Do you remember where you were when the coughing scandal that shook the bedrock of British TV game-shows came to light? No? Maybe you remember where you were on the 11th September, 2001 – an unforgettable event in all our lives which, as we all collectively realised during ITV’s Quiz, happened just the day after the Major Coughing episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It is perhaps, not the thing that one would expect to take away from Quiz, the three part drama based on the cheating scandal involving Major Charles Ingram, and another audience member coughing their guts up at every correct answer, but the show throws up plenty of surprises and, within its feature length film running time, reminds us just how spectacular primetime television can be.
For those of you who have managed to evade the story of Charles Ingram and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - the story is quite a short one. Charles, a contestant on the hit ITV gameshow (a game show that was pulling in impressive viewing figures of 19 million in its heyday, for context Princess Diana’s funeral garnered 30 million), cheated his way to the million pound prize money by way of cheating. The game seemed impossible to cheat at, yet it was discovered that Charles had an aide in the audience who would cough audibly when Charles read the correct answer from the four possible options. Quiz actually began life as a theatre play, on in which the audience members would be asked to vote twice throughout the play on Ingram’s guilt in a more interactive way than the subsequent TV show. Though, to look at Twitter during the ITV show’s three night run, there’s no lack of aspersions on the Ingram’s guilt being cast on social.
Adapted directly from the play, and directed by acclaimed film director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, High Fidelity, Philomena), Quiz is somewhat of a surprise success. It’s that ITV do not turn out well made, interesting dramas (Broadchurch and Downton Abbey exist to prove this point), but it seemed unlikely that ITV would produce a nuanced, funny and timely show about a scandal that they themselves were wrapped up in. Yet, here stands Quiz, a show that has no right to be as good as it is, yet might wind up being a contender for best TV drama of the year.
Beginning not with the cheating scandal, but with the commissioning of the quiz show itself, Quiz takes us back to the heady pre-austerity, pre-Brexit days of 1998, where anything was possible. Mark Bonnar stars as Celador CEO, Paul Smith, pitching their new game show format ‘Cash Mountain’ to ITV. At the same time, the quiet Ingram family are living out their wonderfully middle class lives in tranquil Wiltshire. Of course, we understand that these two worlds will collide magnificently within the next few years but pitting the Ingram’s backstory alongside the show’s backstory is some fine writing from James Graham (who also wrote the theatre show), and sets up a narrative that feels interwoven from the very start.
Quiz succeeds in crossing the barriers of what went on in front of the cameras on that fateful day, and what went on behind closed doors. Framed through flashbacks from the courtroom as the two lawyers wrestle with the case - the first two episodes are firmly in the camp of the prosecution. Though snippets of the Ingram’s homelives are shown – Sian Clifford as Diana Ingram and Matthew Macafayden as the unassuming Major himself – there is no clear indication of whether they really did cheat or not. Clifford is phenomenal here as the trivia-addicted Diana, a woman so desperate to win that she pushes things too far perhaps? There are hints sprinkled everywhere about what is to come – Diana’s quiz-obsessed and frankly quite strange brother, the quiz show group who ‘help’ people get on the show – and the whole thing starts to feel like an episode of Black Mirror. Who are these people who are trying to hack the show? Why do they feel like a cult? And would they still be as keen if it was still called Cash Mountain?
Supported by a stellar cast (Aisling Bea is superb as ITV’s Claudia Rosenkratz), and has some of the best lines of the show, Elliott Levey as the quintessential TV exec and Helen McCrory as the Ingram’s steely defence lawyer), Quiz is escapist television at its absolute finest. It’s funny, and not just because ITV are fully capable at laughing at themselves (which they do, often) but it completely captures the utter madness of the whole situation. To contextualise, there is a scene in which 9/11 actually occurs within episode two – on TV’s and monitors in the ITV offices. It puts everything into perspective, even just for a short few seconds. Add to this the main event which is, of course, Michael Sheen playing an uncanny version of Chris Tarrant - with the catchphrases spot on – and Quiz is simply must watch television. There’s even a musical number!
Ultimately, the real question is not whether the Ingram’s cheated. It’s whether Frears, Graham and ITV have successfully sown a seed of doubt within your mind. Have they sold you a story that you believe – coughing and all? Despite going over well raked ground (anyone else desperately wanting to scope out that documentary?), Quiz has absolutely succeeded in telling an original story, with a whole lot of reasonable doubt.