When John heard that Netflix was making a reality show version of the streamer’s hit drama “Squid Game,” he was all in. His love of the original series resonated with casting agents and, to his amazement, he was tapped as one of 456 contestants playing the U.K.-filmed game. As far as John was concerned, that eye-watering $4.56 million cash prize — the biggest ever in reality history — had his name on it.
“I thought I was going to win it, because I’m so competitive,” says John, whose real name has been changed to protect his identity. “When it comes to these sorts of games, I’m good at them. They’re games of chance, luck and wit. I live for that sort of thing.”
But on day one of production, John “died” playing the very first challenge.
The British native was among roughly 228 contestants immediately eliminated from “Squid Game: The Challenge” on Jan. 23 in a game of “Red Light Green Light” that will go down in the annals of reality TV history.
Certainly, the incident provided a memorable front page for British tabloid The Sun, whose Jan. 25 splash read “Squid Game Horror in UK.” The story described how contestants on the reality show — produced by Studio Lambert, the same company behind the massive hit “The Traitors,” and The Garden — had been left freezing in a cavernous airplane hanger in Bedford, playing a seemingly interminable game where they had to hold statue-like poses for almost 30 minutes. On-set medics had been called repeatedly to a scene that one contestant described as a “warzone” played out in frigid temperatures.
The story had a hyperbolic — even comedic — edge. Didn’t these players realize they were signing up to a reality show based on one of the most sinister, bloody survival dramas ever made? Weren’t they aware of the long hours involved in any kind of TV production?
Netflix was quick to kibosh tabloid reports of a contestant being stretchered out, publicly playing down the incident. In a Jan. 25 statement, the streamer said it cared “deeply” about the health and safety of the cast and crew. Yes, it was very cold on set, Netflix admitted, but “participants were prepared for that.”
In a new statement on Friday, shortly after this story was published, the streamer and producers Studio Lambert and The Garden stood firm that all precautions had been taken: “We care deeply about the health of our cast and crew, and the quality of this show. Any suggestion that the competition is rigged or claims of serious harm to players are simply untrue. We’ve taken all the appropriate safety precautions, including after care for contestants – and an independent adjudicator is overseeing each game to ensure it’s fair to everyone.”
Yet contestants such as John and two others who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity (their real names have been changed in this story as they signed non-disclosure agreements) say they never signed up for the physical ordeal they went through.
Contestants — who weren’t paid to participate in the series — say they were told the actual game would take roughly two hours to play and shoot, but instead that turned into an almost seven-hour ordeal for some contenders. All of this was carried out in an unforgiving U.K. cold snap that saw temperatures drop to zero degrees Celsius in Bedford on the day of filming. A number of contestants collapsed on set — likely due to a combination of cold and fatigue from the eight hours of prep time before the game even started.
“This is not a Bear Grylls survival show,” says John. “If they had told us it was going to be that cold, no one would have gone through with it.”
Another U.K. player, Marlene, says that what transpired is “not as extreme as people are saying” — she did not see anyone stretchered away, for example — “but it’s definitely not as minimal as is being conveyed by Netflix.”
“It’s not like we signed up for ‘Survivor’ or ‘Naked and Afraid,’” she says. “The conditions were absolutely inhumane and had nothing to do with the game.”
The players’ experiences reflect the high stakes involved for reality television in the streaming age. “Squid Game: The Challenge,” produced for the world’s biggest streaming service, involves the biggest group of contestants to ever take part in a reality show, and the biggest cash prize ever offered. But is bigger always better when it comes to the welfare of participants?
On day one of production, contestants received hotel wake-up calls as early as 3:30 a.m. With firm instructions not to interact with other players, they were driven in buses to Bedford’s Cardington Studios, a former Royal Air Force hanger two hours’ drive north of London, where they were grouped off in tents and miked up. The “Squid Game” track suit they wore is exactly the one seen in the drama — teal and cream in color, chunky and comfortable, but hardly your go-to outfit to brave the elements.
