John was excited to learn that Netflix was adapting its smash hit drama “Squid Game” into a reality program. As a result of his enthusiasm for the original series, casting directors selected him as one of 456 contestants to appear in the British version of the show.
There was no doubt in John’s mind that the record-breaking $4.56 million cash award in reality TV history was rightfully his. “Because I’m so competitive, I really believed I had a shot at winning,” says John, whose real name has been altered for privacy reasons.
To paraphrase, “I’m really excellent at games like that. They are contests of skill, strategy, and luck. For me, that’s the stuff dreams are made of. But on the very first day of production, John “died” during the very first test.
The British native was one of about 228 participants ousted on the spot from “Squid Game: The Challenge” on January 23 during a game of “Red Light Green Light” that would go down in reality TV history.
With a headline reading “Squid Game Horror in the UK,” the incident made the main page of the British tabloid The Sun on January 25.
The article detailed how the reality show’s contestants had been left shivering in a cavernous airplane hangar in Bedford, playing a seemingly endless game where they had to hold statue-like poses for almost 30 minutes, and were produced by Studio Lambert, the same company behind the massive hit “The Traitors,” and The Garden.
One contender compared the scenario, which took place in subzero conditions, to a “warzone” and said the set medics had been summoned to it several times.
There was an exaggerated, almost comical, tone to the narrative. These contestants should have known better than to sign up for a program based on “The Walking Dead,” one of the most disturbing and gory survival dramas ever filmed. Didn’t they know that making a TV show takes a lot of time?
Instantly, Netflix shut down tabloid stories of a participant being stretchered out, publicly downplaying the incident. The streaming service released a statement on Jan. 25 expressing “deep” concern for the welfare of the show’s employees. Netflix confirmed that it was, in fact, rather chilly on set, but claimed that the “participants were prepared for it.”
Studio Lambert and The Garden, the show’s streamer and producers, released a fresh statement on Friday, shortly after this item was published, insisting that all necessary safety measures had been implemented.
Claims of significant injury to participants or that the competition is manipulated are without merit. A neutral arbiter is watching over each competition to make sure it’s conducted fairly, and we’ve taken all the necessary safety measures, including providing medical attention to the competitors afterward.
John and two other participants who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity (their names have been altered in this article due to non-disclosure agreements) say they never signed up for the physical horror they went through.
Participants (who didn’t get paid) claim they were promised the game itself would take two hours to shoot and play, but it ended up taking some of them nearly seven. On the day of filming, temperatures in Bedford, England dropped to below zero, making for difficult conditions.
Several competitors passed out on set, most likely from a combination of the chilly weather and the eight hours of pre-game preparation. John explains that they are not participating in a Bear Grylls-style survival show. “No one would have gone through with it if we had known it was going to be so chilly.”
Marlene, another British participant, claims the events were “not as terrible as people are stating” since she did not witness anyone being stretchered away, but that they were “certainly not as minimal as is being portrayed by Netflix.”
We didn’t expect to be on ‘Survivor’ or ‘Naked and Afraid,'” she explains. The horrible circumstances have nothing to do with the sport. The enormous stakes of streaming-era reality TV are reflected in the players’ experiences.
Produced for the largest streaming platform in the world, “Squid Game: The Challenge” has the largest cast of any reality program competition and the largest cash reward in the genre’s history. But when it comes to the well-being of the participants, does greater necessarily mean better?
On the first day of filming, candidates were woken up at their hotels as early as 3:30 in the morning. They were bused to Bedford’s Cardington Studios, a former Royal Air Force hanger two hours north of London, where they were separated from the other actors, given headphones, and miked up in tents.
As depicted in the play, they donned a “Squid Game” tracksuit similar to the one worn by the protagonists. Due to the chilly weather in Britain, the show’s producers gave the participants permission to wear their outerwear during the performance.
They were also provided two sets of heated underwear and socks that they could wear all day, as well as hand and foot warmers. A few tents had portable heaters, which hummed away, providing enough warmth for those standing around.
