Quiz turns event television back into event television

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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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Innocent didn’t live up to its potential, but mostly worked – until it fumbled the final reveal

innocent itv crime drama lee ingleby chris lang m j arlidge richard clark hermione norris daniel ryan twist review

Increasingly, in certain crime dramas, there’s an emphasis on shock and surprise first and foremost when it comes to eventually revealing the murderer. It’s debatable how effective this is; certainly, there’s a strong argument to be made that revealing the murderer shouldn’t be surprising at all, but rather the moment when everything becomes suddenly very obvious, satisfying because it makes sense in hindsight. Innocent is very much in the former camp – with little set up or efforts to establish the possibility in prior episodes, the final part of the series hinges on the revelation that David’s brother Phil actually murdered his wife, mainly out of jealousy. To say it doesn’t quite jive with what we’ve seen so far is an understatement; Innocent had established, up to this point, that Phil had spent the last seven years campaigning to have David released from prison, at the expense of his marriage and home. It’s not that the two facts are mutually exclusive, exactly, but Innocent makes very little effort to join the ideas together.

It’s the sort of thing that rarely wins audience support; there’s little doubt, certainly, that the majority of the Innocent twitter hashtag once the episode ends will be complaints to that effect. Prioritizing the surprise over fidelity to and consistency with steps taken to reach the reveal dull the emotional impact of the moment; if the emotional impact doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter how shocking it’s meant to be. Shock is cheap – genuine engagement requires something more.

I find myself writing stuff like this about crime dramas a lot. The last time, I think, was that Cormoran Strike thing (or CB Strike, as it’s inexplicably called in America – where does the B come from?) but it comes up often enough; Broadchurch was quite the offender back when it was on, actually.

Admittedly, this might be a personal thing, where I’m just not a fan of twist endings exactly; more likely, though, it’s that a lot of these twist endings are bad at being twist endings. Frustratingly I don’t think I ever quite get these articles right, in terms of expressing what I’m getting at; I think I need to go and look up, like, Aristolean unities so I know how to articulate what I mean, assuming those are what I think they are at least.

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Trauma was a haunting meditation on destructive grief

trauma itv john simm adrian lester mike bartlett marc evans review tv grief drama

This death is at the heart of Trauma; as a programme, it’s fascinated by death and its impact, depicting an almost eschatological collapse of the status quo. This manifests through Trauma’s examination of both Dan Bowker (John Simm) and Jon Allerton (Adrian Lester), as parent and surgeon are forced to confront this death and how it changes them. There’s a compelling bond between them, as a grieving man latches onto the last human face who told him everything would be okay, the relationship quickly deteriorating as he searches for someone to blame. 

In a sense, certain similarities can be drawn between this and writer Mike Bartlett’s previous work on Doctor Foster, another drama focused on a spiralling disintegration of its lead character’s life; what sets Trauma apart, however, is how dedicated it is to exploring dual perspectives. There’s a real nuance and subtlety to Trauma, a measured approach to character work that doesn’t betray any of the ambiguity it allows.

In hindsight, that’s quite the pretentious title. But hey. I was pretty pleased with the article in the end. There’s one bit that isn’t quite right – a line of analysis that I don’t think exactly goes anywhere – but on the whole, a largely good article.

I really loved this show, and I was quite surprised to find that it wasn’t super well received generally. The explanation, as ever, is that I was right and they were all wrong. (More seriously, I think that a lot of the reason why people didn’t respond to this show so well is that they didn’t quite get why John Simm’s character became so fixated on Adrian Lester’s – admittedly, you can then argue about how well the show justified that, but still.)

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Liar’s depiction of rape isn’t just insensitive, it’s reckless

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Viewers were invited to doubt Laura’s testimony – drawing focus to her drinking, suggesting that she had past form for false rape accusations. It’s interesting to note, in fact, that in Metro’s review of the first episode, the majority of the comments were in support of Andrew. It wasn’t until the end of the third episode that Liar unequivocally revealed that Andrew had spiked Laura’s drink; that’s half the length of the series predicated on doubting a woman’s account of sexual assault.

Rather than examining the attitudes that lead to people doubting women when they speak out about sexual assault, Liar was advancing them – perpetuating a stereotype that is in many ways genuinely quite harmful. Across recent weeks, the revelation about Harvey Weinstein’s actions has been followed by many women speaking out about their own experiences with sexual assault, and the doubts they faced afterwards. A popular television programmes that invites its five million viewers to think a woman is lying about being raped feeds into the same culture that lets that happen.

