HTWGS TV review: The ITV miniseries ‘Quiz’


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!

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My first HTWGS movie review! ‘Quiz Show’ (1994)

Hello! Today sees my first ever movie review for, and I’ve chosen Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show. I hadn’t watched this in years, so I thought I’d revisit it, specifically to review for this site.

And it’s good. It’s really good.

As well as being a morality tale about the ethical choices we make, and their costs, Quiz Show is also a cat-and-mouse game, as government investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) tries to uncover all the corruption in the popular 1950s quiz show 21. And it seems there was a lot of it; producers giving the answers (and the questions) to contestants, contestants using that information to cheat, contestants deliberately losing games, the network turning a blind eye… the ripples of corruption don’t seem to end.

I’d forgotten all the twists and turns in the story. Its pace is leisurely (the running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes) but it’s never less than gripping. It’s a real examination of ethics and their consequences; the rewards – and more importantly, the costs – of the moral choices we all make. It’s not a happy, feelgood film. By the end, hardly anyone gets off scot-free; almost everyone has done the wrong thing and paid the price, or been caught in the fallout.

Watching the film, you can’t help ask yourself what you would do, if you were in the position of the two ‘successful’ contestants on 21; Herb Stempel (John Turturro) and  Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). We all think we know how we’d behave if we were in their shoes; we’d never be involved in any corruption, any cheating; but the temptations of fame, approval and the money – so much money! – can sometimes tend to muddy the ethical waters.

But the ill-gotten gains – and the secrets that hide them – have a way of eating away at the conscience of an honest man… And Charles Van Doren can’t live with them. As investigator Dick Goodwin says;

“I asked myself, ‘why would he do this?’ He knows I’ll come after him. Then it occurred to me. He knows I’ll come after him… It was the ‘getting-away-with-it’ part that he couldn’t live with.”

All the performances are great, but particularly moving is Paul Scofield’s performance as Mark Van Doren, Charlie’s father, and the patriarch of the Van Doren family of intellectuals. The classroom scene when Charlie (Ralph Fiennes) finally confesses his secret to his father is truly heartbreaking. Paul Scofield was nominated for both the Oscar and the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for his work here.

The film looks gorgeous. Michael Ballhous’s cinematography recreates 1950s New York beautifully; all its shiny art deco interiors. The Van Doren’s country estate in Connecticut is picture perfect, too – all shimmering autumnal privilege.

The script by former film critic Paul Attanasio is by turns surprising, witty and inspiring. Quiz Show is a smart grown up film dealing with big moral issues, complex , compelling characters set against a lovingly recreated and beautiful backdrop.

I’m giving Quiz Show 4 game show buzzers out of 4!



And now I’m off to see if I can find any more game show related movies to review. Can you think of any? If you can, please do let me know!

Until next time…

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HTWGS book review – ‘Winning Secrets from The Game Show Guru’ by Scott Hostetler

This week, I’ve got a book review for you; my thoughts and impressions of Winning Secrets from the Game Show Guru. This 198-page book was published in 2009, and is the work of “Game Show Guru” Scott Hostetler, whose site is at Scott’s a veteran of over 17 game shows, and this book distils all of his game show experiences – and a number of great tips – from his long and successful game show contestant career.

I’d recommend this book – it features a lot of handy hints all learned from Scott’s personal experiences, and anecdotes that will entertain anyone who’s a fan of game shows.

Scott has divided the book into three parts.

Part One goes into great detail about the actual process of of being a game show contestant, with sections entitled Getting an Audition, The Audition and Championship Strategies. The content here is all really useful stuff, and it’s clear that Scott is really passionate about the subject. It’s told concisely, clearly and with a nice conversational lightness of touch that makes it very easy to read. In getting some of the points across, Scott uses two characters named “Iwinn Bigg” and “Unprepared Pete” to illustrate the right way and wrong way to do things. This is probably unnecessary, and feels a little forced, particularly when the author seems to have no shortage of real life memories of contestants (and would-be contestants) to provide examples of dos and don’ts. The points are usually illustrated well enough with anecdotes from Scott’s various game show adventures, and by the end of this section – provided you’ve been taking notes – you’ll have learned some useful tips and techniques that most people auditioning won’t know.

Part Two of the book is entitled The Game Show History of the The Game Show Guru. This is pretty much what you’d expect from the title – a blow-by-blow account of Scott’s appearances on various game shows over 30 years, from 1977 – 2007. Each show is given its own chapter, and Scott often includes another tidbit after the telling of the story, whether it’s a backstage recollection, a strategy tip, or a moment in game show history. Scott’s an accomplished raconteur, and in many of these chapters, he invites the reader the chance to play along, by solving the various puzzles with (or should that be against?) him, as his account of the game unfolds. I thought this was a neat idea, and particularly enjoyed ‘playing along at home’ when reading the chapters that included these puzzles.

The final part of the book is given over to 25 pages of practice tests that Scott has devised; essentially Wheel of Fortune-type ‘fill-in-the-blank’ puzzles, and trivia questions.

And there you have it. Although I did generally enjoy the book, there were three things I wanted to mention. Firstly, an aspect that left me wanting more:

Scott mentions in the book and on his site that 100% of the people he has personally coached have gone on to have some degree of game show success. I wanted to know more about this. Scott doesn’t say anything more than this about his one-on-one training. I assume it consisted of him taking his students through the tips and principles he outlines in this book, but maybe including a chapter on this would have added a little more value. As a reader, I was curious as to how he trained them to get such great results, and would have loved a peek behind the scenes at that process.

Secondly, another aspect that really doesn’t do the book any favours is its graphic design. The cover, as you can see, doesn’t really catch the eye, or tell much of a story, and the many cartoons by Jeni Emery throughout the book have a distinctly amateurish feel, to say the least…

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