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Claudia Winkleman on hosting The Traitors: ‘I turned 50 and thought I’d take a few more risks’

No mercy: Claudia Winkleman embraced her role as a pitiless taskmaster
No mercy: Claudia Winkleman embraced her role as a pitiless taskmaster - Mark Mainz

It’s a drizzly day in the Scottish Highlands. The rolling glens are brushed with dark purple heather, the leaves are starting to turn to rust and I’m blindfolded in a 19th-century castle, fighting for survival. The slow, rhythmic thunk-tap of boots striking wood gets louder as the enemy circles and closes in. My heart quickens – will I be the chosen one? Am I their prey? Gradually, the footsteps retreat. No, not today.

This well-orchestrated drama is playing out because I’m on the set of BBC reality game show The Traitors. And it must be said that host Claudia Winkleman has perfected the most intimidating walk since Mr X in Resident Evil.

Best known for her wholesome co-presenting of Strictly Come Dancing, Winkleman can usually be seen tottering around in sparkly stilettos and handing out hugs. But here she is playing against type as a stone-cold rule enforcer who must also secretly choose a group of ‘Traitors’ by tapping them on the shoulder. Their task is to ‘murder’ their fellow players – the Faithfuls – and run away with a prize pot of up to £120,000. Meanwhile the Faithfuls must try to work out who the Traitors are, banishing them from the game before becoming their next victim.

Perhaps Winkleman has identified me as a budding Miss Marple. Having not given me the sign, I am, therefore, a Faithful. But let’s keep that between us, for now.

Alongside Squid Game: The Challenge, Survivor and The Masked Singer, The Traitors is part of a current trend for high-concept reality programmes. Based on Dutch show De Varraders, the first UK series in 2022 has had 34 million views on BBC iPlayer, won two Baftas and an NTA. In its first year, 3,000 people applied; for this series, which begins on Wednesday, it was 30,000. A third series has already been commissioned, plus Australian and US versions are also proving popular.

“We had no idea what we were doing – we were just giving it a go,” says Winkleman as we come together to chat at the castle’s Arthurian-style round table. “I did have reservations. I’m risk averse and like lying in my bed. They told me I’d be working in Scotland for three weeks, which meant I couldn’t put my kids to bed each night. But then I watched the Dutch version and immediately booked a train ticket to Scotland.”

Winkleman had a busy 2022. Alongside The Traitors and Strictly (plus her Radio 2 weekend show, which she quit last month), she also filmed Channel 4’s new music competition, The Piano. “I do the jobs that I can’t say no to. I don’t want to do anything else – I love this, I love Strictly and I love The Piano. But I think I turned 50 and thought I’d take a few more risks,” she explains.

“It’s absolutely fascinating being the bystander and watching it all play out,” she says as her eyes widen with excitement. “We’re always told to go with our gut, but this game throws all of that in the shredder. Lots of us have a fear that people aren’t being entirely honest – and that comes into play here.”

The room we are in is where contestants debate over and vote for who they think is a Traitor. It is dimly lit with heavy mahogany wainscotting and high ceilings, giving it a judicial, eerie feel. It forms just a small part of Ardross Castle, a sprawling estate north of Inverness that was originally a hunting lodge and later owned by Charles William Dyson Perrins, one half of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It is now the private residence of the McTaggart family and not open to the public.

Faithful: Rachel Ward at the round table in Ardross Castle
Faithful: Rachel Ward at the round table in Ardross Castle - BBC/Studio Lambert

“Once I’m here and the game starts, I am obsessed with it,” Winkleman tells me. “I cried at the end of series one. I’ve never cried on telly before. When they win on Strictly, I’m like ‘aw, well done’, but here I was inconsolable.”

“You are on their side, whether they’re a Faithful or a Traitor. But there has to be separation between me and them in case I blab. The production team won’t let me talk to them afterwards.”

The triumph of the show is its cast, the perfect mix of personalities ranging across jobs, sexualities, races and generations. Winkleman, however, still doesn’t quite acknowledge that part of its success is down to her as the host. The seriousness of the game is balanced out by her quick wit and warmth.

Syeda Irtizaali, BBC Editor for Unscripted, who is here to accompany a tour of the castle, explains that the broadcaster was looking for a new reality show for BBC One – the first for the channel since Castaway in 2000. She backs boss Kate Phillips’s choice of presenter, not merely because Winkleman is good, but because, “I always want women to get more work, because TV is run by men”.

Poker face: the BBC's first series of The Traitors won two Baftas
Poker face: the BBC's first series of The Traitors won two Baftas - BBC

The show has a fresh challenge in its new season, with the new contestants fully aware of the fundamentals of the game. To address that, the show’s executive producer Mike Cotton tells me that the missions, where contestants can earn money, have an added twist. Also new for series two is a folly that looks like a prime setting for romance.

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“That’s not what the show is about. It’s not how it would be cast,” Winkleman defends. A budding romance would be a good plot for an alliance though? “There’s no time for [that] because you have to concentrate on the game, else you’ll be dead,” she remarks in all seriousness.

To add to the Cluedo-style rooms (there’s already a library, a drawing room and a billiard room) is a kitchen, a place where the players can plot and scheme and turn each other into toast. Inscribed on the stone above the oven are the words “prope amicos tene” – keep your friends close. They really are going in hard with the subliminal messaging.

Seductive deceit: the cloaks the Traitors wear feel temptingly sumptuous
Seductive deceit: the cloaks the Traitors wear feel temptingly sumptuous - BBC

As we make our way to the freezing turret, where in the dead of night the Traitors decide who they will murder, I try a cloak on for size, just to see how it feels to go to the dark side. On TV, they look black, but they’re actually a sumptuous emerald green. It’s heavy – the weight of it literally bears down upon my shoulders. The hood is oversized so that you can easily disappear; the lining is a thick satin and feels cool against my skin. I could get used to this… being a Traitor is seductive.

Winkleman agrees, clearly enthused by the format. “I believe in brilliant game play. There’s £120,000 at stake, which is an enormous amount of money. If you play well, even if it’s dirty, then it’s still good game play.” I wonder how Winkleman herself would fare. “I would love to play… I think I’d be quite good,” she admits with a cackle. “It’s about emotional intelligence, not brains.” 

Back at the round table, Winkleman asks for our verdict on who might be the Traitor in our pack. As soon as we remove our blindfolds, I notice a smirk dance across the lips of a fellow player. A complete giveaway? So it proved. Faithfuls 1-0 Traitors.


Series two of The Traitors begins on January 3 on BBC One at 9pm; the first three episodes will be available on iPlayer

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