When screenwriter James Graham penned his ITV drama Quiz (starts Sunday May 31 on AMC), about the so-called “Coughing Major”, he “thought of it as a bit like Ocean’s 11 or Mission Impossible, but with very middle-class people in Wiltshire”.
That, on the surface at least, sums up the hilarious first two episodes of Quiz, which tell the story of an audacious and thoroughly English heist that rocked the popular quiz show (and ITV’s crown jewel) Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
The real-life and infamous coughing scandal took place in the early Noughties, when Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana, and accomplice Tecwen Whittock allegedly cheated live on air and together stole a million pounds.
We begin our story in the late ’90s with the inception of the quiz show itself, which at one point a third of the country watched, enthralled by the life-changing decisions that played out on their screens.
The show is pitched to ITV by Celador’s Television Chairman, Paul Smith (Humans’ Mark Bonnar), who is desperate to prove that the ambitious idea will be a success – especially when it’s fronted by gameshow host Chris Tarrant (played the chameleon-like Michael Sheen, complete with gingery wig and fake tan).
And what a success the show turns out to be, becoming one of the most lucrative British TV exports in years and attracting a cult-like following among pub quizzers across the land, determined to hack the system and appear in the contestant chair.
Two such quizzers are Diana Ingram, played by Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, and her brother Adrian, who both manage to make it onto the show, but fail to win the grand prize.
Clifford (speaking at the same press event that screenwriter Graham attended) has talked about how Diana was painted by the press as a “Lady Macbeth” figure, and, initially, she certainly plays her as such (albeit armed with an encyclopaedia rather than a dagger). Diana harasses her bumbling husband Charles (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen) into supporting her schemes, before later forcing him to carry out her own ambitions.
Both she and Adrian are almost driven mad by their determination to to appear on the show, even consulting with ‘The Syndicate’ (you couldn’t make this up), a shadowy group of elite pub quizzers who offer to help you get onto the show and later serve as your “phone a friend” – all for a fee, of course. But when both siblings blow their chances, they turn to Diana’s husband as their last chance.
“I don’t even like quizzes!” Charles moans, hopelessly.
The Charles we meet is awkward, foolish – happiest when he’s taking care of his three daughters while Diana is down the pub with Adrian, competing in the weekly pub quiz.
In real-life, Charles Ingram has been painted as an idiot who was manipulated by his wife, and the show’s opening scenes reflect that depiction. But the truth may be more complicated than that, if the closing shot of episode one is anything to go by.
Graham, who based the TV series on his West End play of the same name, keeps us guessing about the truth behind the alleged crime, even as we watch it unfurl. Those of us who think we know the case, and have watched YouTube videos of accomplice Whittock providing well-timed coughs to alert Charles to the correct answers, may well be surprised by the revelation that ITV producers later ‘enhanced’ the audio on the video, so that the coughs were singled out.
In a time when fake news and press harassment have both become very real problems, Quiz may well provide some prescient lessons smuggled in beneath its uproarious, “Ocean’s 11-meets-Wiltshire” exterior.
Quiz starts on Sunday May 31 at 10/9c on AMC
This article was originally published on 2 April 2020