Quiz turns event television back into event television

quiz michael sheen chris tarrant who wants to be a millionaire itv amc james graham charles ingram coughing major television

Originally, Quiz began life in the theatre, performed first in Chichester before moving to the West End; met with widespread critical acclaim, and nominated for two Olivier awards, writer James Graham’s 2017 play was itself inspired by a book. Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, published two years prior, suggested that Charles and Diana Ingram might have been innocent of the charges levelled against them. This ambiguity was central to Graham’s play: a production deeply invested in its live performance, it invited audience participation (not unlike Millionaire?’s famous lifeline), asking those watching to vote one way or the other on the Ingrams’ innocence.

Before this theatrical run and the book that inspired it, however, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was almost subject of a film written by Russell T Davies. That, obviously, never came to fruition – in 2003, when his involvement in the Millionaire? film was announced, Davies was on the cusp of another project, one that would become his main focus for the next six years. Still, it’s an interesting counterfactual to consider; Davies seems the perfect writer for a comedy-of-errors about a crime committed on an iconic television show, but a one-off film almost seems to miss the point, both of telling this story and hiring Davies to do it.

Even earlier, of course, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was subject of a documentary. ITV never actually aired Charles Ingram’s episode of the quiz show; instead, Millionaire: A Major Fraud (a pun), a documentary presented by Martin Bashir, is where the footage of Ingram’s contested victory was first broadcast. Major Fraud attracted 17 million viewers, and a 56% audience share, setting a new record for the channel: it was event television. The last time Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? proper had received similar ratings was three years prior.

In that sense, then, James Graham’s television adaptation of Quiz isn’t, in fact, a stageplay being promoted to the small screen – rather, it’s a story that was told and retold through different mediums returning to where it began. It’s interesting that Graham wasn’t, at first, entirely convinced that Quiz should be adapted for television, believing the strength of the stageplay came from the structural opportunities afforded it by a live performance. Nonetheless, Quiz doesn’t just mark the return of this story to television – it demonstrates that television is this story’s natural home.

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Quiz is best when it’s a process story – less a whodunnit, more a howdunnit, building its drama out of the smaller details. The “how” isn’t just about the heist, though; rather, Quiz is about how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? came to be such a successful game show in the first place. Its opening episode, which essentially amounts to an hour of contextualising exposition, should by all rights be flat and dull; instead, its account of “Cash Mountain” awkwardly developing into an internationally syndicated television juggernaut proved dynamic and engaging. (In that sense, it recalls James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, a film which was at its best when depicting individual notes in a wider process. Scenes of Millionaire? slotting together piece by piece and Dominic Cummings gradually refining his campaign strategy are recognisably by the same writer, the two works4 sharing certain structural quirks beyond the more superficial observation that both hinge on a polarising yes or no question.) The drama as a whole is buoyed by stylish direction from Stephen Frears, however, and canny casting even in smaller roles (Mark Bonnar and Aisling Bea especially) helps Quiz feel like a confident piece of television: a necessity, really, given it invokes what’s arguably one of the most successful television shows ever.

What’s most striking about Quiz, though, is quite how tense it often is. Certainly, it’s far more tense than you’d expect of a game show where you already know the answers – of course Ingram gets the questions right, that’s essentially the whole premise. That anxiety and apprehension is preserved in no small part because of how faithfully Quiz recreates Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, from the iconic set to the moody lighting to the familiar music to the sheer drama of it all – and to the host. Much has been said about Michael Sheen’s frankly uncanny performance as Chris Tarrant; it’s perhaps a cliché to compare an actor’s impression to archive footage, but Sheen’s performance almost invites such comparison – not because Quiz uses any archive footage, of course, but for the moments where it genuinely seems as though they have. Taken together, it’s no wonder Quiz is so tense.

