As sad as it sounds, when I was 7 or maybe 8, that was always my favourite part of staying up late on a Saturday to watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, a habit that became a weekly ritual. In my little mind, nothing was more dramatic than moments like those: the throbbing music, combined with Chris Tarrant’s plasticky stare and the contestant’s face, alone in a sea of darkness, either coolly content or riddled with doubt.
Then there was that pause. Tarrant readjusts. Feigning the real sense of dread palpating through the person sat opposite him.
He says: “You had £125,000. No lifelines. You could have taken the money, but instead you chose D. The Dalai Lama. You have just…”
To a little boy – who did not have the faintest idea how to distinguish the Dalai variety from your regular, every day, garden variety of Lama – that person was truly suspended over a chasm of doubt, with nothing to support them except their intellect or pure, unadulterated luck.
Danny Boyle utilised this very same sense of jeopardy to great effect in his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, homing in on the how in those seconds of suspension contain a multitude of memories and nightmare that dilute down to a simple choice: A, B, C, or D. However, with ITV’s three-part drama Quiz, writer James Graham – adapting his 2017 play of the same name – and director Stephen Frears ensure that the drama does not brew in between answers, but instead in the minds of the audience members at home as they are faced with a simple 50/50:
Guilty or not guilty?
The scandal of Major Charles ‘coughing’ Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) and his co-conspirator wife (Sian Clifford) is a very Middle-England one indeed. This well-to-do English couple, whose world is built on punctuality, pub quizzes and the ability to maintain any type of unironic dignity in displaying commemorative china celebrating the wedding the Prince and Princess of Wales, despite themselves being named Charles and Diana, live a comfortable existence which only becomes threatened by a rising obsession with a show that rewards those who are well-read, educated and knowledgeable.
Throw in a jackpot of one million pounds, the British Tabloid’s shark-like thirst for blood, a ‘Syndicate’ of quiz-obsessives, and Craig David’s magnum-opus Born to Do It, and you would perhaps expect some kind of farce. But, the creators demonstrate an admirable level of restraint; they let the bizarre events be stated rather than mocked.
This does have consequences. The first two episodes – the first mainly focuses on the conception and execution of the show’s iconic format and the cult-following it spawns. The second is concerned primarily with recreating that infamous episode – do not bring much to the conversation. They are slick adaptations, but like Michael Sheen’s performance as Chris Tarrant, they are nothing more than great impressions.
It is in episode three, however, where the show by turning its attention to the court case and public scrutiny that proceeded the Major’s win, does something pertinent. Like Graham’s perhaps most well-known television appearance to date, Brexit: The Uncivil War, his most recent mini-series does a great job of capturing the inescapability of chaos inherent in nationwide debates in Britain.
In perhaps the most sombre moment of the show, Diana comes home with her children to find Charles cradling their bloodied dog, who had been shot by someone in their well-to-do Home County village. In a short scene directly after this, we see Charles digging a small gave in his garden. This scene would of course still be tragic if the major and his co-conspirator were found to be guilty, but at this point, no verdict had been reached – meaning that the despicable individual who committed that horrendous crime did so based on a feeling that they were guilty rather than legal evidence they had committed a crime. A notion that is far more horrifying.
Quiz’s greatest attribute then is its simple resounding commitment to lending equal weight to both sides of The debate. As a result, we are the ones who find ourselves being interrogated. And it is in how we go about reaching an answer to that simple 50/50 that we find the most intriguing aspects of our characters.
So:“Is that your final answer?”
Dir: Stephen Frears
Scr: James Graham, James Plaskett and Bob Woffinden
Cast: Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford, Michael Sheen, Mark Bonnar Aisling Bea, Trystan Gravelle
Country: United Kingdom
Quiz is available on DVD from 15th June.