Quiz, directed by Stephen Frears and written by James Graham (based on his play of the same name), is a dramatization of the true story of Charles Ingram, who became the third winner of the British Who Wants to Be a Millionaire back in 2001. Ingram’s victory and the £1 million prize money were quickly stripped from him, however, when he was accused — along with his wife and another contestant — of cheating by using strategically-timed coughs. Charles (Matthew Macfadyen) and Diana Ingram (Sian Clifford), along with a serial game show contestant, Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson), were charged with “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception” and endured a three and a half week trial.
The series, which airs weekly on AMC (or is available in its three-episode entirety to AMC Premiere subscribers), is riveting, particularly for those on this side of the pond who may not be familiar with the specifics of the case. I won’t give away the verdict for those who might want to maintain the sense of surprise (although, it is available online, obviously), but I will say that — the verdict notwithstanding — I concluded the series completely unsure of Charles and Diana Ingram’s guilt or innocence. Researching the case online, moreover, has not made me any more or less certain.
I have no idea, and that seems to be the way that Frears and Graham want it, which has left me both mildly unsatisfied but also eager to do even more research, which I suppose may be the point (in the show’s post-script, we learn that ITV aired a documentary about the cheating scandal, which delivered record ratings). The series is partially about the crime, but it’s also about how celebrity can be cultivated from scandal (Charles has written two novels since the scandal and appeared in three more shows, two with his wife).
Still, Quiz probably operates best as a sort of legal drama. The first episode sets the stage. Both Ingram’s brother-in-law and wife appeared on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? before Charles, and each won $32,000. They were, however, thirsty for more (debts needed to be paid) and along with an underground network of quiz-hounds, they somehow figured out how to guarantee getting themselves onto the show. Here, however, it wasn’t “cheating,” so much as gaming the system.
The second two episodes, meanwhile, track Charles’ erratic gameplay; he seemed to change his answers arbitrarily, despite — in some cases — a professed ignorance of the topics. We also see Whittock and Diane Ingram coughing, but it’s never clear if it’s strategic, as several other people in the audience also cough. Episode 2 makes the case for the prosecution, while in the third episode, the defense (the ferocious Helen McCrory) capably makes its case.
It’s an enjoyably engrossing series, and features nice performances from an array of familiar actors (Irish Aisling Bea and Welsh Michael Sheen are also on hand, the latter as Millionaire host, Chris Tarrant). It is not a particularly substantive series, however, and despite the prison sentences both Charles and Diane face, the stakes never feel particularly high. Given the climate right now, however, that may prove to be a selling point for those looking for something more diverting than heavy. If that is the case, Quiz certainly hits the spot.