Quiz: ITV drama tackles one of TV history's biggest scandals
Writer James Graham talks about bringing his stageplay of the Millionaire cough saga to the small screen and why he believes this is a prescient tale for our times
In 2020, a bout of coughing might lead someone to be forcibly placed into quarantine. In 2001, the clearing of a Welsh lecturer's throat resulted in one of TV history's biggest scandals. Presented by the ebullient Chris Tarrant, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, with its often unbearable tension, 50/50s, phone a friend, and the host's catchphrase 'final answer?' (often uttered before going to a commercial break), was a ratings triumph for ITV. But it would soon be shaken to its core when the seemingly indecisive Major Charles Ingram blundered his way to the top prize. Could it be that Ingram was being given some tips from another contestant who was coughing when he said the correct answer out loud during his interminable deliberations?
Suspicious production staff in the studio certainly believed something was up, and the episode would never be aired with an investigation immediately launched. Our collective memory of the unfolding drama came solely through Martin Bashir's 2003 ITV documentary, broadcast a fortnight after Ingram, his wife Diana and the coughing Tecwen Whittock were all convicted by a majority verdict for 'procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception'.
One man who is not so sure of the trio's guilt is acclaimed playwright James Graham whose West End play Quiz was a huge success in 2018. He has now adapted his own work for the small screen with ITV showing Quiz over three successive nights and with a heavyweight cast and crew in tow: Stephen Frears directs, Matthew Macfadyen plays the Major, Sian Clifford is his wife Diana, and, with infinitesimal attention to detail, Michael Sheen portrays Chris Tarrant.
'The whole spirit of this endeavour is to take something which people think is very cut and dried, and just open it up a bit,' states Graham. 'In the social media era everything has to be very black and white, but this is about shaking people out of their convictions and to remind them that things are often more complicated. And it's also about painting a more sympathetic picture of this family that was completely demonised.'
Back in September 2001, James Graham was a 19-year-old student at Hull University, and like most of his peers was vaguely obsessed with the show. 'My memory is that I watched that show but, of course, like all of us we made that up we've only ever seen it through the prism of the Bashir documentary,' recalls Graham. 'That really leaned towards one version of the story, which may be the true story, but we only ever saw it with a guilty narrative. And they were bang to rights in the public conscience because that was the over-riding narrative. I was absolutely transfixed by it but didn't really know why which is why I made a drama to understand why these people and this crime transfixed the 19-year-old version of me.'
At the interval and finale of Graham's stageplay (set for a new UK tour this autumn), the audience is asked to record a verdict on the Ingrams' fate with the initial overwhelming guilty decision based on the first half's evidence usually overturned when the second part delivers a more pro-innocence case. The TV drama, like the play, tackles a serious criminal investigation but injects all the humour you would imagine is inherent in such a caper.
'In its DNA, there is something quite comic and ludicrous about a crime that involves relatively polite, middle-class, middle-aged people from a village in the south of England trying to improve their odds on a game show,' notes Graham. 'That is a uniquely British kind of heist, and I always think of it along the lines of an Ocean's Eleven or Mission Impossible movie but with encyclopedias instead of guns and suction cups to climb buildings. The TV show's journey is to begin in a light place, but by the time you get to episode three and you see the consequences of these people's lives, that should generate a level of sympathy in the audience.'
While some aspects of the production were in the fates (such as getting the likes of Frears and Sheen's agreement to participate), one thing was fixed in Graham's mind from the off: the three-part drama had to be aired on ITV. 'From quite early on we wanted that, partly from mischievousness and self-awareness. We hoped that this would be an event-piece ITV drama about an event-piece ITV show. We don't give ITV an easy ride and we don't hold back and say that their version of events is necessarily the one that we align to. But they were very happy for us to challenge that, and they really wanted to be part of it.'
Quiz airs on ITV, Mon 13–Wed 15 Apr, 9pm.