Keeping it (un)Real


Questions at the End, thanks.

Fig. 1: Yes, it’s me and, yes, I am him up there ⬆️.

Yes, I know, thank you so much for watching, I’m really happy that you recognised me from the telly and decided to let me know that you had. Yes, it can be a bit confusing, seeing people off the telly in real life and then wondering what on earth they are doing here but as here is Waitrose[1] and I’ve got a trolley filled with produce let’s assume that I’m shopping shall we and yes, you’re right again, I do work at the university but I also do this sort of thing, the acting and occasionally being on telly thing, not just the shopping but let’s face it I do do a lot of shopping here so that’s mostly where you recognise me from and let’s face it (again) you did once ask my wife if her husband has a huge red beard and she, MDBJ, did laugh it off and say something about you recognising our taste in wine (as that’s all she was buying) and you said no, you’d recognised Sweep but anyway here we are and I’m actually really happy that you watched the show and liked what I did and how much for the victuals? How much? Blimey.[2]

Right, so, um, well, where to begin? Well, my name isn’t Fergus but that’s what they called me. Almost all of them. And for almost all of the time. That was the first shimmering, glimmering, blurring between the worlds of the real and reality TV. Look, this was weird, ok? I’m used to certain things, certain procedures, certain what could amount to being privileges when I’m working on things. Whether it’s a modest budget or a huge budget there’s things that happen and one of them is getting your bloody name right but on this, the character was called Fergus and that’s how the crew referred to me. Unless they knew my real name, but even then, on all the comms I was Fergus on the basis that everyone (and there were a couple of hundred of them) would know who was meant by that straight away. But they didn’t even call me that in the credits, they’ve got me down as ‘grounds keeper’ but it’s there and it’s recognisably me and I’m even on the front of one of the episodes on the iPlayer. Of ten episodes, the first one is some of the cast/contestants arriving, the other eight are the host (Cumming, A) and the other one is me. Actually me. On the iPlayer in every home (well, pretty much, eh?) in the UK.[3]

Fig. 2: iPlayer screen grab from my phone

But that is not the beginning, no. The beginning was, uh, earlier. There’s a website that some actors are on which is part of a thing called the Mandy Network; it has pages for actors, voice artists, stage managers and so on and I’m on it too. Actually, I’m so old I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve got free lifetime membership to the acting pages as I was one of the first 1000 people to sign up back when it was called Casting Call Pro and one day I saw that an employer called Studio Lambert had looked at my profile. Fair enough, employers do look at you on the site every now and then but that name rang a bell. As in I’d heard of them and thought I knew what they made and so on. And then a couple of days later, they looked again. And then, a few hours after that the long-suffering Rob (my agent[4]) called me to ask if I’d talk to someone from the company about a show they were about to make in Scotland. So, yes, of course I will and that turned out to be a bit of a whirlwind day of Zoom calls. First between me and Prianka (who turned out to be my host/bodyguard/AD contact/general superstar) and then Rob emailed and rang to ask if I could talk to them again in half an hour so I said yes again and off we went to another Zoom, this time with people who introduced themselves as producers (and all very polite they were) and we did a bit of playing and I mugged and grimaced a bit and they laughed and we all said goodbye. Then Rob called again to confirm their interest and to say he’d start to talk about the contract and all that. And that’s where that strand of this ends as nobody needs to know about what the actual contract said or what I got paid or any of that sort of stuff, so there.

Now, what else do we need to know? I think I can tell you the location of the shoot, actually I think I can tell you most of the things you might want to know as they’re almost all already out there in one way or another and I’m sure that if I do say the wrong thing then someone will get in touch and nail my figgin to a spike and ask Kim and Toby to take down the paragraph but I doubt it. So, where was it filmed? Ardross Castle Enterprises, Alness, Scotland. What was the phone signal like? Hahaha you’re having an actual laugh aren’t you? As soon as you got into the estate you might as well have gone back to the late 20th century in those terms – but saying that, they did have a mobile 4G network that operated from the unit base just at the back of the castle and it was pretty good in terms of reliability and speed. Not that this mattered to the contestants as they’d already had their phones taken off them as part of the game overall.

Now, actually, come to think of it, the whole secrecy thing was taken a little bit too far overall. Let me set the scene for you. I had to have a covid test before filming, before I was allowed on set and they still would not tell me who was hosting the show. I mean, I was actually in the castle car park (tennis courts) on location, so was basically on set even though I wasn’t (I had to sit in my car for an hour and a bit) and they would not tell me who the host was. Even though it was all over the internet. They did eventually tell me it was Cumming, A. but by then I was all like, duh, yeah, I know that thanks.[5]

