Why ex-war hostage played ‘dangerous’ game

The ability to endure and win out over adversity is a quality perpetually evoked by reality show contestants. No matter how hot the kitchen gets, or how demanding the physical challenges are, every episode features a participant pledging their ability to carry any burden. But for Nigel Brennan, a competitor on Ten’s new psychological thriller The Traitors, there’s no need to talk himself up. The laidback 51-year-old has already survived the unimaginable.

“I’ve been a hostage and for 15 months I had to manipulate a situation. I had 13 captors and I wanted them to feel like I was valuable, so they wouldn’t kill me,” Brennan says. “Going into a game where I don’t know the rules and wanting to be the last person standing, I had an incredibly valuable skillset.”

In 2008 Brennan visited war-torn Somalia as a photojournalist, but after just four days he and Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout were kidnapped at gunpoint by Islamic insurgents in the south of the East African nation. Held in isolation, subject to abuse, and threatened with execution, Brennan holds the record for the longest a living Australian has been held hostage – being freed after 460 days when a privately raised ransom of US$675,000 was paid.

Nigel Brennan was held captive in Somalia for 460 days, the ultimate backstory for a reality show where 24 Contestants sniff out four Traitors hiding in their ranks.Credit:Nigel Wright

As far as a reality show’s segment producer is concerned, it’s close to the ultimate backstory for a player, which Brennan is well aware of. His very real trauma, which Brennan detailed in his 2011 memoir, The Price of Life: A True Story of Kidnap & Ransom, also makes for compelling soundbites. But Brennan’s at a point where his kidnapping doesn’t define his life, and trading his background for a unique experience is something he’s happy to embrace.

“I would certainly say the first couple of years with PTSD, you have to get on with it. But I look at my experience as a positive, not a negative,” Brennan says. “I put my family and friends through a traumatic experience, but coming out of it I learnt a lot about myself and about humanity. It’s given me perspective on how I want to live my life – when opportunities come up, I want to take them. This is a perfect example.”

Host Rodger Corser with the cast of The Traitors.Credit:Nigel Wright

Brennan, who lives in Tasmania’s Huon Valley with his partner and their sons, originally applied for Survivor several years ago and was accepted, only to withdraw because it clashed with his parental leave. When he saw the audition advertisements for The Traitors he put his hand up, ultimately arriving at a manor house set, where 24 contestants (the Faithful) hunt for the four participants (the Traitors) who are secretly sending them home one by one.

“A deliciously dangerous game,” according to host Rodger Corser, who is in full Knives Out murder mystery mode, The Traitors is a mix of deception and accusations, challenges and votes, that moves towards a six-figure prize available to those who go the distance. Based on the initial episode, it’s an ornate mix of Agatha Christie and Survivor without the sand. There’s no prior reference for players and audience alike, as the concept, from production house Endemol Shine Australia, is brand new. This is the first season produced.

“We went in not really knowing what the game was or the rules were, with no idea what the other players were going to be like. And we couldn’t look back at previous series to get tips on our gameplay,” Brennan says. “I think it evolved day by day. I would take information other people had heard and use that to my advantage. It’s quite a manipulative game of putting things into people’s heads to get them to make a certain decision.”

Coming on the back of Ten’s success with Hunted, The Traitors suggest that television networks are looking for the next generation of reality shows as the likes of The Block and MasterChef have become yearly institutions. Shorter seasons, differences in age and class, and a focus on deception and identity are some of the fresh defining qualities.

Nigel Brennan shortly after his release by Somali rebels in 2009. A privately raised ransom of US$675,000 was paid for his release.Credit:Reuters

“I think The Traitors is such an amazing format. It allows the viewing audience to get immersed in it as well. The new shows are psychologically twisting the minds of not just the contestants but the audience as well,” Brennan says. “The mental game was intense. You’re trying to get people to like you, while trying to work out who is a Faithful, who is a Traitor. You’re trying to use the information you’ve got, but not put a target on your back.”

On the show Brennan introduces himself to the other participants as someone who provides “pastoral care” at a university. That’s true, although he’s also spent much of the last decade working in hostage negotiation for leading global crisis management companies. Every player present thinks they can identify who’s lying, whether through data skills, criminal law experience, or clairvoyance – it’s the same belief with very different nomenclature and Brennan loved the experience.

“My partner was like, ‘Do you really want to do reality TV, because it can be brutal?’ But it was a reality check of making me look at my life, what I’m doing, and how I want to live,” Brennan says. “You do go to bed at night wondering whether you said something out loud or just thought it. You can send yourself into a tailspin. I had the most fabulous time.”

The Traitors premieres on Ten, Sunday, October 16, 7.30pm.

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