This Quiz review contains spoilers
In the stage version of James Graham’s Quiz, theatre audiences were polled Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style on whether or not they found its real-life characters guilty of trying to cheat the ITV quiz show out of £1 million. Acting as jurors, audiences were asked to vote twice at different points in the play. Guilty or not guilty?
One vote always returned a verdict of guilt, while the other returned the reverse. A kind of magic trick, Graham’s play demonstrated in real-time how popular opinion can be swayed first in one direction, and then in another. It was a bit of flash, some razzle dazzle for the crowd. But under the glitz were shrewd questions about justice, fame and trial-by-media. If our certainties can be so thoroughly unravelled by art, can we trust them, and by extension, can we trust the law?
The same trick is pulled off in fine style in this three-part TV adaptation, adapted by Graham and directed by Stephen Frears with just as much pace and vitality as his last real-life trial dramatisation A Very English Scandal. That title could equally apply here, such is the thoroughgoing Englishness of its characters and subjects – quizzing, and the deeply rooted notion of fair play.
In the trial scenes, what seems to animate the prosecution more than any specific legal transgression is the injury committed to good sportsmanship. Whatever the judicial truth of the matter, the sly suggestion here is that Major Charles and Diana Ingram were really put on trial for betrayal of the so-called English character. The case of Ingram v It’s Just Not Cricket.
Episode one gives a mildly satirical but mostly warm-hearted introduction to the Ingrams (Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford). He’s clownish in a Major In-nice-but-dim way, and she’s a devoted member of a peculiarly British tribe – the quizzer. So is her brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle), whose obsession with getting on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? gives episode one its absurdist heist structure.
Gentle fun is poked at quizzers, the kind of people for whom any knowledge is only worth having if it wins you a tie-breaker against Quizzee Rascal in the Monday night grudge match at the Horse and Groom. Adrian’s entry into an underground quizzing cabal is played for laughs. It’s a comically unflattering portrait of the subculture, but one nonetheless charmed by the idiosyncrasy of a peculiar obsession. And they’re not all comic caricatures. Clifford makes Diana a sympathetic weirdo (the awe with which she receives Adrian’s homemade ‘fastest finger first’ machine is beautifully done).
Another tribe – TV executives – receive the same treatment. There’s a W1A-ish mockery going on that shows them to be glib and shallow (perfectly summed up in ITV’s heads bemoaning the BBC ratings hit of Princess Diana’s funeral “Tragic as that was, it goes without saying.” “Tragic.”) But there’s also a fascination and respect for how invested, emotionally and financially, production company head Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) is in his quiz.
If episode one of this drama wasn’t able to convince viewers that developing a TV show is the most exciting thing in the world, it wouldn’t work. With energising editing and a never-fail montage, it does convince us of that, and the whole thing works like a charm.
Actual magic of course, was involved in Michael Sheen’s terrifyingly accurate impersonation of TV host Chris Tarrant. Close your eyes and you’d think it was him. Open your eyes, and you’d still think it was him, even though they don’t look at all the same. Wizardry is the only explanation.
In short, episode one is a hoot. It’s comedic and nostalgic and filled with funny performances and the bathetic laughs of a very English heist. Under the surface though, it raises the play’s serious questions about fairness and justice, all handled with the sprightliest, lightest of touch. Perfect viewing.
Quiz continues on Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th April on ITV at 9pm.