For over two decades, the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? has remained a familiar part of popular TV culture. But only those who were around for its early, pre-syndication days know just what a massive, worldwide phenomenon the show was when it debuted.
After its launch in Britain in 1998, the Millionaire quiz show format quickly spread to other countries. That included America, where it became special event programming that was broadcast only a few weeks a year, usually during a “sweeps” month and nearly every night of that week — and not in syndication, but on the major ABC network. Phrases like “phone a friend” and “Is that your final answer?” quickly entered everyone’s vocabulary.
The show’s unprecedented popularity — and prize money — led some people to desperately look for ways to “hack” the show and determine patterns in the questions. That obsession was something also apparently exported from Britain; early on, quiz fanatics across the pond developed an elaborate network to study Millionaire and help people get on. By 2001, these efforts inevitably led to what producers had been fearing — an alleged hack of the show, by Charles and Diana Ingram. The couple, with another man, were accused of, and tried for, cheating their way to the British Millionaire’s 1 million pound grand prize while Charles was in the hot seat, via a system where a cough from an offstage co-conspirator would clue him in to correct answers.
But did the Ingrams, who maintain their innocence to this day, actually cheat? Unlike the questions on Millionaire, the answer to that is not cut and dried, and that’s part of what makes Quiz, a dramatization of these events, so fascinating.
The three-part drama is written by James Graham, who adapts his 2017 play, and directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen). It is a compelling and at times humorous miniseries that also explores the nature of game show fandom and human memory, and whether some questions can’t be answered as definitively as the ones on a quiz show.
Quiz‘s terrific cast is headlined by Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) as the Ingrams, with an especially engaging Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) as Millionaire host Chris Tarrant.
“We just sort of present both sides,” Graham explains, “and we do the classic Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ‘ask the audience’ — we ask the audience to make up their minds about whether [the Ingrams are] innocent or guilty.”
If a viewer has ever agonized with a Millionaire contestant sweating it out in the hot seat, they will feel that same drama again with the wonderful and suspenseful re-creations of the show that Frears stages in Quiz.
“Actually being sat in that chair,” Clifford recalls of being on the re-created Millionaire set, “and [with] that music designed to get under your skin and make you feel tense, it really did. And we had a full lighting and sound rig, and it was really thrilling to actually do it.”
So thrilling, apparently, that Sheen quips, “I got really disappointed after we finished filming that every time I entered the room in real life the lights didn’t go [makes game show noise] and the music didn’t go [makes another noise] every time I walked in. That was very upsetting.”
Not simply a retelling of events, the miniseries feels at times like a heist thriller, which Clifford says was part of the goal.
“We really do that,” she agrees, “we really build to that point, and then we pull the rug. … [The show] was huge, and we kind of forget. Now, we have a different relationship with, you know, a million pounds, but at the time that was the biggest prize money ever being given away on a game show. It was historic.”
Graham elaborates: “In terms of making a ‘theft by coughing’ as exciting as a Mission: Impossible movie … having [the actors] play that level of suspicion and suspense is half the job. It’s [also Frears] having fun with the form. … It’s really exciting television to see whether or not that, one, they’re doing it, and, two, if they are doing it, will they get away with it?”
Despite the suspense, though, Clifford adds that “what’s at the heart of this story is the humanity of these people.”
Graham agrees. “I think [we tried] to get an audience to walk in [the Ingrams’] footsteps a bit,” the writer says, “whether you believe them or not, and to ask questions about the proportionality of what happened to them.
“[Quiz is] also questioning whether or not everything we believe about this case is true. I hope it is both an entertaining story, but [also] asks bigger questions about the nature of truth and justice in the 21st century.”
Quiz premieres Sunday, May 31, at 10pm ET on AMC.