creative director of Studio Lambert, which produces the show.
The Australian version was recently cancelled, but British fans have embraced the Cluedo-meets-Guess Who? competition, with millions tuning in for their weekly dose of backstabbing and treachery.
‘Why has it struck a chord? It feels different from other reality shows,’ says Mike.‘There had been a glut of talent contests, or dating shows, or games that people could win only if they were the strongest, or the most intelligent, or the most beautiful.
‘What’s fascinating about The Traitors is that anyone can play it. You can be from any walk of life. You can be any age – our cast goes from 21 up to 70.’
What makes The Traitors so extraordinary is that it draws telly magic from the ordinary.
‘When we’re looking for people to apply – because we’re looking now for season three – we don’t want people to come on the show because they think it’s going to make them famous,’ says Mike.
‘We’re actively looking for people who have got a passion for playing the game who can bring something from their own lives to it, whether that’s a skillset from a past job or a hobby, or some sort of life experience they’ve had.’
One of this year’s breakthrough stars is Paul, a 36-year-old company manager and former Deal Or No Deal participant from Manchester. He provided charm and smarm in equal measure before being expelled from the castle.
‘We loved Paul from the moment we met him,’ says Mike. ‘He came into the show from day one saying he wanted to be a Traitor. We definitely knew he had the charisma to do that.
‘It’s important to know that we don’t decide months in advance who our Traitors are going to be. Just before we’re about to go into that room and Claudia taps them on the shoulder, that’s the point when we decide.’
Mike peels back the hood on some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, too, notably during the round-table sequences. ‘We play the same piece of music every time they walk into that room, which is a song from The Hunger Games called The Hanging Tree. It’s a brilliant piece of orchestral music and it really sets the tone.’
He adds that ‘no cameras are visible at all’, and the brr-acing temperature ramps up the tension. ‘It’s definitely very cold in that room. It’s got an eerie feel [although] we’ve never witnessed any ghostly activity!’
Mike and the team take a ‘hands-off’ approach as well. ‘We’re never telling people to go and have conversations with one another. We’re never directing anything like that, because we wouldn’t want to ever interfere with the game.
‘At the end of every night, the clock goes “Bong!” and they get taken in individual cars back to individual lodgings where they’re kept on lockdown. They don’t have access to telephones or the internet. They’re not able to communicate with one another. You want to keep their heads within the game.’
As for the competition’s missions – which some viewers confess to use as an opportunity to pop the kettle on – Mike touched on why he’d be reluctant to tweak their format. ‘The group as a whole, Traitor and Faithful alike, they’re all working hard to build that prize pot. The Traitors want that prize pot to be just as high as the Faithfuls do.
‘I think we’ll always stay true to that. We wouldn’t want to mess with the psychology of that… having that shared [bonding] experience then makes the betrayal afterwards all the greater.’
Of course, Claudia, the show’s not-so-secret weapon, is both funny and knitty. Those jumpers are amazing, as are the fingerless gloves (love).
‘She treads this really fun line. She can be quite brutal at times, but she’s also quite mothering,’ says Mike. ‘I always like to think of the show as a group of really nice people playing a brutal game, and Claudia encapsulates that. She’s a very nice person but a puppet master of this brutal game.’
With a third season in the works, Mike – who oversees the show’s celebrity-studded US counterpart, hosted by Alan Cumming – believes The Traitors will deceive for years. ‘It’s got potential to go for a while. It’s about making sure we keep the show feeling authentic and that we get the right cast to play it.’
However, Mike kept a poker face when quizzed about reports that a UK celeb spin-off has been greenlit. ‘That’s quite a lot of speculation at the moment. I was fascinated reading those articles,’ he says, laughing.
‘I know that Claudia in the past said she would love Adam Woodyatt from EastEnders to be in it. What I’m most excited about is that it’s a show where we could build a celebrity cast that would be wide-ranging. We could get some very clever people. We could get some people in who can add a bit of comedy and fun. It’s fascinating to see everyone’s suggestions.’
Either way, the future of The Traitors looks very rosy – or rather, rosé – indeed.
The Traitors concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC1