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‘Quiz’ a winning telling of a British scandal

by Stephen Silver

Quiz tells the story of a scandal that was a major deal in the U.K. nearly two decades ago, but is practically unknown stateside: The time, in the early days of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, when a husband and wife were accused in court of cheating to win the show. 

The show, produced in Britain, will air as a three-hour mini-series, on AMC in the U.S. It’s a very enjoyable telling of the story, although I’m wondering exactly why it was produced as a miniseries and not a movie. 

Directed by veteran filmmaker Stephen Frears, Quiz goes into the saga of how Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfayden) won the 1-million-pound prize on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire in 2001, but was later accused of winning as a result of cheating. The cheating entails everything from a group of bar trivia enthusiasts manipulating the “phone a friend” process, to his Charles’ wife (Sian Clifford) directing him to certain answers through a well-timed cough (leading to Ingram being dubbed “the coughing major.” The accused couple, to this day, maintain their innocence. 

The series gets off to a bit of a slow start, as it feels the need to spend its opening half-hour going through the story of how Millionaire was created, became a runaway hit, and was adapted into the American version (the Regis Philbin adaptation, a sensation which ABC quickly burned out by putting it on multiple nights a week, could be the subject of its own movie.) 

But eventually, it gets more intriguing, especially in the second half of the first episode and into the second, which depicts Ingram’s game show run itself- which was broadcast, in an odd irony, the night before the 9/11 attacks. The game show scenes recall the tension of what made the original Millionaire show so enjoyable. 

The gold standard for this sort of story is the 1994 movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, which was about the quiz show rigging scandals in the U.S. in the 1950s. Quiz Show is better than Quiz, both stylistically and in terms of what it had to say about the culture of the nation at that particular point in history. 

But in terms of the actual mechanics of the game show-cheating conspiracy, the one in Quiz is a lot more compelling. Instead of the bosses of the show rigging it from the inside, Quiz introduces us to a colorful group of characters who covertly subverted the process. 

“Quiz” (AMC Networks)

Not only does the series find room for ambiguity when it comes to what happened, but it also raises some fascinating questions, about whether it actually matters whether a televised game show is on the level, and about whether what they did was actually cheating, or merely outsmarting the producers at their own game. It’s really not that far off from what sports types would call Moneyball, or what those in business circles would call “disruptive innovation.” 

Both of the leads are outstanding. If you know Macfayden as Tom from Succession, or Clifford as the sister on Fleabag, they both stretch considerably here. Michael Sheen and Helen McGrory played Tony and Cherie Blair in all of those Peter Morgan movies, although in Quiz they’re playing different characters- Sheen is Chris Tarrant, who hosted the game show, while McGrory plays an attorney, in the series’ courtroom-dominated third hour. Trystan Gravelle plays the other pivotal role, as Diana’s shady brother. 

Those who know this story well might find themselves quibbling with certain details or wishing other things had been emphasized. But coming in cold, I found Quiz a fascinating examination of this particular story and why exactly it was significant. 

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