Light and forgettable but wonderfully entertaining, Quiz throws us back into one of the most bizarre controversies of the last decade.
It’s a difficult job to try and explain the saga of the Coughing Major to somebody who hasn’t heard of it before. I was too young to understand the ordeal while it was underway, but myriad YouTube video essays and its not infrequent re-emergence in the British tabloids have kept it alive in the public consciousness to the extent that, almost two decades later, ITV decided to revisit it with all the trimmings of a Pinewood biopic. The result is a retelling of a story that dares you to laugh it off, consign it to the wasteland of early-noughties paraphernalia, before carefully and precisely drawing you into the same world of gossip and bloodthirstiness that gripped the UK at the time.
First, a little context. In 2001, Charles Ingram, a British Army Major, appeared on the then wildly popular TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Despite a rough start, he recovered in his second episode to win the full jackpot of £1million, an almost unheard of amount of prize money for a quiz show at the time. However, video evidence supplied by ITV, the channel responsible for the show, alleged that certain audience members would cough when Ingram read out the correct answers to each question. He was stripped of his prize money and, along with his wife and an accomplice, found guilty of fraud in a highly-publicised trial that involved threats and attacks on family pets. The Ingrams have protested their innocence ever since.
The most striking thing about Quiz is the sheer joy it takes in revisiting the saga: costumes are exact matches of those worn on the show at the time, and branding and music cues are specifically dated and remarkably nostalgic. Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford are wonderful, if somewhat caricaturised, as the Ingrams, and their willingness to delve fully into ridiculous re-creation keeps the show sufficiently padded out with moments that keep you hungry for the next instalment. However, the show is utterly stolen by Michael Sheen’s performance as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant – in one of the most stunningly on-point and yet hilariously parodic on-camera impersonations I can remember, Sheen evokes a face and voice ingrained in the British cultural subconsciousness so brilliantly that one feels as though they can never take Tarrant fully seriously again.
The show, however, does feel somewhat bloated, despite its small number of episodes. The amount of self-congratulation that takes place in the scenes set at ITV offices feels detached from the often tragic story told about the Ingrams; indeed, it sometimes feels like an advertisement for Millionaire’s recent reboot. What’s more, the show never quite seems to decide on a tone, and shifts too wildly and incongruously to revel in its humanisations. One moment, we’re shown, in almost graphic detail, the devastating effect of the nature of British tabloid sensationalism, before the show whirls in an opposite direction to introduce a new, quirky character from the fringes of the saga to keep things fresh.
The overall impression of Quiz is one of fleeting, if fairly thorough, entertainment. This isn’t a show that is likely to change your life, but, as a fun revisitation of a strange period of recent history, it accomplishes pretty much everything that you might hope it would. Its greatest success, undoubtedly, is the effect it has on you while you watch; suckered into a story about quiz show misdemeanours, it is remarkably easy to find yourself drawn to those same water cooler discussions that dominated the press two decades ago, and find the line between your own sensibilities and the baying mob of the noughties tabloids slowly but surely fade to non-existence.
Nominated for a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, Quiz is available to watch worldwide on Digital and on Demand.
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