Back in the late 90s and early 00s, the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? wasn’t just a TV program. It was a cultural phenomenon, achieving more than ten million viewers each episode. Everyone, from kids and teenagers to adults, was obsessed with the show. It was so popular that 160 countries decide to buy the format and create their own versions of it (the latest season of the US iteration, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, just ended last week).
This rapid popularity and the promise of instant money, however, come with a great price; people who are desperate to enter the game begin to cheat their way and rig the system. And one of those people is Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle), a pub quizzer from Wales with a lot of debts. But Adrian isn’t entirely the main object of Quiz — he is just the tip of the iceberg. What it focuses instead is the scandal involving Adrian’s sister, Diana (the always brilliant Sian Clifford), her husband Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), and a lot of coughs — a scandal that fascinated the whole nation but was forgotten almost instantly because the day after it happened was 9/11.
Sitting On The Hot Seat
Created by James Graham based on his own play of the same name and Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major book by Bob Woffinden, and James Plaskett, Quiz is structured around three acts, with each part focusing on a different but interconnected event. First is the moment when WWTBAM is still being developed. Then the night when Charles is on the hot seat. And also the prosecution that comes after that.
When the show first introduces Charles and Diana, nothing looks suspicious about them. They look just like a normal couple living an ordinary, happy life with three children. Charles is a nice, uptight English army major while Diana’s a teacher and a lover of a pub quiz, just like her brother. To paraphrase the prosecutor in the third episode, Charles and Diana are “middle class, middle-aged, middle England,” nothing more. That’s why when they are accused of cheating by the head of the program, something doesn’t feel right.
Are they cheating? Or, is it actually just a wrong accusation from the producer who from the minute Charles sets his foot on the stage has shaped an assumption that he’s a moron who won’t win the game? These questions run through Quiz from start to finish. But instead of giving a direct answer, the show chooses to make things ambiguous and present the arguments from both sides, thus leaving the verdict back to how each audience perceives the scandal, which is quite smart and risky at the same time.
The first episode is dedicated fully to observe how the creators of the original WWTBAM, David Briggs (Elliot Levey), Steve Knight (Keir Charles), and Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar), cook the perfect format for the program. But it’s not until episode two that their world and the Ingrams’ begin to collide. Before Charles gets the opportunity to play the game, Adrian tries his luck first. He uses the service from The Syndicate, an underground group of pub quizzers who knows how to scam the system, to help him enter the game. But unfortunately, he only wins £32,000.
Diana is the next person who participates. But just like Adrian, she falls short with only £32,000 in hand. It’s now up to Charles to win the game and help his brother in law to pay off his debts. Though he refuses to participate at first, telling Diana that he doesn’t like trivial quizzes, Charles eventually goes to sit on the hot seat after his name gets registered by Diana. And much to everyone’s surprise, he wins the top prize. But then comes the question; how is the guy who keeps changing his answer every second manages to always be correct until the final question?
The producers believe that he’s cheating, with the help of another contestant Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson) who will cough anytime Charles utters the correct answer. And the second episode clearly wants us to believe that accusation as well, showing us all the suspicious movements that Whittock, Charles, and Diana are doing throughout the game. There are the whispers, the coughs, the worry looks on Diana’s face as if she’s about to get caught for stealing something. And all of these are played out in a really gripping fashion, with Stephen Frears’ direction heightening the tension, even more, using plenty of close-up shots.
This episode is also staged similarly to how the real WWTBAM game is, complete with all the dramatic music and lighting, as well as Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen doing phenomenal, uncanny work) hosting the program. But what makes it even better is Macfadyen’s performance throughout the episode. He toes the line between clueless and sympathetic very well while still manages to be hilarious at the same time. It’s really exhilarating to see him play this character.
Changing The Perspective
If the first two episodes are about proving that Charles and Diana are indeed guilty, the final chapter, which takes place in and out of a court, invites us to see things from the opposite perspective. Sonia Woodley QC (an explosive Helen McCrory) who serves as the Ingrams’ attorney, basically asks us: what if the cough is just a cough and nothing else? She argues with brilliant logic, casting doubt over to us and to the jury by showing them how the case which the ITV team builds against the Ingrams is actually very thin.
“I’m asking you all to try and resist a more entertaining falsehood in favor of a less extraordinary truth,” she declares in front of the jury. “And that Major Ingram simply knew the answers to those questions, and that’s why he got them right.” And to be quite honest, Woodley’s argument might not be entirely wrong, considering how in showbiz, especially when it comes to reality and variety show like WWTBAM, the program tends to benefit from its participants’ pain to get more engagement from the audience. And after all, there’s no better way to boost a rating than to create a scandal.
It really doesn’t matter what Graham thinks about the Ingrams. Because, in the end, it’s up to us to decide whether Charles and Diana are guilty or not, despite the fact that until this day they still maintain their innocence. What Quiz achieves here is much bigger than the answer to its “guilty or not” question. It shows us how one perspective can’t really cover the whole part of one story. And this is made even more explicit when the third episode offers a montage that shows us how Charles really prepares himself before sitting on the hot seat.
With this, Quiz reminds us to always be open to the fact that most of the times, a story gets edited to better fit a narrative its writer wants to present in the first place, and how it might change the outcome drastically. This is a very important message, especially considering how easily we get swayed by media-framing now.
In the end, Quiz may not be historically accurate all the time. Nor does it give us a clear answer to whether Charles and Diana are guilty or not. But by maintaining its ambiguity until the end, Quiz manages to achieve something bigger: the power of story framing and perspective. And this is exactly why Quiz is so compelling far beyond the nature of its original source. More than that, the show is also witty and very funny, with stellar performances from Macfadyen, Clifford, and Sheen at the center of it all. You absolutely need to see this!
What do you think of this miniseries? Do you think Charles and Diana are guilty? Let us know in the comments!
All three episodes of Quiz are available to stream on AMC Premiere.
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