Quiz, the three-part drama which recently ran over three nights on ITV, dramatizes the story of Charles Ingram, an army major who was convicted of cheating his way to the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001. It doesn’t sound that interesting on paper, but it’s been a surprise ratings smash, drawing critical acclaim and reigniting public interest (including among students) in the nearly 20-year old controversy. It’s well-acted and brilliantly written, but the secret of its appeal is that it goes far deeper than its subject matter, delving into the shared psyche that fuelled this terribly British conspiracy.
We first meet Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) going about his comfortably bourgeois daily life in a picturesque Wiltshire village. Wanting for nothing financially, he’s ultimately coerced into applying as a contestant on Millionaire by his wife Diana (Sian Clifford, a specialist in playing posh women on edge) to succeed where she and her brother Adrian (a nicely shifty Trystan Gravelle) have failed, both having competed on the show before, but fallen short of winning the million-pound cheque. The trouble is, as is made abundantly clear from the start, is that compared to his quiz-mad in-laws, the amiable major isn’t exactly the sharpest. Enter an elaborate cheating system, involving a carefully constructed buzzer simulator, an enigmatic network of pub-frequenting quiz geeks relaying trivia across the country, and culminating in – most famously – a series of strategically timed coughs in the TV studio on the right answers (the show features a lot of coughing in public, which makes screening it right now feel pretty bold).
James Graham’s witty, fast-paced script, coupled with Stephen Frears’s vibrant, stylish direction, create an absorbing drama that flows seamlessly between scenes, capturing the high-stakes tension of the studio environment. The fact that the real Charles and Diana Ingram were consultants behind the scenes inevitably influences their sympathetic portrayal in the show. It challenges the idea of their outright guilt, but not the media portrayals of the couple at the time: he’s nice but dim, she’s a Lady Macbeth-like schemer who was the brains of the outfit. Despite this, Macfadyen and Clifford turn in strong performances as two flawed but ultimately decent people, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them when you watch the public’s vicious backlash against them once the scandal emerges.
There are no weak links in the cast, but the star turn is undoubtedly Michael Sheen as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant. Known for his uncanny portrayals of real people, plenty of critics have pointed out his unnerving adoption of even the most subtle of Tarrant’s mannerisms, from his swaggering gait through his sleazy grin to his plosive enunciation of consonants. Together with the slightly creepy prosthetics, this looks like the kind of performance to get Sheen a BAFTA nomination next year, and in all fairness, he deserves it.
The humorous tone and dialogue make Quiz easily watchable, and the jokes range from the wryly observant to the laugh-out-loud funny. The series isn’t afraid to dive into the surreal, either; the last episode features a brief fantasy sequence involving Macfadyen, Clifford and Sheen in a lavish dance number to the song from which Millionaire takes its title.
What really makes the show is its analysis of our national obsession with the quiz. The first episode begins with a montage of the history of the British TV quiz show, and its first half deals with the genesis of Millionaire and its rise to becoming a primetime juggernaut. The appeal of the pub quiz in Britain, claims the show’s creator, Mark Bonnar, is that “it combines our two great loves: drinking and being right.” The overarching theme of Quiz is the sheer adrenaline of Millionaire, for its millions of ordinary viewers and its anxious contestants, not least Ingram. The nerve-shredding tension as he stumbles through the answers makes you will him on to get them right and not get caught out. That’s what makes the show compulsively watchable.