Given that TV makes its money off the eyeballs it can attract to its programming and commercials, one might argue that anything that drives ratings is perfectly acceptable, including cheating one's way to a million-pound victory on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, as Charles and Diana Ingram did in 2001... Or did they?
Based on the real-life scandal that came to be known as the Coughing Major case, Quiz comes from a play by James Graham, which was itself based on the nonfiction book Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett. In 2001, Major Charles Ingram (he was a career officer in the British army) made it to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?'s hotseat and, over two episodes, correctly answered every question to win the top prize of £1,000,000. While Charles was still in the process of answering questions, producers on set began to suspect something sketchy was happening. The next day, they contacted the police with a theory that two people on set — Charles's wife Diana, a past contestant herself, and Tecwen Whittock, a contestant seated in the "fastest finger" bullpen — were coughing strategically to cue Charles as to which answers were correct. Charles's award was rescinded and Celador, the company that produced the show, pursued the case, which ended up in court in 2003.
Director Stephen Frears and Graham, who adapted his own play, have assembled an incredible cast, with Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) playing Charles, Sian Clifford (Fleabag) as Diana, Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant, and Mark Bonnar (Catastrophe) playing Millionaire creator Paul Smith.
Like all the best legal dramas, the prosecutor's case seems absolutely airtight up until the moment it's the defense's turn. Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders) plays the Ingrams' barrister, Sonia Woodley, with a resolve as steely as her bob. The cops supposedly investigating the case are in Quiz much less than the Millionaire crew members who provide them with the show footage that ends up being their most damning evidence, and as Woodley notes, there's no way of knowing how much technicians raised the volume on the well-timed coughs and lowered it on the random ones. It's possible the producers all entered into a shared exercise in confirmation bias when they couldn't believe Charles was making so many lucky guesses. Ultimately, though, Quiz kind of has to be even-handed because the Ingrams have always maintained their innocence. Unlike the feature film Quiz Show, about the cheating scandal on the American game show 21 in the late 1950s, there isn't a confession to build the narrative around.
Some may find Quiz's ambiguity frustrating, but I appreciated the way it portrays the possible permutations of the key figures' complete or partial guilt or innocence. Maybe Charles was extraordinarily attuned to reactions in the crowd — not necessarily coughs, but gasps at his more idiotic initial guesses. Maybe Diana wasn't purposely coughing at strategic moments, but rather, unconsciously choking from tension.
But let's say Charles and Diana are completely guilty of defrauding Millionaire in precisely the ways the prosecution states. Who's the real victim? If Quiz is to be believed, their daughters were bullied at school and their family dog was shot and left for dead. Millionaire continued to be a hit. A documentary about the case — hosted by Martin Bashir on ITV, which also aired Millionaire — became the highest-rated factual program in the UK since Princess Diana's funeral. Quiz was an ITV production, too. And two days after Quiz finished airing in the UK — "stripped" on consecutive nights, just like Millionaire was in its day — Who Wants To Be A Millionaire posted the real Charles Ingram's complete appearance on the show, editing in explanatory chyrons, obviously as a counterpoint to events as they were portrayed on Quiz.
I wouldn't go so far as to call kayfabe on all this, but: KIND OF SEEMS LIKE THE MILLIONAIRE FRANCHISE IS FINE, RIGHT?
Quiz is such a satisfying highbrow take on a lowbrow scandal at a middlebrow show, that if Matthew Macfadyen gets his first Emmy nomination for this instead of for Succession, I won't even be that mad. I barely remembered anything about the case going in, and it was fascinated to go along on the journey and see how it all came out. Now, having watched all three episodes, as well as the real Charles Ingram installments, I want to order all my friends to do the same so we can trade theories on what really went down.
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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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.