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.

quiz matthew macfadyen sian clifford ingram courtroom tecwen whittock coughing major millionaire

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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Weekly Watchlist #1 (1st Sept – 7th Sept)

weekly watchlist 1 succession this way up a confession martin freeman aisling bea jeremy strong sarah snook reviews british tv television alex moreland

A new thing I’m trying out, which I figure is basically self-explanatory. I watch a lot of stuff, a lot of which I never actually end up writing about, so this seemed like a good way to keep track of it all – with aspects of it, I suspect, ending up as first drafts of ideas that might turn into full articles.

I am not exactly sure how consistent this is going to be, whether it’ll definitely be every week, if I’ll write something about everything I end up watching or maybe just list some, whether it’ll go beyond television to include anything else I might watch – we’ll see, basically.

But, anyway. Some short-form thoughts on some stuff I saw this week:

A Confession (ITV)

I’m increasingly uncomfortable with true crime dramas like this, and I have been for a while now – the sort of programme that takes real tragedies, stories that belong to real victims, and reducing all that pain and suffering down to a collection of ITV clichés about a stoic policeman who’s sad about not seeing his wife enough. “Based on a true story” ends up little more than a marketing flourish for a Martin Freeman star vehicle, rather than an acknowledgment of the people at the heart of this story.

What struck me particularly about A Confession, though, was this long, sweeping shot of scenery, set to mournful music – exactly the sort of thing Broadchurch lifted from scandi-noir crime dramas, positioning A Confession, quite pointedly, alongside these fictional dramas. It feels like the wrong approach – particularly, actually, for a drama adapting this story, which surely should be about examining the nuances of the legal system rather than aping the structure of a straightforward whodunnit.

I’ll stick with it, albeit only because I think I could probably get an article out of it.

Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (FX, BBC Two)

Such an impressively, compulsively watchable series – which always sounds like faint praise, but I think actually that’s a more meaningful feat than its necessarily recognised as, especially given the deluge of competitors a series has to distinguish itself against these days – and I’m really kicking myself that it took me so long to actually get around to starting the second series.

Euphoria (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

I’m three episodes into Euphoria, and I’ve had my doubts so far – charming though Zendaya is, the opening two instalments felt like they were much more about making bold, provocative statements of intent rather than telling any particular story, and anyway, I’m not so sure how much I actually enjoy watching teenagers going through, well, heavy shit.

But then the third episode was a considerably more idiosyncratic, and interesting, piece of television; any programme that can pull off a Larry Stylinson sex scene or intercut a lecture on dick pic etiquette with footage of Charles Manson is something I’m inclined to stick with at least a while longer.

Manifest (NBC, Sky One)

This is pretty awful. It’s a show about a plane that disappeared, and then reappeared five years later, and to be honest it almost feels like a programme that would be more at home five years ago – in the end, it’s just another Lost wannabe. I’ve watched six episodes of this now, even though it is pretty awful; it’s not even accidentally compelling the way The Resident was. Probably gonna give up on this sooner rather than later.

Succession (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

This is consistently the highlight of my week (honestly, any moment I spend not watching Succession is a moment where I am frankly not as happy as I would be if I were watching Succession), and I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up in the number one spot when I end up putting together my best of 2019 list.

Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)

I’m stunned at Jamie Demetriou’s skill at physical comedy. He’s so, so good.

The Loudest Voice (Showtime, Sky Atlantic)

Early days yet with this one, but I’m gonna stick with it – I’m always quite interested in stories that take place in the late 90s and early 2000s, covering events I was alive for but never really wholly conscious of at the time, and the journalism angle helps as well too obvs. Haven’t quite worked out how I feel about Russell Crowe’s performance though yet, particularly the prosthetics – I can’t tell if I think they accentuate or detract from his portrayal of Ailes – but we’ll see. And, you know, if nothing else, it’s only 7 episodes.