Due to the day before’s confiscation of all iPhones, the competitors had no idea when the competition truly began, but they speculated that it was sometime between 1 and 2 p.m., after a lunch break.
When it was explained that the challenge would take around two hours to accomplish, with stances to be held for two minutes at a time, there was some grumbling, but no one really refused to participate.
In order to be considered for the show, actors had to have medical clearance from their doctor. After all, this was “Squid Game,” so you might expect a challenging experience. The mood, however, shifted as soon as the game began.
The participants’ jackets had to stay unzipped to show their numbers and the fake blood that would spurt from devices strapped to their chests if they were eliminated, and their coats were taken away.
They were required to stand perfectly still when the gigantic killer doll on stage finished singing, but the initial two-minute wait was soon extended to ten, and then fifteen.
Marlene claims that she timed the delay for one round at 26 minutes. (Those involved in the production say the extra waiting time was so that impartial judges could evaluate the games.)
The second time the song played, I caught a glimpse of the girl bobbing to the beat off to my left. After that, “she simply crumpled, and you could hear her head strike the ground,” Marlene adds. Then, a voice came over the [microphone] and told us to stay still since the play has not been halted.
After then, individuals started dying at an alarming rate. About four persons, according to Marlene’s count. (Three people, according to Netflix, needed medical treatment.) According to Marlene, “they started providing us leisure breaks” after the tenth time they were called.
Avoid moving your feet, but feel free to bend your knees and swing your arms. Jenny, a player from outside the U.K. who had been brought in for the game, told Variety, “I’m angry by the narrative that Netflix is putting out there, that just [a] few individuals were wounded…we were all injured simply by going through that experience.”
I’ve never experienced a such extreme cold for so long. We lost sensation in our soles and digits. “It was so ludicrous,” she cries. Jenny further alleges that no breaks for food or drink were permitted throughout the video game’s development.
Jenny continues to sob, “Take some responsibility for the fact that you were ill-prepared for this type of situation, with this amount of people. “When they knew the weather was going to be that way, they should have made modifications,” the director said. “There were certain things I assume [producers] didn’t think about.”
The demand for medical assistance eleven times is disputed by those with knowledge of the production, who also claim that breaks are not allowed under normal circumstances. Netflix has been silent on the topic of how long participants were required to go without eating or drinking.
John claims he got a “banging headache” and felt lightheaded while playing the game and that it was no longer “fun” or “respectable” to people of a particular age. He claims that it was more than just a game. But then I had this epiphany: The sum is $4,56,000,000. Yes, I can do this!
He kept going till he finally couldn’t. Suppose you’re playing Red Light Green Light for six hours straight. I don’t recognize that as a game. What we’re doing here isn’t a game. As for enjoyment, it’s long since evaporated.
No one should be forced to stand in minus-30-degree weather with nothing more than a tracksuit and two pairs of socks. The phrase “come on” is used to encourage the speaker. Each of the three players claims he or she checked back into the hotel between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.
Players’ lunch orders were taken, but the competition went longer than planned, so they were driven back to their central London hotel without having eaten. There weren’t enough pizzas for everyone who had arrived, so some people had to go to bed hungry even though production had ordered them.
“When I got up this morning, there was a cold McDonald’s burger and a side salad sitting outside my door for the last however long,” Marlene explains. Still startled, Jenny spoke briefly with a young production assistant from Studio Lambert.
The assistant apologized on the company’s behalf and said that the production needed “much more workers than we have.” (People involved with the show strongly refute claims that they were short on funds.)
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The players left their hotel on Tuesday, determined to put the events of the previous day behind them. They were also handed letters with production contacts in case they had any queries or issues, but it was ultimately up to them to make contact.
According to Variety’s reporting, the producers have been checking in with the players over the past week to make sure they are all back home safely. “But he didn’t even check in with me to see how I was doing,” Jenny explains. I found that strange because he was very kind during the casting process.