At this point, players were allowed to wear their coats on top, which producers had specifically asked them to pack for the show given Britain’s cold winters. They were also given hand and foot warmers, and two pairs of thermal underwear and socks, which they could wear for the whole day. A few portable heaters purred in the tents, throwing off just enough heat for those standing nearby.
As smartphones had been confiscated the day before, contestants couldn’t be sure what time the game actually kicked off, but by most estimates it was around 1 or 2 p.m., following a lunch break. There was some grumbling when it was revealed the challenge would take around two hours to complete, with poses to be held for two minutes at a time, but no one balked. Players had had to provide sign-off from their doctor in order to be cast on the show. This was “Squid Game,” after all: It was going to be rigorous.
But as the game got underway, the atmosphere changed. Coats were taken away; hand and foot warmers were scooped out of pockets and plimsolls; and the players’ jackets had to remain unzipped in order to display their numbers as well as the fake blood that would squirt from devices strapped to their chests if they were eliminated. When the show’s giant killer doll stopped singing, they had to freeze in position — but what began as the promised two-minute wait was quickly bumped up to 10 and then 15 minutes. Marlene says she counted a 26-minute wait during one round. (Sources close to the production say the wait time increased to allow independent adjudicators to assess the gameplay.)
“The second time the song played, I saw in my left peripheral vision that this girl was swaying. Then she just buckled, and you could hear her head actually hit the ground,” says Marlene. “But then someone came on the [microphone] and said to hold our positions because the game is not paused. After that, people were dropping like flies.” Marlene estimates that around four people fainted. (Netflix has said that three people required medical attention.)
After medics were called for the “eleventh” time, estimates Marlene, “they started giving us relaxation breaks. They said, ‘Don’t move your feet, but if you want to bend your knees, and move your arms around, you can.’”
Jenny, a player from outside the U.K. who had been flown in for the game, tells Variety: “I’m infuriated by the narrative that Netflix is putting out there, that only [a few] people were injured…we were all injured just by going through that experience.
“I’ve never been that cold for that long a period in my life. We couldn’t feel our feet or our toes. It was ridiculous,” she says. Jenny also claims that while the game was in production, restroom or water breaks weren’t allowed.
“Take some responsibility for the fact that you were ill-prepared for this kind of thing, with this number of people,” continues Jenny, between tears. “There were some things I guess [producers] didn’t think about, but when they saw the weather was going to be that way, they should have made adjustments.”
Sources close to production deny that medics were called eleven times, and have indicated that prohibiting breaks during filming is standard. There has not been any official comment from Netflix on how long players were asked to go without toilet or water breaks.
John says he experienced dizziness and a “banging headache” while playing the game: “This game was no longer fun or respectable to those of a certain age. It went beyond being a game,” he says. “But I thought, ‘You know what? It’s $4.56 million. I can do this.’”
Until he couldn’t.
“Imagine you’re playing ‘Red Light Green Light’ for six hours. What game is that? This isn’t a game. The fun is now gone. You can’t tell people they have to stand in below freezing temperatures in just a tracksuit and two pairs of socks. Come on.”
All three players say they returned to the hotel between 7 p.m. and midnight without having dinner. Dinner orders had been taken at lunch, but because the game had run longer than expected, contestants were transported back to their central London hotel without having eaten. Production had ordered pizzas for those arriving, but there wasn’t enough food to go around, and some people went to bed hungry.
“In the morning, I woke up and there was a cold hamburger from McDonald’s and a side salad in front of my door that had been there for God knows how long,” says Marlene.
Jenny, who was still shaken, managed to have a brief conversation with a junior production assistant, who apologized on behalf of Studio Lambert and suggested that the production had required “far more staff than we have.” (Sources close to the show deny that the production was under-resourced.)
On Tuesday, the players checked out of their hotel, and tried their best to put Monday’s ordeal behind them. They were also given letters that contained contacts for the production — people to call if they had any questions or concerns — though the onus was on them to reach out. Variety has confirmed that producers contacted each of the players in the last week to ask if they had arrived home safely. “But he didn’t ask me how I was doing or anything,” says Jenny. “It seemed off to me because during the casting process, he was so nice.”
