Why ITV’s Quiz should be your next box set
James R | On 10, May 2020
“The bottom’s fallen out of the truth market,” observes someone halfway through Quiz, ITV’s remarkable retelling of the extraordinary story of how Charles and Diana Ingram cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and won a million pounds.
Or did they? Based on the play by James Graham, the three-part drama takes its central slice of history and builds it into an investigation into the very nature of truth in our modern, post-truth society – an age where quizzes have remained popular because they simply distil the world into black-and-white, right-and-wrong categories. Structuring the show around the trial that followed their incredible live-TV heist, it places the emphasis on the word “incredible” – the very notion that someone might go to the extreme of finding a stooge to cough on the correct answers just to win a trivia game is barely credible in itself.
Helen McCrory playing the couple’s defence barrister steps up to suggest their innocence with a convincing brassiness that could persuade you that the Earth is flat – her closing remarks rival Jared Harris in Chernobyl for the most gripping TV monologue of the past year. But Quiz’s playful attempts to wrongfoot your sympathies star right from the opening frames, as Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford play the immensely likeable husband and wife.
Clifford is wonderful as the quiz fanatic who is drawn into the notion of getting on to ITV’s new gameshow by her obsessive, financially desperate brother, Adrian (Trystan Gravelle), who unearths a secret network of die-hard devotees. Clifford’s intensity and drive resists going full Lady Macbeth, just as gameshow producer Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar), who slowly watches his creation go wrong, remains decidedly understated and equally well-rounded – it’s at treat, at least for the first half of the drama, just to see Bonnar get a rare chance to play someone happy.
All these conflicting forces are drawn together by an uncannily good Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, the host of WWTBAM? and a witness to the crime who seems just as blindsided by the operation as everyone else. Sheen is a delight to watch in action, picking up Tarrant’s every tic without descending into parody. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Charles Ingram with a glorious buffoonery that’s irresistibly amiable. As blusters his way from wrong to right answer with the least convincing luck possible, you only end up suspecting him more – even as you as like him more in equal measure.
Macfadyen, who has just enjoyed the role of his career in Succession, revels in the chance to bring out his comic side to go with his upper-lipped Britishness, and that mix of comical incompetence and straight-faced success is impossible to read and ultimately unknowable. Director Stephen Frears recreates the TV studio and their domestic lives with an immediate realism, plus a brief segue into a fantastical dance sequence, but never puts his camera on one side of the fence, right up until the final shot – a million-pound question of whether they’re guilty that proves just how hard it is to tell fact from fiction anymore. Graham’s original, wittily interactive stage play drew the line from true life mystery to state-of-the-nation insight with more punch and clarity, but the excellent cast and his quick-paced script weave these unbelievable events with a suspense and incredulity that’s absolutely riveting. A sensational story, sensationally told.
Quiz is available on ITV Hub. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.