A piece about a series that made me quite angry, given that it dealt so poorly with its subject matter.

This article got a lot of traction, actually; it was cited by the BBC in this piece about the series. I don’t think there was enough writing done about Liar that held it account for this, so I’m glad I wrote this piece.

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Forget about The Mash Report or The Nightly Show – The Last Leg has already perfected the late-night satire format

the mash report nish kumar the last leg adam hills josh widdicombe alex brooker channel 4 bbc two the nightly show itv

A few nights ago, BBC Two debuted their own offering – The Mash Report, a satirical news show which teamed rising comedian Nish Kumar with the Onion-esque website The Daily Mash. The programme boldly proclaims, “In the era of Theresa May, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Donald Trump, the jokes will surely write themselves” – and then proves that, actually, they probably do need someone to write the jokes. Any jokes, really, would do.

So, I normally dislike writing about comedy, and I think this is why – the first series of The Mash Report wound me up no end, since despite expecting quite a lot from it, it seemed to just flounder. But then, that’s so subjective; I can decry it as much as I want, but certainly some people seemed to like it.

Anyway. I’ve not re-read the above since writing it; I suspect it doesn’t actually do a particularly good job of laying out its arguments. In the time since, anyway, I’ve become much less enamoured with The Last Leg anyway; brilliant though it in many ways is, I started to go through a phase of not responding massively well to geopolitical jokes anyway. Things felt just a little too heavy to make light of.

The second season of The Mash Report, or the bits of it that I watched, turned out to be a fair amount funnier. So I suppose it was just a case of settling into their groove.

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Broadchurch series three was about toxic masculinity – so why did it end by saying “not all men”?

broadchurch season 3 david tennant olivia colman julie hesmondlalgh rape not all men sexual assault mishandling criticism hd series 3 chris chibnall jodie whittaker

The series, then, was about toxic masculinity. That was the overarching theme, evident from the start and continued (almost) to the closing moments of the series. More specifically, though, it was about men controlling women – exerting influence over them, disregarding their boundaries and autonomy, and attempting to control them. 

However, it’s telling that at the end of it all, we get a “not all men” scene. DI Hardy decries the rapist as an “aberration”, insisting that “not every man is like that”. Which is odd, really – quite apart from all the problems inherent with that phrase, it seemed like every episode up until now had been about saying yes, actually. All men.

So why did the final episode flip the script?

Hmm, so. Broadchurch series 3.

Mostly, everyone loved this series of Broadchurch. I thought it was particularly good – and, really, more importantly particularly sensitive in terms of how it handled its rape plotline – until, at least, the final episode. There were a lot of issues, I reckon; from pushing Trish to the edges of the narrative, essentially removing her from her own story right at the end, to the redemption scenes given to each man (particularly Charlie Higson’s character), to the identity of Trish’s attacker full stop. Oh, and, the fact it said “not all men”. Yikes.

Pretty much no one, however, seemed to be writing about it – the praise was largely without caveats, and none of the above was raised in critique. So, obviously, I wrote about it. Problem was, I suspect, it took me a week to actually get the above piece done, so it didn’t exactly latch onto the public consciousness. I hope that, if Broadchurch ever undergoes a critical re-evaluation, this final episode becomes a bit more of a sticking point.

The other thing about this article, though, is that I decided to avoid outright criticising the show – or, maybe more accurately, just criticising the show. I thought it’d be a bit more interesting and worthwhile to try and divine why Broadchurch swerved at the last moment, and what that meant in terms of the overall message it was trying to impart. I’m not so sure about the second half of the piece, where I get all symbolic about things; nowadays, I’d be much more direct in my condemnation, like I was with Liar. Though equally Liar was a lot more straightforward in its flaws, so, perhaps it wouldn’t have necessitated an article like the above in the way that Broadchurch did. Or seemed to me to.

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Broadchurch series 3 finale – who attacked Trish? One last look at the suspects

broadchurch season 3 david tennant olivia colman charlie higson chris chibnall trish attacked suspects

Over the past eight weeks we’ve watched Broadchurch, with rapt attention, as Hardy and Miller attempted to solve one final crime.

The first episode saw Trish Winterman (Julie Hesmondlalgh) calling the police the morning after being sexually assaulted. Over the course of the rest of the series, it was revealed that there was a serial rapist in the coastal town.

