The Traitors: how ‘Highland Hunger Games’ became the BBC’s new hit

Described as the Highland Hunger Games, new BBC One psychological reality show The Traitors is proving a hit with audiences but is also creating an appetite for the Scottish castle and region where it was filmed.

This week the dark Claudia Winkleman-fronted series was trending second only to the World Cup and the Meghan and Harry documentary on Twitter. It has encouraged more young viewers to sign up to BBC iPlayer than any show other than the Qatar tournament and got a greater audience share than EastEnders.

Meanwhile staff at Ardross Castle, the 19th-century Baronial-style castle where the UK and the US version of the show is made, has reported that “it’s a lot busier with a lot of people getting in touch” with the wedding and corporate events venue.

The castle, which is set in 100 acres of parkland on the River Alness north of Inverness, is not open to the public and can be hired for weddings and corporate events such as team building. It was originally built as a hunting lodge in the late 1700s by the 1st Duke of Sutherland but remodelled by Alexander Ross for Sir Alexander Matheson with towers and turrets. It is now owned by the McTaggart family.

Ardross Castle is used as the base for show in which 22 strangers arrive in the hope of winning a share of £120,000. Among them are three “traitors”, chosen by Winkleman, who try to avoid detection while choosing one of the rest of the group (AKA “the faithful”) to murder every night. The faithful have to work out who the traitors are before they are killed.

The power of “television tourism”, where viewers want to visit the location of shows such as Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders, has boosted interest in visiting Highclere Castle and Birmingham.

VisitScotland’s film and creative industries manager, Jenni Steele, said: “Research shows that one in five visitors are inspired to travel after seeing destinations on film or TV.” Filmed in the Scottish Highlands area, The Traitors showcases the region to audiences and potential visitors from around the UK and now the US.

The Traitors has gripped audiences, with the first episode on 29 November winning 4 million viewers and attracting comparisons with “Nasty Nick” Bateman’s game playing in the first series of Big Brother.

Ardross Castle, Scotland.
Ardross Castle, Scotland, where The Traitors is filmed. Photograph: Peter Jolly/Shutterstock

Stephen Lambert, whose company Studio Lambert makes the UK and US versions as well as hits Gogglebox, The Circle and Race Across the World, told the Guardian his team spotted the potential of the original Dutch version (created by TV producer Marc Pos, who worked on the original Dutch Big Brother and Eurovision) and got the rights to make both shows, which they did sequentially at Ardross six months ago.

“I can’t think of a reality show quite like this in terms of the setting and the presentation,” said Lambert. “The fact it talks about people being murdered … [the traitors] are wearing cloaks and there are lots of burning fires makes it different. Most reality shows tend to be in a contemporary setting whereas this is clearly evoking the past in some way.”

He added: “the format ramps up the tension” which is “brutal” and “because we know who the Traitors are it’s much more interesting. Obviously the paranoia builds up, they take it all quite seriously because it’s quite intense and a big prize.”

His colleagues Mike Cotton and Tim Harcourt chose Ardross Castle because the Dutch version had one and the BBC wanted to shoot in Scotland, plus Ardoss had “a great hall for the round table” – which is the “heart of the show” and is where the contestants banish the person they think is a traitor.

The show will continue airing three nights a week on BBC One until the final on 22 December and BBC head of unscripted, Kate Phillips, said it appealed to audiences who wanted “something new and gripping” and it echoed a “summer of fraught politics”.

“People want something escapist to talk about; we’re living through tough times at the moment [and] sometimes when you’ve got grim news you want something escapist and glorious and fully immersive.”

Phillips said the show’s “total unpredictability and twists”, plus its distinctive “melodrama” feel with flaming torches, atmospheric music, which is already on Spotify, and Winkleman – whom she asked to host having known about her interest in human behaviour – were part of its appeal.

Winkleman describes her outfits – which include Celtic brands such as Brora – as “a mix of Princess Anne, Ronnie Corbett and Madonna when she met Guy Ritchie”, and they have inspired some viewers to request they have their own social media account.

The Traitors’ success is part of a trend for high-concept reality shows. Next year reality veterans Big Brother and Survivor are being rebooted in the UK for modern audiences but Studio Lambert is making a new reality series called Rise and Fall, which focuses on the imbalance of power in society.

Lambert said: “I think something like Rise & Fall … is a way of doing an entertainment show but … looking at power and inequality. If we pull it off in the way we hope will speak to something of our times.”