REVIEW: ITV’s Quiz

Quiz AMC ITV

Quiz tells the infamous story of the British couple who allegedly cheated their way into winning a million pounds.

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by James Graham, adapting his own play of the same name, the three-episode miniseries follows the journey of Maj. Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife, Diana (Sian Clifford), as they join the hugely popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and manage to win the grand prize in September 2001. But when the show’s producers accuse them of using strategically-timed coughs to cheat the game, the big question of the miniseries emerges: did they do it?

While the main focus of the miniseries is on the Ingrams and their supposed guilt, the first episode spends most of its time on exposition, providing the origins of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? itself as two enterprising producers, David Briggs (Elliot Levey) and Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar), pitch a show that would effectively use the psychology of the contestant to become addictive television. The show becomes a hit but the producers never could have imagine how much it would captivate audiences and eventually drive certain contestants to try and cheat the system.

Though the Ingrams are introduced with Diana’s family in particular being shown as obsessed with quizzes, it’s her brother Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle) who gets the most screen time in the first episode. His obsession with Who Wants to be a Millionaire? pushes him to go to absurd lengths just to get on the show. These include building his own version of the Fastest Finger First machine to practice on at home and contacting a shadowy network of quiz enthusiasts who call themselves The Syndicate who would employ legal but questionable means to try to get ahead.

Quiz is a fascinating portrait of late 90s/early 000s culture, merely two decades ago but so drastically different from today. The Internet and social media were in their infancy so it took a great deal of effort for people to find the answers to game show trivia questions. The man from the Syndicate even had a room plastered with information on paper that he learned to navigate in seconds just to provide clients with the correct answer. All this seems quaint and foreign to a generation who would have grown up with Google but it’s striking for those who grew up witnessing the transition from analog to digital.

The second episode finally puts the Ingrams in the spotlight as Charles competes on the show, his name having been put forward by Diana after she and her brother failed to win the grand prize. Ingram sits opposite the host Chris Tarrant (played brilliantly by Michael Sheen) and for the most part acts like a clueless buffoon and yet still somehow chooses the correct answers.

For those who were able to watch the original game show, this episode uncannily recreates the feeling of excitement and tension audiences felt as they watched a contestant agonize over the correct answer. Even if this is a dramatization of a decades-old episode, one could not help but shout the answer at the screen, as audiences undoubtedly did, whenever Charles seemed to hesitate. While the episode also provided behind-the-scenes glimpses of the producers being suspicious and potentially incriminating coughs from the alleged co-conspirator Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson) one could never really be sure if all this was truly the elaborate plot of criminal masterminds.

When the trial goes into full swing by the final episode, Quiz continues to turn the tables on the audience, casting doubt on the Ingrams’ guilt and also portraying Millionaire‘s producers as possible opportunists who profited from the scandal. Though evidence is presented, one continues to question the facts of the case.

This uncertainty is fueled by the case delivers by the Ingrams’ lawyer (played by Helen McCrory) who cites the circumstantial nature of the so-called evidence and the fact that the tapes with the incriminating 19 strategic coughs had been edited and prepared by the show’s producers. She asserts that it would be impossible to prove whether or not Ingram himself truly knew the answers, despite his seeming indecisiveness. She also deftly questions our need to re-interpret certain events to fit the narrative we’ve already concocted in our minds, regardless of the truth. There’s even a surreal musical number that is probably meant to make audiences question reality even further.

There are a few scenes with the Ingrams themselves that hint at their innocence and try to bolster their humanity. They didn’t even seem particularly greedy nor were they in dire financial straits. Their motive, if there was any, was simply to experience the thrill of winning the game.

In real life, they continue to be mocked and coughed at in the street although they still maintain their innocence. Perhaps the public shaming may have been disproportionate to the alleged acts but one shudders to think how the couple would have been tortured in the age of social media.

Though the structure of the miniseries is a tad uneven and the writers do not take definitive sides in the case, Quiz is elevated by the cast’s stellar performances. Matthew Macfadyen is compellingly human as Ingram, a seemingly hapless but still likable man who got caught up in a media frenzy he never could have imagined. He is bumbling but good-natured, and even pitiable when the odds are stacked against him so harshly.

Sian Clifford likewise gives a charismatic performance as Diana, not quite the Lady Macbeth figure the media portrayed her as, but simply a quiz enthusiast, a loyal wife and mother. There’s a hint of her neurotic intensity reminiscent of her character on Fleabag but she still comes across as sympathetic.

Michael Sheen shines as Chris Tarrant and proves once again how adept he is at playing real life figures. He captures the charm and magnetism of the host as well as his eccentricities. Mark Bonnar is also notable as the beleaguered show runner who never imagined the cultural impact his creation would have on the world. And Helen McCrory is mesmerizing as the lawyer who makes you question the Ingrams’ guilt and the fallible nature of human memory.

Given all the themes Quiz intends to explore, it might have benefited from a few more episodes instead of cramming everything into the final chapter. There are some interesting things the show can say about how innocent people can be subjected to the trial by media and how television producers can manage the presentation of truth by manipulating the evidence. Quiz never really portrays the Ingrams as definitively innocent or guilty but instead leaves this to the audience to determine, pretty much the way the case played out in real life as well.

But to expect Quiz to become some profound reflection on human nature or the power of media might be asking too much of it. After all, it is a television series based on a game show. It cleverly recreated the feeling of watching these early 2000s game shows, the collective thrill audiences felt as they waited for someone to choose the right answer. If it managed to keep audiences riveted for its three-hour run, as it seems to have done because it aired during lockdown, then Quiz achieved its raison d’être.

While Quiz does not offer any final answers, it is still an entertaining exploration of a time, not too long ago, when an entire nation would gather in front of the television to watch ordinary people try to change their fortunes.