Quiz is a captivating look at a real-life reality TV mystery


By Samuel Vickers, First Year, German and Russian

Stephen Frears’ Quiz (2020) draws you in from the opening scene, throwing us into the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram. This three-part adaptation of James Graham’s stage version is tight, pacy and excruciating in its depiction of how a middle England couple cheated a game show out of £1 million - or did they?

The story centres around the 2001 scandal in which Major Charles Ingram became the third winner of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (2002-) - this win, however, was later deemed illegitimate under suspicion of cheating and collaboration. Arrested and charged, the couple lost their £1 million winnings, but to this day it remains unclear whether they truly cheated.

Michael Sheen 'steals the show' in his portrayal of TV legend Chris Tarrant | IMDb / Left Bank Pictures

The events were first adapted into a play by twice Olivier award-nominated James Graham, in 2017. One of the most popular stage writers of the decade, Graham is experienced in adapting real life events for the stage - and now screen - notably for his Olivier nominated play Ink (2017).

The televised Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019) is another of Graham’s scripts that received critical support, describing Dominic Cummings’ mastermind strategising of the 2016 Brexit campaign. Director Stephen Frears is perhaps most famous for his 2013 film, Philomena (2013), and his 2003 film The Deal - featuring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. These writers are specialists in dramatising real life events.

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Propped up by excellent scriptwork from James Graham, the series truly sparkles for its outstanding performances. Leading pair Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford showcase metamorphic abilities in their portrayal of the Ingrams. Macfadyen is at once cool and harassed, and Clifford toes the line beautifully between conscientious wife and Lady Macbeth.

In a role a world away from the uptight sister Claire in Fleabag (2016-19), Clifford shines as the quizzing fiend Diana and with strong supporting performances from Mark Bonnar, Aisling Bea and Martin Trenaman, this really is champagne casting. Michael Sheen, however, steals the show with his unnervingly accurate performance as Chris Tarrant. With a perfect imitation of the veteran presenter’s drawl, Sheen instantly transports the viewer back to 2001.

There is a smug scene in the opening of episode one as the new head of programming at ITV suggests that he would like to see more ‘event television’, and this is exactly what Quiz is. The series gains a great deal from its basis in reality, recreating the early 2000s excellently in costume and set design. More than this, however, is the fact that we still just do not know whether they cheated.

Quiz portrays the show's machinations and production, adding layers of confusion as to their innocence | IMDb / Left Bank Pictures

The series works excellently to make us doubt ourselves; where at first it could not be more obvious that they have indeed cheated the system, the third and final episode sees their defense lawyer (Helen McCrory) convince us of their innocence, if not the jury. The final scene of this episode shows Tarrant asking the Major to tell us at last, ‘did you really do it? Did you cheat?’. But we are given no answer.

Michael Sheen steals the show with his unnervingly accurate performance as Chris Tarrant

If this had been pure fiction, I think it would have been far easier to decide that it was a vindictive jury and forget about it. Yet, somehow, the fact that the series is based on real events makes it seem much more important. The viewer is left in agonising uncertainty about the Ingrams’ guilt.

ITV have made the original episode available which is also worth a watch, if only to admire the commitment to accuracy made by the production team and understand the true faithfulness of Sheen’s performance as Tarrant.

The extensive ups and downs of the moment are highlighted by the actors' spectacular performances | IMDb / Left Bank Pictures

We can also speculate about the difference that covid-19 lockdown could be having for live television. Where other channels during other times have decided to put series straight onto their streaming services, e.g. BBC Three’s This Country (2017-), ITV decided - as with the pilot episodes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - to broadcast Quiz at prime time on three consecutive weeknights. This would ordinarily seem a brave decision but ITV were in fact able to rely upon five million viewers, almost certainly boosted by the lockdown.

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Quiz is a captivating look into the workings of this extraordinary case and a nostalgic glimpse back at this scandal of nearly 20 years ago. Brilliant screenwriting and stunning performances have transformed this cold case into a national phenomenon.

Featured: IMDb / Left Bank Pictures

What do you think of this dramatisation of Millionaire's most dramatic moment?