Sometimes I think the British just have it all over us. One of those times is now, as I’m watching ITV’s kicky three-parter Quiz, based on a 2001 quiz-show scandal. It starts airing Sunday on AMC.
First, the Brits reimagined the rickety old daytime TV quiz-show format and turned it into a high-stakes, drama-filled, nightly event called Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Then some the show’s most passionate fans figured out how to crack the show’s code, an elaborate conspiracy that resulted in an epic scandal and one of the UK’s most-followed criminal trials. ITV tabloid host Martin Bashir did a documentary in 2003 that everyone from the Crown on down watched.
And now, 17 years later, everything Britons thought they knew about the WWTBAM scandal has been subverted by Quiz, a superb drama that aired… on the very network that made billions off of WWTBAM. And that was a huge hit too! Brilliant!
“Wait, didn’t we have a quiz-show scandal once?” you might be thinking. Yes, we did. But it was more than 60 years ago, and compared to what you’ll see in Quiz, our scandal had all the sophistication of a rigged pro-wrestling match. The show was called Twenty One, and it briefly gripped the American viewing public in the late 1950s. Twenty One was spellbinding drama, largely because the producers had scripted every minute. They decided when it was time for one contestant to go and another to move up. I still love that moment from the movie Quiz Show when schlubby Herbert Stempel, played by John Turturro, is informed by producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) that it’s time for him to step aside and let the dashing professor Charles Van Doren, played by Liam Neeson, take over.
But that movie is almost as ancient as the scandal. What have Americans done lately? Well, after the UK made WWTBAM a huge hit, we licensed the format from ITV and drove it into the ground with Regis Philbin at the helm. (It was recently revived in primetime with Jimmy Kimmel as host.) What else? Well, we made putt-putt golf into an extreme sport. That’s something.
Oh, and HBO made a six-part docuseries about our own home-grown game scandal — McMillion$. I’m a fan of HBO documentaries, but this trend of stretching 90-minute films into multi-part affairs, not so much. McMillion$ is an example of how a clever director can make a nonfiction show go on seemingly forever, one cliffhanger and shocking twist after another, as anyone who’s ever gotten sucked into a three-hour Dateline installment can painfully attest.
After slogging through HBO’s supersized doc, Dan Fienberg observed that “McMillion$ is practically begging for somebody like an Adam McKay — he's already producing half of HBO’s slate anyway — to do a scripted mini.” Great insight — unfortunately and once again, the Brits thought of it first. Quiz, an ITV mini that upends the ITV documentary on the ITV quiz-show scandal, is everything McMillion$ should’ve been: propulsive, efficiently told drama that boils down a lorry full of facts to the simple 50:50 question: Did they or didn’t they?
As Quiz opens, we see three defendants in court — British army major Charles Ingram, aka “the Major,” played by Matthew Macfadyen; his wife Diana, played by Sian Clifford, aka Fleabag’s sister Claire; and an co-conspirator that the Ingrams had not met in person until the trial, Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson). The barrister for the Crown tells the jury, “This was just a game, a television quiz show enjoyed by millions — but creating in a few an unhealthy obsession!”
Then we rewind to a few years earlier, as ITV executives are being pitched something called Cash Mountain, a quiz show in which contestants play double-or-nothing with their winnings until they reach the million-pound pinnacle. The people at ITV are dubious about putting on a game show at night.
“It’s not a game show,” says the producer. “It’s a quiz! That’s the joy of it. People love a good pub quiz. A uniquely British invention combining our two greatest loves — drinking and being right!” Eventually ITV sees the light, Cash Mountain becomes Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and the format goes on to conquer the world.
What prosecutors alleged, and the jury agreed, was that Major and Diana Ingram had used illegal trickery to win at WWTBAM. This miniseries fills in the details. The Ingrams were actually part of a nationwide ring of pub-quiz enthusiasts who had figured out how to game the game, partly to share in the winnings — but partly, it becomes clear, for the thrill of beating the system. The mastermind of the scheme was a mysterious bloke named Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick), who somehow wormed his way into the hot seat on WWTBAM in three different countries. Paddy comes into the Ingrams’ lives courtesy of Diana’s brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle), who really was obsessed with the show.
At a time when the Internet was still mostly run over phone lines and powered by stray cats, Paddy’s gang of modest, middle-aged Midlanders put together an information-sharing network that not only came up with answers faster than any search engine at the time could, but decoded every aspect of the show’s production, from the phone qualifier to the fastest finger to the Phone-a-Friend.
Adrian gets onto the show, but takes home only £32,000. Afterward, he reveals his secret bunker to the Major and Diana. As the Ingrams survey the walls, where charts and notes explain everything the syndicate knows about the show, the Major is horrified.
“Is this cheating? It feels like cheating,” he says.
Adrian, paying his brother-in-law no mind, hands Diana a homemade control board. It’s a perfect replica of the faster-finger panel that contestants use on the show. Adrian wants Diana to practice so she can “pick up where I left off.”
The Major starts to object, “Why would she want to…” before his wife grabs the board.
“Thank you,” she says, and soon she too is £32,000 richer.
That leaves the Major to compete, somewhat reluctantly, for the million-pound jackpot. Here, the Crown alleged, was when an audience plant — that would be defendant number three, Tecwen Whittock — guided Charles Ingram to the right answer by a series of perfectly timed coughs.
Quiz undercuts this charge rather persuasively, but whether or not you are convinced, I think you’ll agree that the public acrimony dumped on the Ingrams in the aftermath of their highly publicized trial was totally uncalled for. I also think that after three fast-paced hours of Quiz, you’ll agree with that old axiom of British television production: Less is more.
Quiz debuts on AMC this Sunday May 31st at 10:00 PM ET . Parts 2 and 3 air June 7 and 14 at 9:00 PM.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.