The Mash Report (BBC Two)

Some years ago, I wrote an article about how The Mash Report wasn’t very good. Nor was the article, granted, but still, when The Mash Report started, it was pretty dire. Since then, though, I’ve dipped in and out of the show, just in case it improved massively while I wasn’t looking and I could write an “I was wrong about The Mash Report” type article.

Not feeling the need to write that one just yet.

This Way Up (Channel 4)

I finished this at the tail end of August, but I liked it a lot and might not get the chance to say anything about it otherwise, so here it is anyway. I think, actually, if Fleabag didn’t exist, this would probably have a lot more acclaim? It’s difficult, obviously, to draw comparisons, and you don’t want to do that stupid thing the Guardian’s doing at the moment by comparing literally everything with a woman in it to Fleabag.

But! I do actually think there’s a bit of merit to the comparison in this case, if only because there’s a thematic similarity, in terms of how they deal with loneliness (Fleabag is hugely about loneliness and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise), and mental health, and so on. Actually, This Way Up is almost a little more specific, which I appreciated, contrasted with what Fleabag is inclined to leave implicit. It’s probably not unfair to say This Way Up owes a debt to Fleabag, but it’s a small one, I think, and probably more in terms of the slightly boring, commissioning angle, where the head of every channel is looking for the next Fleabag. But also, that kinda undercuts Aisling Bea, who is great, so I don’t really care for that line of thinking.

What I would say is that This Way Up is probably better at being a more – and this sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, I’m not – traditional, straightforward comedy. Fleabag, I’ve recently started to think, is a drama that’s taken on the shape and style of a comedy (in contrast to Succession, which is a comedy that’s taken on the shape and style of a drama – I’m wondering, actually, about genre as structure first and foremost, about a television language that’s been defined by relatively arbitrary strictures imposed onto the format, which is why a half-hour drama like, uhm, I’ve forgotten the one I was raving about a while back, but it’s why a half hour drama can suddenly feel like such an exciting and interesting thing, you know? Although I suspect part of that is also just a reaction against the sort of televisual manspreading, to steal a phrase, of prestige television, of Game of Thrones going on for hours and hours and hours – and Succession is actually working with that in a sort of meta sense, because it’s all about excess and opulence and disgusting wealth, so even though it’s obviously a comedy using the language and style and form of a prestige drama is how it heightens that)

That bracket got long enough that I thought I should start a new sentence. Anyway, what I was going to say is, This Way Up is dealing with similar themes to Fleabag while still being an actual comedy – Fleabag is, I might be inclined to argue, just (“just”, but you know what I mean) a very funny drama. I think finding a space for these ideas, finding a space for that subject matter, to handle it with sensitivity and levity all within the context of a sitcom, is actually arguably far more quietly revolutionary than the prestige dramedy of Fleabag.

(I definitely just did the thing I said I wasn’t going to do. Hmm.)

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Hard Sun never quite moved beyond a police procedural, and suffered as a result

hard sun neil cross jim sturgess agyness deyn aisling bea hulu bbc one

It’s not difficult to argue that, in any drama about the apocalypse, the reaction to this knowledge and its effect on society is one of the most interesting things that could be explored. However, Hard Sun largely opts not to explore this part of its premise. Indeed, for the most part, the apocalypse is something of an afterthought as the drama instead retreats to the well-worn hallmarks of a police procedural. With episodes focused on serial killers and kidnappings, the end of the world isn’t so much a focal point but a background detail to add texture; it’s a concept that’s broadly gestured at, rather than a theme that’s interrogated particularly.

For the most part, Hard Sun was frustrating, and ultimately quite dull. It’s a shame, really, because I was really rooting for this show; the concept seemed fascinating, and Aisling Bea was in it, and I think she’s great. Unfortunately, though, Hard Sun wasn’t much of anything in the end. The above review is, to be honest, only really one line of criticism that could be applied to the show – it’s a very particular sort of grim detective show, with all the tropes and pitfalls that tends to entail.

I think it’s going to be on Hulu soon – US viewers, I say don’t bother. UK viewers who haven’t seen it yet, also don’t bother.

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