Studio Lambert and The Garden, two leading British production firms, were the envy of their U.K. counterparts when Netflix’s then-global TV boss Bela Bajaria (now chief content officer) unveiled “Squid Game: The Challenge” at the Banff World Media Festival in June 2022.
It’s unusual to have two production companies with similar backgrounds working on the same show, but Netflix apparently thought that Studio Lambert’s experience with flashy entertainment (as seen in “The Circle” and “Race Across the World”) and The Garden’s experience with solid factual foundations (as seen in “24 Hours in A&E”) would complement each other nicely.
One unscripted producer points out, however, that the commission itself creates tension because viewers know that characters will die. Can we ever become close if nobody is killed? That has the potential to go very well, or very poorly.
The enormous scale of this show makes it extremely difficult to stage. Even the most skilled reality show producers would struggle to keep track of all 456 candidates for only one day.
(After the first day, 228 players advanced, which is a small number but nonetheless terrifying) One other top unscripted executive working in international reality formats told Variety that caring for 456 people “seems like a complete nightmare,” mostly due to the amount of care needed and the logistics of feeding, housing, and transporting people.
Despite appearances, many people have never left their native country, giving you access to a diverse set of expertise and life experiences. The manager advises that you always act as though you are guiding the person along.
They go on to say that competitors’ fatigue is the show’s most noticeable consequence. It’s intentional sometimes, and accidental other times.
But when it doesn’t, the days on a TV set might be quite long. If you’re filming in the U.K. during the winter, the producers (like myself) will be bundled to the gills in Patagonia and North Face, but I can’t imagine the wardrobe departments having extremely insulated outfits for all the candidates, so things might quickly get out of hand. This seems to have spiraled out of control.
It is “absolutely obligatory,” the CEO continued, for a production firm to call off a shoot due to bad weather. Also, “I’ve had those talks,” they say. You get a call saying, “We’ve had an issue,” and you have to swallow the fact that it will cost you between £250,000 and £500,000 to fix.
However, the standard response was, “We’re a giant firm; of course, we can.” And [Netflix] very definitely can.” After a brief pause, the source explains: “The issue is, ‘Squid Game’ isn’t about physical endurance, is it? You shouldn’t think of it as a test of your mettle. It’s all in good fun.
Another top producer says, “It feels like a blunder on the part of the producers. After reading the article, I asked myself, “Did you actually do that?”
It was billed as a huge commission for Netflix, one that “no one else would do,” so you’d think they’d have enough cash to think about things like, “If we do it in a hanger in winter, it would be freezing and what are the provisions?”
Bectu CEO Philippa Childs says her organization has heard no complaints or suggestions from cast and crew members. However, she notes that there may be a discrepancy between what streamers want and what local broadcasters are able to provide in terms of delivery requirements.
Recall that “The Traitors,” a BBC program that began with 20 competitors and featured “extremely severe health and safety and support for contestants,” was produced by Studio Lambert, as stated by Childs. Perhaps the expectations were completely different because of Netflix and because of the grandeur of the production.
When it comes to their health and safety, “streamers don’t necessarily have a nice, rounded expectation,” as Childs puts it. “I do feel that some of the streamers have an air of superiority,” I said.
Meanwhile, Childs says that it’s an “exploitative” and unjust expectation to think that reality show contestants should have understood what they were getting into before they signed up.
That “contestants sometimes go into reality programs expecting their 15 minutes of fame” is a common theme, she acknowledges. However, given that this is a business setting, the same precautions taken to ensure employee safety should be observed. Contestants need our backing.”
The three participants from “Squid Game: The Challenge” who talked to Variety all agreed that they felt encouraged by the show’s audience. nonetheless, this is limited to a specific degree.
Jenny: “The application procedure was unlike anything I’ve ever done.” From October to January, I received daily emails, phone calls, and texts about the background check and psychiatric evaluation. Everyone I spoke to at Studio Lambert was helpful and nice. I thought, “This is going to be a wonderful adventure; these people are wonderful.”
But as the game started, I said, “What happened to these people?” When did they stop giving a damn about us?