A riveting show about a show, Quiz is witty, engaging and incredibly well-cast. It has a nostalgic feel, yet depicts an extremely relevant story in today’s world of fake and sensationalist news.
With their new drama series, ITV producers have skilfully recreated the kind of ‘event TV’ that gave their 1990 series Who Wants to be a Millionaire? its record-breaking viewing figures. Based on James Graham’s successful West-End play of the same name, Quiz is a brilliant dramatisation of the ‘Coughing Major’ scandal which captured the nation’s attention in 2001, when Major Charles Ingram and his wife, Diana, were accused and convicted of cheating their way to £1,000,000.
Like the original show, this gripping three-part series was aired over consecutive nights, hooking the audience and tantalising us with an array of possible outcomes. The first episode is light and entertaining, reminiscent of the first round of the game when not much money is at stake, but as both shows go on, the tension builds. Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Chris Tarrant is particularly remarkable; from the pitch-perfect nasal voice to the bright, plasticky smile, the resemblance is so uncanny that it led viewers to comment ‘How is Michael Sheen a better Chris Tarrant than Chris Tarrant?’.
Quiz focuses on the Ingram family as they become the centre of a growing controversy. The press surrounds their house, people cough at Charles in the street, their children get bullied at school, and their dog is shot. This is mostly true to life (although Ingram says it was their cat, not their dog) and whether or not you think they were guilty, you suffer with them. By humanising this well-known story, the show makes the viewer feel guiltily complicit in the mass public condemnation that the family faced.
Episode 3 centres on the court case, and here the drama really comes to life. The defence lawyer, Sonia Woodley, argues that the evidence tape submitted by the producers of WWBAM? has been doctored, and that the 19 coughs identified as suspicious had been raised to an unrealistic volume. ‘This is your version of what happened,’ she tells Paul Smith, the executive producer of the iconic gameshow; ‘the jury are looking where you want them to look.’ Unfortunately, the production of Quiz suffers from the same manipulation of reality. The very accusations that Woodley levels at the producers of WWTBAM? can also be levelled at the producers of Quiz. ‘This is a creative choice made by those who are editing it’ – and in the dramatized version of the game show, any coughing on the right answers is loud and isolated, drawing our attention to it, and making the Major appear guilty.
Others have criticised the show for being too lenient – in particular Christ Tarrant himself, who points out that the show included a very convincing defence summation but omitted the equally convincing prosecution summation. Interviewed for The Independent, he claims that there was ‘a bit of production company skulduggery’ that seemed intent on portraying Charles as innocent. Tarrant reinforced his own opinion of Ingram as guilty, calling him: ‘a rotter, a cad and a bandit’.
When making a true story into drama, problems arise. The facts can get in the way of a good story, and dramatisation often unwittingly skews the facts. The Quiz scriptwriters’ decision to keep the story ambiguous created issues with the representation of the central characters. We see Charles and Diana Ingram in private moments, but because the script won’t allow them to give anything away, most of their conversations are vague, improbable and strangely abstract. Of course, a drama must have protagonists, and it certainly helps that they are portrayed brilliantly by stars such as Macfadyen and Clifford – but it is slightly jarring that the Ingrams are never shown discussing their own guilt or innocence.
It is inevitably frustrating that for the million-pound question, Quiz is forced to resort to a lifeline: ask the audience. Is Major Charles Ingram A: Not Guilty, or B: Guilty. Yet despite its ambiguity, Quiz is still worth a watch.
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