ITV’s Quiz takes us back to a yet another time in British history where coughing caused a scandal…
There’s a delicious sense of tacky, zeitgeisty Britishness running throughout Quiz, a three-part limited series that aired on ITV last week. It may be the depiction of the British tabloids, thirstily after the biggest scoop. It may be the ashy blonde shade of Chris Tarrant’s hair. It may be everyone constantly saying “bollocks.” Whatever it is, it’s the perfect formula. Quiz arrived at just the right time, drip-feeding us some wild British nostalgia from a simply insane cultural moment.
Starring Matthew Macfayden, Sian Clifford and Michael Sheen, Quiz tells the true story of a couple accused of cheating on the TV game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? in 2001, resulting in a court case and national storm. Purportedly colluding with another contestant to cough on the correct answer, we learn the frankly bizarre furore surrounding the case—from underground quizzing networks to canine murder. Though this is a uniquely British story, I can’t overstate its idiosyncratic charm: it was the inspiration for Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, later adapted by Danny Boyle into the Oscar-winning triumph Slumdog Millionaire.
Considering how far-reaching their influence was, the couple in question are, ostensibly, pretty bland. Charles and Diana Ingram (yes, Charles and Diana, really) are completely, utterly, irrevocably, middle class and English. They are plummy and cold and live in Wiltshire and say “sorry” a lot. They are The Army and village greens and knitted turtlenecks. Perhaps no one but Stephen Frears could have deftly handled this specific subsect of British Person and make them tick, having delved deep into various facets of British life in many of his directorial ventures. Gathering past collaborators (and my god, what a starry bunch these lot are), he has managed to unpick the Ingrams’ sheen of respectability and unearth how their class and background played a part in the cheating scandal at hand.
A pang of nostalgia hits when you see Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant. Sheen is famous for being able to embody the very fabric of various British personalities, from Blair to David Frost. And still, Tarrant is quite possibly one of his greatest transformations, in which he triumphs with a complete and utter mastery of the presenter’s voice, slightly lopsided mouth, mannerism and gait. The nostalgia then intensifies when the theme tune to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? plays; that instantly recognisable jingle I’d often hear emanating from the living room growing up. There’s something deliciously trivial about watching this peculiar, particular setting; Quiz is, for the most part, un-menacing. One feels a gentleness and quiet brilliance to the right-or-wrong premise of WWTBAM?, an uncomplicated and human take on entertainment which, in today’s age of being pummelled with entertainment schlock from all directions, feels rather fresh. Watching Quiz, we know what’s coming, so we settle in and enjoy the datedness of it all. It possesses a genuine eccentricity that feels rather comfortingly familiar.
Despite this, something strange pervades the narrative. In the final episode, we pretty much only hear the defense (by the ever-wonderful Helen McCrory) in court, which in effect makes us believe the Ingrams’ innocence. Through flashbacks, we’re meant to find it plausible that the pair did not in fact cheat; there’s reasonable doubt planted in our minds. We’re invited to feel sorry for Charles as he weeps and whines: an honorable man, an Army man, a family man, a white, middle class man. But why? Quiz was commissioned, created and released by ITV after all, the very institution which are being, essentially, painted as the bad guys. But it’s that touch of humour, that streak of British tongue-in-cheek wit, that Frearsian sensibility, which holds all the madness together. Charles Ingram is meant to be unthreatening, but he is also meant to be ridiculous. This time around, Matthew Macfayden’s fey poshness has not quite the same sexy, brooding, Mr-Darcy-walking-through-a-misty-field flair to it. He’s bumbling, banal, and inherently unlikeable. By refusing to take sides, Quiz manages to revisit a comical and curious moment in British TV history with sparkling lightness and gripping detail. The real question we’re left with is: did Charles Ingram cheat? Decide for yourself.
Words by Steph Green