It’s an almost uniquely televised form of tension, crucially – the suspense of “let’s find out, after the break”, a cliffhanger never replicated on stage or in film. (Quiz shows a remarkable level of restraint in not copying this conceit itself – cutting straight to adverts after Michael Sheen delivered the infamous catchphrase must’ve been hard to resist, but it’s a smart choice not to, in keeping with Quiz’s dedication to looking beyond that original broadcast.) Thus Quiz benefits from being restored to television, not just recreating the nightly drama of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but also serving as reminder of why the cheating scandal proved so captivating in the first place. It’s not just because of the Ingrams’ eccentricities, or the charming, intuitive simplicity of cheating in a quiz, or even the million pounds at stake. It’s because television made it close, made it nearby. Quiz opens referencing the adage that the Vietnam war was the first televised war, tacitly framing this infamous heist in the same terms: when the Ingrams tried to steal a million pounds, they might as well have done it in the corner of your front room.

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Quiz exonerates the Ingrams, in the end. Of course it does; casting Sian Clifford, always quietly the best part of Fleabag, and Matthew Macfadyen, who as Tom Wambsgams is the most sympathetic character on Succession even as he’s arguably the worst of them, wasn’t ever going to do anything but endear the Ingrams to the audience. Their performances go a long way towards anchoring the drama, in fact; the show keeps both characters at something of a remove for most its runtime, not quite rendering them ciphers but certainly distant. It’s necessary, of course – the first two episodes of Quiz in effect take up the prosecution, and that demands a certain ambiguity be sustained. Still, though, it ran the risk of leaving things inert; Clifford and Macfadyen’s restrained charm does a lot to round out the characters before the third episode recontextualises events.

For all that James Graham has quite studiously avoided coming down on one side or the other, Quiz undeniably stacks the deck in favour of the accused; the series finishes, after all, with their defence, in effect leaving them the final word. (It’s perhaps not a surprise that many of the audience took to Twitter afterwards, now Ingram truthers themselves; during its interactive West End run, most theatregoers voted the Ingrams innocent by the end too.) Their defence was one predicated on the material nature of television – the same phenomenon that saw the case of the Coughing Major become so famous in the first place. The Ingrams insisted that it was a matter of television editing that made them look (and only look) so guilty – victims, in effect, of a storytelling technique.

The first episode of Quiz quotes Picasso, asserting that “we all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. It’s more than a touch grandiose, but it speaks to Graham’s intentions; Quiz is a drama about a truth, not necessarily one about the truth. (There’s a sleight of hand going on there too, given the quote stops short; in full, it reads “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth – at least the truth that is given us to understand,” pointing again to the layers of artifice and construct in each retelling of the tale.) In some respects, it’s a more entertaining truth – and the real-life Ingrams would probably call it a better truth. That’s why Quiz breaks, ever so briefly, from its otherwise realist bent with a musical sequence – and why, when it does, it does so through the television. Much as it once convicted the Ingrams, it’s now (almost) letting them free. Television offers a more heightened reality: as a quiz show, as a trial, as a drama. Quiz was never about the heist, or about the Ingrams. Not really.

And it’s why the final note is Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant again, showbiz rictus grin leering out of the screen, posing one last question – this time without a lifeline. “So, go on then,” he demands, “tell us. What’s the answer?”

The answer – as ever, as always, and what Quiz was really about – is television.

Related:

Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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Doctor Who Review: Series 12

doctor who series 12 review chibnall whittaker revolution daleks news rumours captain jack harkness

I wrote half of this a few weeks ago, before the world caught fire; feels a little silly to publish it now, a million years after the end of Series 12, but you know, gotta keep doing content.

This is a post-script, dotting each i and crossing every t. I approached my review of The Timeless Children as though it could be my final word on the Chibnall era – I don’t expect things to change much, and those episodes were often a chore to watch. I’ve always said, of the Jodie Whittaker era, that if it got to the point I didn’t particularly enjoy them, I’d simply stop writing about them; if nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be one of those people, you know? There are better, more positive things to direct energy towards, and I never want to get to the point where I’m just sick of Doctor Who entirely. That review of The Timeless Children felt like a good one to go out on, if necessary.

But, you know, I’d have been sad if I didn’t get to do the traditional graph. Love the graph.

First, a reminder of the ten episodes that made up Doctor Who Series 12, as well as the scores out of ten that I gave to each on Rotten Tomatoes. Given that those are always a little arbitrary, never not feeling at least a little wrong in hindsight, I’ve also included two preferential rankings – one compiled before rewatching the series, and another afterwards.