When “Squid Game: The Challenge” was announced by Netflix’s then-global TV boss Bela Bajaria (now chief content officer) at the Banff World Media Festival in June 2022, Studio Lambert and The Garden — two top British production companies — were the envy of the U.K. industry. While it’s unusual to have two similar producers on the one show, sources indicate that the two outfits had independently conceived of the idea, and that Netflix likely thought their strengths —Studio Lambert with its flashy entertainment know-how à la “The Circle” and “Race Across the World”; The Garden with a strong factual foundation from shows like “24 Hours in A&E” — would complement each other.
But inherent to the commission, notes one unscripted producer, is the tension that people actually die in the drama, “so everyone will be looking at how far you’ll push the contributors. If people don’t die, will it ever come close? That could be incredibly successful, or it could easily go wrong.”
Making the production infinitely more complex is its sheer size. Managing 456 contestants is a tall order for even the best reality producers in the world, even if it was only technically for one day. (After day one, just 228 players moved forward, though even that is a heart-stopping figure.) Another senior unscripted executive working across international reality formats tells Variety that looking after the welfare of 456 people “sounds like a complete nightmare,” primarily because of the amount of care required and the logistics necessary to feed, house and transport people.
“It sounds silly, but often, people haven’t necessarily travelled or left their home country before, so you’re dealing with the widest range of skills and experience. You’ve got to assume that you’re holding their hand every step of the way,” says the executive.
The biggest effect on contestants, on any reality show, is exhaustion, they continue. Sometimes, that’s deliberate, and other times, it’s not.
“But when it’s not, TV shoots are really long days. You’re getting your contestants out very early because you want to film when you have light, and if you’re filming in the winter in the U.K., Jesus, [the producers are] all Patagonia’d and North Face’d up to our eyeballs, but I don’t imagine the wardrobe departments have super insulated costumes for all the contestants, so [a production] could really easily get away from you. It sounds like this got completely out of control.”
The executive adds, however, that it is “totally incumbent” on a production company to cancel a shoot in adverse conditions. “And I’ve had those conversations,” they add. “Someone calls and goes, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ and you’ve just got to suck it up and it’s going to cost you £250,000 to £500,000. But the line was always, we’re a big company, we can do that. And certainly, [Netflix] can.”
“The thing is,” the source notes after a pause, “‘Squid Game’ isn’t about physical endurance, is it? It isn’t about hardship. It’s about games.”
The other senior producer source adds: “It feels like a misstep on the part of the producers. I read about it and thought, ‘Did you really do that?’ This was heralded as Netflix’s massive commission — their ‘no one else would do this’ commission, so you’d think there would be some money to consider the basics of production, [to say] ‘If we do it in a hanger in winter, it will be cold and what are the provisions?’”
Philippa Childs, boss of U.K. production union Bectu, says the organization has not received any feedback or complaints from crew involved on the production. She observes, however, that there could be a disconnect between the pressures on delivery placed by streamers versus what’s expected from local broadcasters. Studio Lambert is, after all, the same company that produced “The Traitors” for the BBC, a show that began with 20 contestants and had “very stringent health and safety and support for contestants,” says Childs. With Netflix, and for such a large-scale production, perhaps the demands were on an entirely new level.
“Streamers don’t necessarily have a good, rounded expectation of health and safety,” says Childs. “I think there is that arrogance about some of the streamers.”
Meanwhile, the belief that reality contestants should have known what they’re signing up for, argues Childs, is an “exploitative” and unfair expectation. “Of course, contestants can go into reality shows wanting their 15 minutes of fame,” she says. “But it is a workplace, and normal health and safety standards should be expected. Contestants should be supported.”
In fact, all three “Squid Game: The Challenge” contestants who spoke to Variety would tell you that, in fact, they did feel supported. But only up to a certain point.
“The application process was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” says Jenny. “The background checks and psychological checks…they were emailing, calling or texting me every day from October to January. The people I communicated with at Studio Lambert were so kind and supportive. I was thinking, ‘This is gonna be a great experience; these are great folks!’
“But once the game started, I said, ‘What happened to these people? What happened to them caring about us?’”