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!