  1. Spyfall (Part One) | By Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  2. Spyfall (Part Two) | By Chris Chibnall | 4/10
  3. Orphan 55 | By Ed Hime | 5/10
  4. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror | By Nina Metivier |7/10
  5. Fugitive of the Judoon | By Vinay Patel & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  6. Praxeus | By Pete McTighe & Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  7. Can You Hear Me? | By Charlene James & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  8. The Haunting of Villa Diodati | By Maxine Alderton | 5/10
  9. Ascension of the Cybermen | By Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  10. The Timeless Children | By Chris Chibnall | 1/10

That comes to an overall score of 58/100, or 5.8/10, which rounds to 6/10. (The maths has gotten a lot easier now Doctor Who has ten episodes to series.) While I am as always inclined to quibble some of those scores in hindsight – Spyfall (Part One), Fugitive of the Judoon, and Ascension of the Cybermen each feel a little too high, and I have the sense I was unfair to Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – on aggregate, I think that’s about right. (Though I do wonder if I should’ve tried to weight the finale a little more, somehow, given that one did rather overshadow the rest of the series.)

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By way of comparison, Series 11 got 65/100, or 71/110 if you include Resolution – so that’s 6.5/10, or… oh, actually also still 6.5/10 if you include Resolution, which is kinda neat. Let’s round that to 7/10, then – a whole point higher than Series 12. It’s not necessarily exactly what I’d have expected, but it makes a degree of sense – where I think Series 12 was, on the whole, perhaps a more confident and sure-footed piece of television, Series 11 benefitted from the momentum of a new Doctor (and, probably, a patience on my part that’s since vanished). Series 12 also lacked, I’d posit, any proper ‘classics’ in the same sense that Series 11 had them – there’s no obvious equivalent to Rosa or Demons of the Punjab this year, or even It Takes You Away. Even in its best episodes, there’s a certain awkwardness – the consensus favourite, Fugitive of the Judoon, pales in comparison to Vinay Patel’s previous effort, the episode’s character drama struggling in the face of its obligation to double as a trailer for the series finale.

Otherwise, the numbers don’t offer a massive amount of insight – I can’t really compare, say, episodes on Earth vs episodes on alien planets, because save for the finale they were all on Earth. There aren’t really enough repeat episodes from individual writers either – of those who returned, Pete McTighe improved most, perhaps unsurprisingly – though it’s notable that Chris Chibnall’s cowrites are, across the board, more highly rated than his sole credits.

In terms of the preferential ranking, the biggest change is Spyfall (Part One) falling four places – on rewatch it was just deeply, painfully dull. A really turgid hour of television, probably the greatest struggle to get through of the ten – which surprised me, actually! I’d remembered it being basically fun, but no. (I did notice, actually, that it’s quite obviously written as a classic series four-parter, each instalment roughly sixteen-minutes long; I can’t help but wonder, though, if the two parts might’ve been better off edited together and cut down to an eighty-minute movie special. Part Two has a better cliffhanger, if nothing else, so you might’ve kept a few more viewers.)

Outside of that, things were largely consistent: Can You Hear Me? took the top spot from Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, pushing Praxeus down one as well, but I’d say the three are largely interchangeable in terms of their quality – equally as good as one another, just at different things. I don’t know that any of them would’ve been standouts in any other year – Can You Hear Me? feels like an admirable failure in the same vein as Sleep No More, worth celebrating for trying something new even if it wasn’t brilliant at it – but I suppose it’s just the case that you’ve got to take what you can get in the Chibnall era.

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As ever, Chris Chibnall remains difficult to understand; his compulsions and his idiosyncrasies continue to elude me, and I’m yet to entirely grasp why he thinks Doctor Who stories are ones worth telling. Casting his eye across the long arc of Doctor Who’s history, Chibnall apparently saw a Möbius strip: Doctor Who that mattered because, and only because, it was Doctor Who. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine The Timeless Children airing a decade ago and being met with the same acclaim as any of its predecessors – the issue isn’t simply that Doctor Who is has been on television for fifteen years and that’s just what happens, but that Chibnall’s vision for the show is inherently insular and uninviting, a far cry from the mass populist beast Doctor Who once was. Increasingly, I’m convinced that whoever replaces Chris Chibnall shouldn’t be – needs to not be, in fact – a fan of the same generation as Davies, Moffat and Chibnall. In fact, they almost shouldn’t be a fan at all: we’ve reached the natural limit of that approach now, I think. Time for new ideas. Having an opinion on the Morbius Doctors should almost disqualify you from the job really.