Tonight (Monday, April 17), the attacker is set to be revealed – last week’s episode ended on a cliffhanger as Miller and Hardy found the last piece of evidence they needed. Here’s a final look at who it could be, and why…

One last piece on Broadchurch for the Metro.

I never got these articles quite right, to be blunt. There was something that seemed a little tawdry about writing, effectively, whodunnit theory posts for Broadchurch series 3 in a way that doesn’t quite seem to apply with the first two instalments of the show. Indeed, while I was writing them, one of my Yahoo colleagues Ben Homes wrote something to that affect, saying the show wasn’t about a whodunnit; while I’m not quite sure I’d agree, it did feel a little like an indirect, whether consciously or not – probably not, and it was more my own concerns about what I was doing that prompted how I read his piece.

You can notice, too, that I never quite came out and directly addressed what happened in Broadchurch, always using words like “attacked” or “assaulted”; my friend Zak, who’d been reading my articles but not watching the show, was under the impression until fairly late in the season that there had been another murder, which is telling.

So, yeah, I don’t know. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think my approach with these articles is exactly an ethical failing or whatever, but there was definitely a bit of a screw-up going on here.

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10 years since it began, could Primeval ever return?

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Today marks exactly ten years since the first ever episode of Primeval aired.

ITV’s sci-fi series started as a competitor to Doctor Who in the Saturday evening family drama slot, but quickly grew into something far more interesting. It was a show that, rather appropriately, evolved a lot over its lifetime – but even if nothing else was consistent (which was sometimes the case), you could always count on Primeval to be entertaining.

This summer it will be six years since the final episode of Primeval. And this month also marks four years since its Canadian spin-off series, Primeval: New World, came to an end. In wake of that, there have been a lot of fans clamouring for the show to return – it’s a sign of how popular the show once was that it maintains this devoted fanbase still, with Twitter accounts and petitions and a meaningful cult following all hoping that, one day, they’ll see their favourite show once more.

Now, to be honest – I suspect the answer to this question is a fairly resolute no. If Primeval is ever to return, it’ll be essentially as a reboot – or at least a continuation in the same vein as Primeval: New World, with fairly limited connection to the original show. Heck, I might bring it back myself one day. Why not, right?

But, since today is ten years since the first episode of Primeval, it’s been on my mind a lot. Stick around for a set of review to celebrate this anniversary!

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Primeval: The show that kept evolving

primeval series 2 itv impossible pictures nick cutter douglas henshall stephen hart james murray connor temple andrew lee potts abby maitland hannah spearitt hd

Created in 2007, Primeval was ITV’s answer to Doctor Who; a high concept programme incorporating time travel elements. Portals through time, known as anomalies, were opening across England, and allowing all many of prehistoric creatures to roam free – the series began following the work of Professor Nick Cutter as he attempted to solve the mysteries of the anomalies, a matter of both scientific curiosity and personal concern. It was described as being more “realistic” than Doctor Who – debatable, given the time travel and dinosaurs, but, in any case, it was clear that a closer comparison was perhaps the one made by Douglas Henshall (Nick Cutter) himself; Primeval was akin to The A Team, with an ensemble of specialists having to work together to achieve their aims.

Over time, though, the show began to change; the second series saw our team go from a ragtag group to a fully-fledged secret organisation with the backing of both the government and the military, as well as having to face a larger threat for the first time. The third season brought with it another near-reboot, as Douglas Henshall decided to leave the show; gone was our professor of zoology, replaced with an ex policeman played by Jason Flemyng, and the show gradually became more action oriented. It grew grander in scale, too, and saw the team coming up against potentially world ending threats.

A recent article about Primeval – which, somewhat surprsingly, I’ve never actually written about on the blog before! I was quite a fan of the show back in the day (although I’ve not seen it for a while, and I can’t imagine it aged particularly well), so it was nice to take a bit of a look back and see how it changed over the years.

In some respects, it’s one of the most interesting things about Primeval – which admittedly is not a comment that says a lot about the quality of the show. It seems a little less remarkable now, when the cancellation of any show could be followed by it being picked up by another network, or revived 15 years later, but when Primeval did came back from the dead (and got an American spinoff!) it was more than a little atypical. To be honest, given its track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ever popped up on Netflix with a new series a few years down the line…

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