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.


Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sian Clifford: 'Quiz gave Charles and Diana Ingram a voice'
The star of ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? drama on her lockdown viewing habits, helping to rehabilitate the coughing major, and winning a Bafta for Fleabag

Interview by Stuart Heritage

29, Dec, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 2: I Hate Suzie
Billie Piper was on searing form as a B-list celeb whose life is unravelling in this unflinchingly honest portrait of womanhood

Hannah Jane Parkinson

21, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020: 50-1
Michaela Coel’s smart, subversive and taboo-breaking drama gave us absolutely unbeatable television – plus more of the year’s best

18, Dec, 2020 @8:09 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 4: Normal People
The TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller about two young people falling in and out of love in post-crash Ireland is intimate, touching and tender

Sian Cain

17, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 10: Ghosts
Written by the Horrible Histories crew, this must-see supernatural comedy bears their stamp of absurdity – and is full of feelgood spirit

Stuart Jeffries

09, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 9: The Queen’s Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy was brilliant as a fiercely determined woman battling sexism and personal demons on her way to the top of the chess world in the 60s

Rebecca Nicholson

10, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 3: Small Axe
Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology based on real people and events celebrates Britain’s Caribbean history, enriches our national story and is a television landmark

Steve Rose

18, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 8: This Country
The trials and tribulations of Kerry and Kurtan in a small Cotswold village will have you crying with laughter one moment and stunned with grief the next

Lucy Mangan

11, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2020, No 7: The Last Dance
This Michael Jordan-produced docuseries about basketball has been one of the most addictive – and revealing – viewing experiences of the year

Ammar Kalia

14, Dec, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Quiz review – would you like to ask the audience, Major?
Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford and Michael Sheen star in this new three-part series about the cheating plot that rocked Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – and the entire nation

Lucy Mangan

13, Apr, 2020 @9:00 PM