I suppose it is worth noting – if only because I so often give him a hard time – that Chibnall is in fact quite talented as a producer. It shows on screen: I’m not quite convinced by claims that Doctor Who looks better now than it ever has before, but certainly it impresses in terms of its location shoots, and how often it’s able to take advantage of overseas filming. Similarly, note how Doctor Who accommodates Bradley Walsh’s ITV commitments; he’s taking a week off during the production of each episode, but it rarely feels that way. Indeed, they’re quite clever about it sometimes – hiding inside the Cybermen in The Timeless Children is a great conceit, but the only reason for it was so that Bradley Walsh could ADR his lines without actually being on set.

Otherwise? Those inclined to argue Chibnall is privately quite conservative, only writing Doctor Who as superficially progressive because he thinks that’s in vogue at the moment, will have picked up a few new talking points this year. Not just in terms of the obvious – yes, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, made special by her genetic inheritance; yes, the white Doctor did say she was genetically better than the Indian Master, and turn him over to the Nazis as well; yes, being a billionaire is something to aspire to, and it’s a shame Tesla never got to be one – but subtler things that only stand out on a full rewatch. There’s this interesting recurring language choice that keeps cropping up, this idea of being “offended”: the Doctor in Spyfall (“I hate being inside livers. People always get so offended”), Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon (“Anti-theft attack system? Oh. Well, now I’m offended”), and Graham in The Timeless Children (“You’re doing the whole human race proud. Sorry. I haven’t offended you, have I?”). They each jar in isolation, but taken together – especially alongside the “conversion-shame” quip – they suggest a certain worldview of middle-aged contempt on Chibnall’s behalf subtly bleeding through.

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Jodie Whittaker, meanwhile, is perhaps starting to struggle with the part. I think she’s brilliant, for what it’s worth, and I feel the need to stress that first and foremost: Whittaker is an excellent actress, and in many ways was a really clever casting choice for the Doctor. Equally, though, it’s hard not to feel as though she’s not being given enough to do with the part, and – even now – is struggling to define the role in that absence.

Most instructive in that regard, I think, are Praxeus and Can You Hear Me? – two of the best episodes of the series, yes, but also two of Whittaker’s weakest performances. In Praxeus, she’s on autopilot; in Can You Hear Me?, she’s caught between two interpretations of the character, the socially awkward Doctor or the emotionally aware Doctor, neither quite cohering. It’s this, as I said at the time, that I suspect prompted such an outburst over the Doctor’s response to Graham’s cancer; there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor, from episodes like Arachnids in the UK or Orphan 55, who is socially awkward. But there’s also a version who’s quietly insightful, and keenly empathetic: the Doctor who apologises to Yaz, Graham and Ryan when they see a dead body in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, for example, or connects with a grieving Mabli in The Tsuranga Conundrum, or officiates a wedding in Demons of the Punjab. Sometimes those two depictions cohere, and sometimes they don’t, but Can You Hear Me? revealed an interesting pressure point – reactions were quite so polarised because people each favoured different visions of the character.

When Whittaker eventually leaves the role – which at this point is surely sooner rather than later – and moves on to pastures new, I wonder which episode will endure as her great acting showcase piece. It’s relatively easy to point to the highlights of her predecessor’s performances; Eccleston had Dalek, Tennant Human Nature, and Capaldi of course had Heaven Sent. It’s hard to think of a recent episode of Doctor Who that seems to set out to challenge Whittaker, to let her deepen her interpretation of the Doctor, to push her outside her comfort zone. (In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies deliberately conceived of an episode like that for David Tennant – granted that episode ended up being The Doctor’s Daughter, so they’re not always going to be winners, but at least Midnight was still coming up.)

