The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 6: Quiz

Michael Sheen was at the uncanny heart of ITV’s meta-drama about the scandal that symbolised a grubby showbiz era

From the gamut of Fyre festival documentaries to the J-Lo triumph of Hustlers, audacious scams have become a touchstone of pop culture in recent years. Unlike our transatlantic friends, British grifters are more likely to be seen on the 10 o’clock news than a glossy TV drama. But some names are the exception to the rule. Major Charles Ingram is one, which made ITV’s Quiz a rare and intriguing kind of ripped-from-the-headlines proposition.

Quiz let the nation relive the scandal in all its daft, lo-fi Britishness. The story, was one we all knew: an indecisive, seemingly guilty army major is accused of cheating to win the top prize on the TV series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – via Renaissance art, Craig David and someone else’s hacking cough. Simple, right? Sort of – except that Quiz wasn’t here to pour yet more scorn on the “coughing major” or his wife Diana, who had become tabloid laughing stocks, convicted criminals and Z-list celebrities.

Rather, it was a meta ITV-on-ITV period piece, based on James Graham’s play of the same name, about our own bizarre relationship with television and money, and the slightly grubby period that the Ingrams were living through, as shiny-floor gameshows made fortunes for the broadcasters by dangling a fraction of that fortune in front of the public. Matthew MacFadyen, excellent as he was, did not seem to have been cast as Charles for physical similarities, of which there were few, but for his ability to convey a certain kind of man, fidgeting in the hot seat in his naff polo shirt. Not since Prince Andrew’s Newsnight interview had we seen such a perfect study in awkwardness and impotence on our screens.

As Diana, Sian Clifford brought nuance to a woman described by various corners of the media as a Lady Macbeth figure. A former Millionaire contestant herself, Diana was portrayed as a quizzer to the core who wanted trivia to anchor her “in a world of uncertainties” and who was – at least here – far more committed to the cause of memorising useless factoids than Charles had ever been.

Quiz didn’t seek to humiliate the Ingrams – although the real Charles did note that the programme made their house look a little shabby. But it also refused to paint the them as Robin Hood figures. Leaving the matter of their guilt or otherwise down to viewers – as Graham had done in his interactive play – he and director Stephen Frears focused on painting a picture of the dual forces of mundanity and extremity that underpinned the whole thing. The cloying television execs pitching the show are juxtaposed with Helen McCrory in full effect in a courtroom cross-examination. The spectre of 9/11 – which happened the day after Ingram’s win - and the abandonment of any notion that we had reached the “end of history” brush up uncomfortably against the sense that fame and fortune are but a premium-rate phone call away.

There’s a touch of the uncanny, too. Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant, rictus grin plastered across his face, is both instantly recognisable and strangely unreal. Everything keeps you off balance, the real and the imagined intermingling. Charles and Diana’s dance with Tarrant, in a dream sequence set to Frank Sinatra’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, is of course a fantasy but the scene where the courtroom erupted into synchronised coughing was – incredibly – not.

Broadcast at the start of the UK’s spring lockdown, as the phenomenon of event TV became possible once again, this stripped-across-the-week series proved meta in more ways than one. For people who like a solid conclusion and a Scooby Doo reveal, Quiz did not deliver. But in exploring the bigger picture around something that seen as a big joke, it more than succeeded. Just ask the audience.

Contributor

Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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