Something a little bit different this week – it’s my first review for this year! And today, I’m looking at the recent ITV miniseries Quiz. This three-part drama was written by James Graham, who based it on his earlier, successful play that examined the infamous “coughing major” scandal from the early days of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
It’s been shown on various pay TV outlets and streaming services: if you haven’t seen it yet, you can find out how to watch it in your neck of the woods right here.
I was really impressed by this production, although I thought it got off to a pretty shaky start. While its depiction of the genesis of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was fun, some of the writing in the first episode was pretty shonky, to say the least.
Although it’s good to have clearly defined characters… there are more subtle ways of doing it than this, which would have to be one of the most egregious examples of on-the-nose dialogue I’ve heard in years. Producer Paul Smith is trying to entice TV presenter and DJ Chris Tarrant to host the show, and he mentions that he’s dipped in to his own mortgage to fund the show’s development…
CHRIS TARRANT: Otherwise, You, Paul Smith, have to put your own money….
PAUL SMITH: Not if you, Chris Tarrant, agree to present the show.
SHEESH! If there’s a more cringe-worthy recent example of characters making sure the audience knows their names, I can’t think of it. After that, I almost expected them both to drop character, look down the barrel of the camera and say “everybody got that?”, before they moved on with the rest of the scene.
Later in this episode, we meet ‘the Syndicate’ – an underground network of quiz show enthusiasts attempting to help each other in their attempts to win on WWTBAM. This idea is introduced with split screens, mysterious voiceover narration, secret door knocks, animated maps of the UK and spy movie music on the soundtrack. When you add in Trystan Gravelle’s melodramatic performance as the twitchy, nervous brother-in-law Adrian… it all looks like it’s supposed to be funny; like a parody, or a sequence from Austin Powers. But then again, I’m not so sure. I think the show might want us to take all this stuff seriously, as though it’s a slick, cool, exciting example of clever film making. But I can’t be 100% sure; tonally, it’s confusing. A real directorial misstep there (by the great Stephen Frears, no less).
Another moment in the first episode that doesn’t ring true is the producers’ utter shock that trivia buffs are trying to learn all they can about the game, to improve their chances at it. It’s as if the producers can’t conceive that any potential contestants (who usually tend to be pretty clever people) would think to do any research or preparation. Even when (as the producers themselves incessantly remind us), the top prize is A MILLION POUNDS! I’d argue that that’s worth doing a little bit of homework for. Does the show really expect us to think producers would be that naive? I understand that this is a drama, and that drama needs conflict, but when the producers ask each other “Is this cheating?”, the actual answer is a resounding No. What the aspiring WWTBAM contestants are doing is research; it’s training for a specific competitive event. Anyone can do it, if they watch the show intelligently and prepare for it intelligently. It’s not against the rules. When an athlete trains for the Olympics… are all of their legal training efforts and preparations “cheating”? And as for the producers’ protestations that “it’s not in the spirit of the game”… what’s that supposed to mean? Where is “the spirit of the game” defined in the contract? Nah, at this stage, these smart contestants are just intelligently maximising their chances, within the rules.
Towards the end of the first episode, the melodrama gets dialled up to eleven, as fraught brother-in-law Adrian’s debts get the better of him, and he has “to go… disappear… run away for a bit… a while… I’m sorry”. In scenes like this, the show’s really not much better than a soap opera.
But things do get better in Episodes Two and Three… Much better!
I should point out that this production is anchored by a trio of wonderful performances by all three leads; Matthew MacFadyen as Major Charles Ingram, Sian Clifford as his wife Diana and the chameleonic Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant. When the story later morphs into a genuinely gripping courtroom drama, they’re joined by Helen McCrory as the Ingrams’ defence lawyer Sonia Woodley QC. She’s also superb.
I thought it was interesting when she pointed out that the only concrete evidence in the case was one VHS tape, that had been provided by the prosecution – a tape that they’d heavily edited (or “doctored”, depending on your point of view) to illustrate and support their case. This tape was labelled “Tape G”, which seems to imply that earlier, they’d edited together “Tape A”, “Tape B”, “Tape C”, “Tape D”, “Tape E” and “Tape F” before they came up with a finished product they were happy to submit. And all of this went largely unchallenged. Staggering.
In the second and third episodes, the narrative proceeds to jump about in time, and shift between various characters’ perceptions, but it’s never confusing… perhaps due to the cleverly deployed framing device of the court case.
The Ingrams’ journey is even quite funny at times, as when the Major’s boning up on Craig David lyrics as he goes for a jog in the countryside.
However, this show can also get the humour element quite spectacularly wrong, too. In the final episode, there’s an extremely jarring moment when a daydreaming Charles imagines himself, Diana and Chris Tarrant singing and dancing to the old Cole Porter standard Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Again, tonally, this was extremely out of place. It felt bolted on, unfunny, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything. Was it included to appease the actors? Did Michael Sheen have it written into his contract? I guess we’ll never know. It really did stick out like a sore thumb…. but the actors seemed to be enjoying it.
Unfortunately, I also found the denouement of the ‘Syndicate’ storyline – where their leader Paddy Spooner confesses all to WWTBAM producer Paul Smith – a bit pat and unbelievable. It’s a bit difficult to believe that this fanatical underground figure would divulge each and every one of his secrets to “the enemy”… just because he’s been bought a beer.
But if you can forgive the few minor niggles I’ve mentioned above, Quiz is generally a classy, gripping story with four really sensational lead performances driving it.
Special mention must be made too, of the show’s overall even-handedness. It largely leaves us, the audience, to make up our own mind as to whether Charles cheated or not. At the end of the day, I know what I believe – how about you?*
All in all, I’d say Quiz is really entertaining, and well worth any game show aficionado’s time. Highly recommended; I’m giving it 4 game show buzzers out of 5.
See you next time!
*Please let me know in the comments below.
Hey, if you’re in Australia, a brand new quiz show contestant opportunity has just opened up! ITV Studios are bringing Beat The Chasers here, and they’re looking for “the best of the best” to go up against their formidable champion quizzers. If you’d like to take them on, you can apply to do so… right here at BeatTheChasers.com.au!
Best of luck!