Indeed, across the course of series 12, it’s often felt as though the Doctor is written with little consideration for Whittaker as an actress, or what she’s good at; this Doctor’s earnest optimism is worlds away from the guarded secrecy of Trust Me, or the raw emotion of Broadchurch. Whittaker is better, I think, at playing characters who are less secure, often with something to hide, but there’s little of that being written for her. Oddly, hiding Gallifrey’s destruction, smartly cribbed from Gridlock, would’ve been a great chance for Whittaker to actually engage with these emotions; instead, Chibnall does little more than gesture at this (see the opening of Orphan 55), simply asserting character in flat, listless dialogue rather than letting his actors actually, well, act it.

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What’s most frustrating is that Doctor Who is still so close to working – it’s struggling, yes, but the potential is there (and even when it does fail, it often still fails in interesting ways that suggest scope for improvement). There genuinely is a lot to appreciate, even if it is pushed to the margins at times: Tosin Cole is a brilliant comic actor, Bradley Walsh is always reliable, and Mandip Gill finally got something to do. Indeed, Yaz came much closer to working as a character this year; I wonder, idly, if her two best episodes (Praxeus and Can You Hear Me?) had been spaced out across the season a little more, it might’ve done some of the heavy lifting for episodes that didn’t quite find space for Yaz.

It’ll be interesting to see what Series 13 looks like – particularly if, as rumoured, Ryan and Graham both depart at Christmas, with Yaz staying on alone. It’d be a welcome change to the dynamic, and indeed probably a necessary one: three companions has never quite worked, and shedding two of them would give the remaining characters a lot more space to breathe. (Could three companions have ever worked? It’s hard to say.) Somewhat concerning is the persistent, and plausible, suggestion that John Barrowman might join Doctor Who as a regular companion alongside Mandip Gill; he makes a certain degree of sense as a longer-term replacement for Bradley Walsh, in terms of their respective star-power, and it rather feels like exactly the kind of ill-conceived decision that Chibnall might make.

Otherwise? At a certain point, I’m almost reduced to saying “just be good”, or “don’t make basic mistakes”. If you have four regular characters, and a new setting each week, you shouldn’t also have quite such a large guest cast (and they probably shouldn’t have names like Bescot, Yedlarmi and Fuskle). Try and find something for each of those four regular characters to do every week, if you can. Your midseries centrepiece episode should probably have a function beyond plot exposition for the finale – and your finale should definitely have a function beyond plot exposition for next series. These, I think, are reasonable expectations to have of a television drama in 2020. There are other things I’d like, sure – it’d be nice if the show actually was as leftist as its worst detractors seem to think, for one thing – but, you know, first things first and all that.

I’ve long thought that it’s more instructive to think of Doctor Who as several television programmes, rather than just one. There are two television programmes called Doctor Who I really like; at the moment, there’s a television programme called Doctor Who I don’t particularly. Maybe I’ll like it next year, maybe I won’t. Fair enough.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Composer Jeff Russo on scoring Star Trek: Picard, Noah Hawley’s Star Trek movie, and more

Jeff Russo composer interview star trek picard score theme tune music flute ressikan discovery fargo noah hawley legion umbrella academy Dan Goldwasser

From an instrumental point of view, I wanted to connect it to our previous stories. So, the use of the flute at the beginning and in the end is inspired by Jean-Luc Picard playing the Ressikan flute in The Inner Light. That’s really the only true connection to a musical instrument in the show that I can remember in The Next Generation – other than Riker playing a trombone! It was like, “Let’s not use a trombone. We don’t need to use a trombone.” For one thing, it’s not Star Trek: Riker, and it’s not Riker’s story, so it didn’t strike me as something that would be meaningful. The flute seemed really meaningful to how Picard’s life had progressed.

A recent conversation with Jeff Russo, who was both very nice and very enthusiastic about Star Trek. Lots of interesting, thoughtful comments about how you approach the score for something like Picard – and, actually, how that’s subtly but significantly different from how you approach the score for Discovery. (Which, thinking about it, would probably have been a better thing to reference in the title there – my typically suppressed clickbait instincts got the better of me this time.)

Incidentally, this very nice picture of Jeff is one I borrowed from his website, and in turn which he took from Scoring Sessions, a website I’ve only just now come across but is clearly a phenomenal resource. I think the original photo credit, in this case, goes to Dan Goldwasser, the Editor-in-Chief of Scoring Sessions.

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