BWW Review: QUIZ, ITV
James Graham adapts his stage play for the screen.
At its height in the late 90s, Who Wants to be a Millionaire was must-see television. Hosted by Chris Tarrant, the show premiered in 1998 and was an overnight ratings sensation. After an unwavering run of success, controversy reared its head in 2001. Major Charles Ingram bagged the big prize, only to later be exposed as a cheat thanks to an accomplice who coughed to signal each correct answer. The show's life went on, but in many ways its once bright light had been irrevocably dimmed.
Writer James Graham turned the shocking story into the stage play Quiz back in 2017. Premiering at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester before a West End transfer, it enjoyed much critical acclaim and secured two Oliver nominations. Graham has now adapted it for the screen. The three-part drama airs on ITV - incidentally the broadcaster of the show in which it is based on - over consecutive days from Easter Monday.
The drama sees producer Paul Smith put everything on the line to make a new TV game show. This prompts a pub quiz-loving family to develop an unhealthy obsession. As competitive siblings, Adrian and Diana both fail to progress beyond the £32,000 prize point, so it falls on Diana's unsuspecting husband, who doesn't even like quizzes, to take his turn in the coveted hot seat.
Charles dithers his way through the questions, frequently changing his mind at the last minute until his unorthodox and erratic strategy pays off and he wins the million. The production team have their suspicions, and it isn't long before their investigation leads to the Ingrams being charged with fraud. Persecuted by the public and the press, the couple are taken to court. The trial appears to be a fait accompli, however the jury soon learn there is far more to the story.
The format of Who Wants to be a Millionaire is very simple. There is a right answer or a wrong answer. True or false. Black or white. Graham uses this to discuss the idea that in the 90s, we perhaps accepted information presented to us via the media more readily and with more confidence than we do today.
The 9/11 attacks occurred immediately after the coughing scandal. While the two events are of course poles apart in their impact and scale, they were both catalysts for our increased awareness of the media and its power to manipulate. News networks can paint widely different pictures of the same story, possessing the power to influence perception and opinion. The Ingrams were victims of this, with Charles portrayed as a puppet controlled by his Lady Macbeth-like wife. Our relationship with the truth is Graham's chief concern here and he manages to successfully address a number of themes beyond simply offering a dramatic retelling of the scandal.
The opening episode explores the origins of the show, and it's interesting to note how different the television landscape was at the time. Watching the creators navigate their way through countless hurdles in their fight for their project to be made works well in emphasising how much the end product means to these people. When the show is threatened with the scandal, it makes their reactions all the more persuasive. This is a drama that invites us to invest in a number of characters, rather than only one or two, and each have a great deal at stake. We are immediately committed to them, which is testament to the pithy writing and the commanding performances of the cast.
Mark Bonnar is always compelling, often employing an array of facial expressions to convey whatever his character is feeling. As the passionate, protective producer behind Millionaire, we fully believe that the show is his baby. We share his joy when he gets the green light and empathise with his anger and upset when things begin to derail.
Risteard Cooper is also well cast as the Director of Programming who gives the show the go-ahead. His initial dismissal of the concept allows his increasing enthusiasm for it to stand out all the more. It's an understated and convincing depiction of the TV bigwig with a lot to lose.
Michael Sheen succeeds admirably in ensuring his Chris Tarrant never veers too close to caricature. His intonation, mannerisms and the general way in which he carries himself are right on the money. It's an enjoyable and impressive performance.
Fleabag's Sian Clifford embodies Diana Ingram's fixation on the show coupled with the relentless drive that pushes her husband into the hot seat. She then encompasses the array of emotions experienced by the character - an introvert who is thrust into the limelight with no idea of how to deal with the inexorable attention thrust upon her. This is a woman who has dived down the rabbit hole without considering the potential ramifications. Somewhat cold and calculating at first, Clifford enables us to eventually empathise with her to some degree.
Clifford enjoys excellent chemistry with onscreen husband Charles, expertly played by Matthew Macfadyen. Capturing the character's eccentricities and by-the-book nature, the actor delivers an endearingly bumbling depiction of a man who has often been presented as something of an easily led fool. The fact that the couple have remained together in real life suggests a tight, impenetrable unity. Clifford and Macfadyen illustrate this on screen with their relationship's natural authenticity.
Helen McCrory is also noteworthy as the Ingrams' defence barrister, offering a nuanced and credible performance. Her character is also afforded some great dialogue that reiterates many of the points Graham seeks to make. In her first meeting with the couple, she informs them that the narrative of their guilt is already being written by forces far beyond their control.
In the courtroom-heavy final episode, she explains how "when we're remembering something, we're not actually recalling the original event. What we're doing is remembering the last time we remembered it. So we are constantly wiping our pasts and editing together a new one...all memories are therefore by definition a lie." Interesting ideas that certainly urge us to consider the fact that we all have our own version of events, either self-generated or fed to us by the media, rather than there simply being one definitive truth.
The play had audience members seated on the stage, allowing them to be immersed in the drama while also generating an air of ongoing claustrophobia. The small screen echoes this with the occasionally confined cinematography connoting the sense that the walls are closing in on the Ingrams. There is also a slightly nostalgic 90s feel in the way the drama is shot, which, along with the props and costumes, assists in transporting us back to more simple times.
The screen version of course differs greatly from its stage incarnation. Less heightened and abstract, television leans more on naturalism and literal storytelling. Graham embraces the medium, utilising the format to interweave the court scenes with the other dramatic strands and making use of such things as the replica set and exterior of Southwark Crown Court, where the real life trial took place. Real archive news footage also adds some punch to proceedings.
The episodes move at a swift pace, with each and every scene driving the action forward. The fact that we know the outcome of the story has very little bearing on our enjoyment. This is a character-driven, sometimes satirical snapshot of a different Britain that has just as much to say about today as it does of the time in which it is set. It's also a great story that's simply good fun to watch!
We may arrive with a preconceived notion of the Ingrams and their underhand actions, but we leave having been permitted a view of a much larger and engrossing picture. Quiz asks a number of questions, but, like all good drama, allows us to make our own judgements.
Photo credit: Patrick Smith