Writer: James Graham
Director: Stephen Frears
The creation of Who Wants to be a Millionaire was a pitch by ITV and Celador to create “event television”, encouraging audiences to tune in night after night to see if contestants would have enough general knowledge to reach the elusive and record-breaking prize. Now, based on one of the greatest gameshow scandals of all time, writer James Graham has created his own piece of event television by adapting his stage play Quiz as a three- part series screened this week.
In 2001, the day before 9/11, Charles Ingram won a million pounds on Who Wants to be a Millionaire in an episode that has never been aired – the reason, because he cheated his way to the money by cunning use of coughs from an accomplice seated nearby. Ingram and his wife were prosecuted, harassed and publicly shamed, but did they really do it? Graham’s stage to screen production suggests there may be reasonable doubt.
Episode One focuses on the establishment of a show that became a phenomenal success for ITV. It begins with Paul Smith of Celador (an excellent Mark Bonnar) and his colleague David Briggs (Elliot Levey) proposing a radical new gameshow format to ITV’s new Director of Programmes David Liddiment (Risteard Cooper). In a great scene lifted directly from the play, Smith and Briggs get the sceptical Liddiment to play one round with his own money. They leave the meeting room with a green light and a bright future.
With much establishing to do, the first 30-minutes is devoted almost exclusively to the success of the Millionaire format and this proves a gripping sub-plot as ratings soar and the franchise is sold around the world, even to ABC in America whose executive bows in awe at Smith’s feet. All of this is repurposed nicely from Graham’s play and while the brief history of the quiz show format (which was so colourfully presented on stage), is consigned to the opening credits, Bonnar is particularly engaging as the executive who really hit the jackpot and insists on protecting his creation. Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant is spot-on and if you close your eyes the vocal pattern is uncanny in a role that will become increasingly enjoyable during the tense scenes to come.
The second half of Episode One turns its attentions to the Ingram family, preparing the way for Charles’ notorious appearance by teasing the viewer with the subterfuge surrounding the show. Although a little less convincing than the backrooms of ITV, brother-in-law Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) flirts with The Syndicate, a mysterious organisation of quizzers attempting to hijack the show by helping contestants get selected and then taking a cut of their eventual winnings. Already we are in classic Graham territory, no longer sure who the real bad guys are.
Graham retains the dramatic device used in the play, dividing the episodes to switch between their guilt and their innocence. This creates a sense of inevitability in the first episode, so as Nicholas Woodeson’s Nicholas Hilliard QC begins the case for the prosecution, the audience is subtly being guided to view these seemingly innocuous actions as cumulative evidence of their guilt. We must wait until Episode Three for Helen McCrory’s opposing council to offer any defence.
Charles (Matthew Macfadyen) remains in the background so far, a devoted army man who adores his family but couldn’t care less about quizzes, and, as he heads into the spotlight in Episode Two, we’ll be able to see more of Macfadyen’s interpretation. So far, Quiz is proving a great stage to television adaptation, setting the scene for either an audacious heist or a terrible miscarriage of justice by a paranoid production team. One thing is clear, only you can decide.
Continues on ITV and also available here