Anyway, the test came back negative and I was allowed to drive for another hour or so to get to where I was staying. The Inverness airport hotel. Now, here’s one of the things they didn’t tell you, ok? In the US version, all of the contestants are supposedly staying in the castle. The castle that Alan ‘owns’ (in the show). In the UK version, the contestants stayed at location other than the castle but you weren’t told where (spoiler, it was the Inverness airport hotel). So, every day, the contestants are travelling 62 and a half miles and it took about an hour each way depending on traffic. Some of the Traitors were trying to get by on about three hours sleep a day which makes it all the more impressive to see the ones that made it all the way to the end in either version. So here I am at reception in the hotel and, they have no idea who I am. My name means nothing to them.[6] No booking for ‘John Ritchie’, sorry. Ok, try ‘Fergus’ – nope. What? Right, by now, I’m getting a little tired. I drove up here from my dad’s house in Peebles (I’d done a murder mystery show in the Borders the night before) which was about 205 miles and took about 4 hours and now there’s a chance that I’m not getting into the hotel. After much frantic WhatsApp-ing it turned out that someone had booked me in under the nom de plume, “Gate Keeper.” Now, here’s one reason why. When we had our first chats about the character I was playing, they didn’t have a name for him and asked me what I thought. I didn’t come up with something until after the meeting, naturally, but I thought he should be called “Young Kenneth” for a few reasons. Firstly, it suggests that he’s been there for years, that his father (also Kenneth) was there forever and so on. Secondly, it’s funny because I’m clearly not as young as I once was so it’s an immediate (albeit cheap) joke. And the real punchline comes when one of the contestants asks him, “why does Alan call you Young Kenneth?” to which he replies, “Oh, well, my name’s Kenneth Young but on the application form they wanted surname then forename and Alan didn’t know that bit so he called me Young Kenneth from the start. Last month.” Anyway, I got into the hotel and had the next day off so went to look at the beach at Nairn. You should too, it’s glorious and goes for miles and has dolphins and everything.

Fig. 3: The endless beach at Nairn

On my first actual day’s filming we did a whole lot of silly, comic stuff. Little vignettes between me and Alan, you know the sort of thing, him with his feet up on my back as he says how tired he is as he does all the work around here, cut to me doing direct address and not being impressed. Alan in a deep, foamy bath and me handing him his bath toys the split second before he asks for them (‘cause I’ve done this for so long, y’know). Me running around the garden with the stuffed owl from the billiards room shouting “fly, Sebastian, fly” and polishing the stag statues and so on. Most of that, well, it ended up on the floor and that’s a bit of a pain as it was quite funny. Look, let me put it this way, we made the crew laugh. Always remember that if the crew laugh then it must be good as they’ve seen everything.

Day two was a wee bit different. I was asked the night before if I could swim and that’s always a red flag. If you’ve seen the first episode then you’ll have a shrewd idea of why they asked if I could swim. Here’s a pretty picture of a loch.

Fig. 4: I’m the wee black splodge.

Do you see the wee black sort of splodge on it? Just about half-way up but to the right of centre? Looks a bit like a teeny wee fly or a crumb or something on the lens? Yeah, that’s me. And one of the SFX guys in the row boat, in the middle of the loch, in the north of Scotland, in May (not the warmest time of year). We were out there for about two hours in all, he was rolled up in the wee gap behind me and I was stuck in position holding aloft a flaming torch for the contestants to get to to get their torches lit to go back and light the giant bunnies on the far away shore. That was the day that I rescued the whole show – well, that episode at least by agreeing to do the whole get in the boat and furkorf out into the loch for a few hours. Can you guess what they said I should do if my arms got tired holding aloft the flambeau? I was to tell the guy behind me who would take it from me and safely extinguish the flame. He said to me, once we were on the boat, “John if you really need to then drop it in the loch as that’s all I’ll do if it comes to it.” So there we are, I’m not making light of this at all, there are real dangers in everything that the contestants did and it was to my great delight that it turned out that the safety crew on this also worked on Freeze the Fear With Wim Hof, in which celebrities were basically put in icy water or tossed off very high up things. The whole safety team do all the stunts first, just to make sure they really can empathise if something goes wrong or someone stops coping. But yeah, in the middle of a massive body of water, if you want to put out a flambeau then the professional thing to do is to drop it into the massive body of water.

And that’s just the first two days. Never mind being kidnapped by ghosts or burying the contestants alive or, actually, y’know this could be a few blogs or why don’t we do an AMA? I’ve already suggested this to Kim and Toby so now it’s over to you to ask me anything you want to know about the experience, the filming conditions, the catering, anything. Go on, this is lived experience of a pretty major TV show so why not just ask me about it?

Questions on a postcard to john.ritchie@stir.ac.uk please make the subject matter ‘TRAITORS AMA’ and I’ll answer them and I think Kim and Toby will publish them mid-March.

Unless there aren’t any, then you’ll get another blog. Or I’ll just make it up, it’s worked before after all! Oh, ok then, you want to see the view from my hotel room window? Here you go, it’s the end of the runway at Inverness Airport. And it was really well insulated for sound, not kidding, barely heard any planes at all.

Fig. 5: I know, what a view!!!!


John Ritchie is going to be 50 in March and he still can’t write one of these small biographies. Look, what do you need to know? He’s 6’3”, has a massive beard, two kids, a spaniel with no off switch, a rabbit that is basically an evil slipper and his guitar playing style is best described as ‘hit and hope.’

He sometimes lies about his age.



[1] Other supermarkets are available but I don’t know why you’d bother, it isn’t that expensive in Waitrose, really, and it’s nice food.

[2] STG does not appear in this blog, other than here. No reason, she’s just busy at college so she’s mostly out or sleeping.

[3] Is there a difference between cast/contestants? Email me to find out, you (maybe) won’t be disappointed.

[4] He’s not long-suffering but he is awesome.

[5] I’ve met Cumming, A. a few times before, what with mutual friends and so on, and I was not disappointed to hear that he was the host as I thought he’d be amazing. And he was. The only way to improve it would have been if it had been Fleurot, A. Ah, la Fleurot…

[6] This is depressingly common…