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.

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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.

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film caught between two contrary instincts, unable to quite work out what it wants to be or what it wants to do.

On one level, Brexit is trying to be a character study, an attempt to shine a light on Dominic Cummings – a man most of the film’s audience is unlikely to be aware of. At the same time, though, the film also wants to be a process story ahead of anything else, delving into the idiosyncrasies of a political campaign of near unprecedented significance. It wouldn’t be impossible to be both, of course, but ultimately Brexit is neither – there’s a certain tension borne of this, as the film struggles to find an identity, leaving a rapidly forming sense that none of the major figures involved were quite on the same page throughout.

Screenwriter James Graham, clearly, is most interested in Dominic Cummings – not a huge surprise, given Cummings is apparently the sort of brash genius that so often fascinates writers. Whether Cummings genuinely falls prey to every cliché-ridden convention of the brusque political operative, speaking only in self-consciously lofty references and aphorisms is another question: it’s difficult to tell whether this an accurate account of Cummings’ real-life eccentricities or an artifice on Graham’s part. If the latter, it’s worthy of quite the eye-roll; if the former, then it’s easier to understand why Graham was quite so fascinated by Cummings, but does rather leave the impression that Graham bought into Cummings’ own hype, which is… another problem, to say the least.

That said, though, Graham isn’t helped by Cumberbatch’s visible lack of interest in Cummings. If 2018 held the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career in Patrick Melrose, then Brexit: The Uncivil War is unfortunately a sure example of one of his weakest. In Patrick Melrose, Cumberbatch carved out a space within his established milieu of isolated eccentrics, injecting it with a bracing vulnerability that elevated the performance far above the rest of his filmography. In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch does almost entirely the opposite – he’s sleepwalking through the film, coasting on a reputation for playing irreverent geniuses earned on Sherlock. (There’s reasonable critique to make, on that grounds, that Cumberbatch brings too much baggage to the role – simply by putting him on screen in this role, there’s an implicit suggestion that Cummings is a Sherlock-esque figure.) Cummings, here, is a caricature of ‘a Benedict Cumberbatch role’ – so of course the character study fails. It doesn’t matter what Graham was trying to achieve if Cumberbatch doesn’t show up.

Absent its star, Brexit renders Cummings a cipher around which the Leave campaign as a whole can be – not ‘interrogated’, that suggests a far robust and uncompromising look at events than the film offered – viewed. In that sense, Brexit does reasonably well, finding flair in the mundanities of the campaign trail from focus groups to slogans. It isn’t quite as good as, say, the average episode of The West Wing, but it works – an extended look at the subtleties that set “take control” apart from “take back control” makes for one of the film’s better sequences, for example. Similarly effective is Brexit: The Uncivil War’s look at how the Leave campaign relied on developing social media targeting – which is to say, it works, but it’s nowhere near as good an articulation of the concept as when it formed the fourth act plot twist of an episode of The Good Fight.

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Again, though, it doesn’t quite land – a result, most likely, of the fact that the process story was never meant to be the main focus of the script, merely inadvertently accentuated by the vagaries of Cumberbatch’s performance. In turn, it leaves Brexit: The Uncivil War as a drama divided, a film at war with itself – it’s no surprise that film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve. (Director Toby Haynes, who might have been able to stitch the two instincts together, instead offers a third – the equivalent of “well, let’s just be a bit like Norway”. Haynes tries to emphasise the absurdity of it all, presumably angling to satirise right-wing pomposity – but instead directs with a certain baroque pretension, another element that fails to cohere.)

In the end, this adaptation prompts much the same question as the real-life source material: why bother?

Not even three years on from the vote, accusations that Brexit: The Uncivil War has come too soon hold an obvious weight. 2019 is too early for Brexit to have been historicised; indeed, it’s still a palpable part of the present, if the events of this week are any indicator. In the time between Brexit’s Channel 4 debut and this review being written, Theresa May’s prospective deal suffered an unprecedented defeat in parliament; what will happen in the time between writing and publishing the review remains to be seen, let alone in the time between publishing the review and Brexit’s nominal 29th March scheduling.

That isn’t to say, though, that Brexit shouldn’t have bothered because they don’t know how it’ll end. Rather, while the broader ramifications of the event are still ongoing – and while the campaign at the heart of the film is still subject to ongoing criminal investigation – there’s argument to be made that a fictionalised narrative is irresponsible filmmaking. By virtue of being the first major attempt to tackle Brexit on film, Brexit: The Uncivil War is also going to be – for a time, at least – the definitive account of that campaign. What James Graham and company emphasise – and, more crucially, what they omit – is going to have a greater hand in shaping public understanding of the Brexit campaign than any news report or documentary. Looking beyond their depiction of Cummings, there’s little sense that there was any awareness of this responsibility behind the scenes. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are blustering and foolish, not insidious and dangerous; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are trepidant and cautious, not self-serving and morally negligent; the Leave campaign’s illegal overspending is little more than a footnote. Maybe waiting a few more years would’ve stopped them getting it wrong, maybe it wouldn’t, but the mistakes would likely have mattered a little bit less.

Ultimately, if Brexit: The Uncivil War was meant to hold a mirror up to society, it is instead a far better reflection of James Graham’s interest – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparent disinterest – in one man, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on the state of a nation.

5/10

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