When you watch Quiz, the ITV and AMC drama on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal of 2001, you realize that is just such obviously fertile territory for television drama. A story about a million-pound heist, which played out on one of the biggest quiz shows ever made, featuring characters from everyday backgrounds.
Writer James Graham knew it was a gift, but not necessarily one for the screen, which is why he initially created a stage play around the saga. It took Andy Harries, the CEO of The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures, to realize its television potential after watching the West End show at the invitation of Graham. “I hadn’t thought of it as a TV drama, but Andy’s enthusiasm convinced me,” Graham recalls.
Two years on, Graham and Harries’ vision has been realized as a three-part, Stephen Frears-directed drama, which is threaded with the gripping story of the audacious crime, but ultimately explores so much more. Charles and Diana Ingram (who are played by Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford) were vilified in the British press 20 years ago, but Graham’s Quiz is a more nuanced and sympathetic appraisal of their love of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? brand and the deeper world of obsessive British quizzers.
In an interview with Deadline ahead of a press screening of Quiz, Graham and producers Alice Pearse and Dan Winch reflected on adapting the story for TV, their new-found respect for game show formats, how Left Bank’s Sony ownership helped them replicate the original Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? set, and the current hunger for retelling real-life stories on screen.
Quiz premieres on ITV tonight at 9PM, while AMC has scheduled the show for May 31. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deadline: You’re just about to show Quiz to an audience for the first time, how are you feeling?
James Graham: I remember showing the Brexit film [Brexit: The Uncivil War] last year and that was gut-wrenchingly terrifying. I’m so proud of Quiz and I hope it’s quite a charming, warm, humane look at this bizarre alleged crime that happened, which is uber English and uber eccentric.
Deadline: Obviously you have previously written the play on this saga, why did this story resonate with you?
Graham: I remember watching this unfold in 2001 about how these people cheated on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the fact that it was these well-to-do middle-class English types who were stealing. And I remember watching the Martin Bashir documentary [Major Fraud], sitting watching that with my student friends at university and being captivated by the audacity of this crime of trying to steal a million quid in front of a live studio audience.
10-15 years later I was presented this book published by two journalists, Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, who were questioning whether that perceived reality was true. So I was excited to get back into that world. And I guess the twinkly mischief of doing a crime drama or heist movie in the Mission Impossible vain, but with lots of well-to-do English dweebs, who are using questions and answers rather than guns and abseiling.
Alice Pearse: And no dead bodies, which is a real rarity in TV drama.
JK: At what point did Left Bank become involved?
Pearse: Andy [Harries] came to see the play and immediately wanted to develop it with James. I know he wanted to work with you for a long time. This is the first you’ve worked together, right?
Graham: Well I wrote an episode of The Crown, but that was out of the office. So I may have said, maybe you want to come and see this play. And he did. I was taken aback by his interest. The play was such a theatrical style, it wasn’t naturalistic at all. We got the audience on stage playing old fashion game shows, we had them voting and interacting with the show. So its live-ness is what identified it. I hadn’t actually thought, even though it’s about television, I hadn’t thought of it as a TV drama, but Andy’s enthusiasm convinced me.
Pearse: ITV completely agreed and [head of drama] Polly [Hill] fell completely in love with the story and was excited about bringing the story back to the screen with a bit more nuance than Major Fraud. We started developing it in October 2018.
Deadline: Was it a coincidence that Left Bank is owned by Sony and Sony also owns the rights to Millionaire?
Pearse: That was a happy coincidence. It would have been so much harder without that connection. There was one woman in particular who worked at Sony who had actually worked for Celador just after the Ingram scandal and she had this encyclopedic knowledge of the show. They were so generous. They shared not only the lighting cues, the music cues, they even gave us blueprints of the original set that we were able to handover to our team. We were so committed to the authenticity of it.
Deadline: So the set we see on screen is pretty much as close to the real thing as you can get?
Pearse: Pretty much. There is one compromise we have to make, which we won’t reveal because we don’t want to point it out to people. It’s like half a meter smaller.
Dan Winch: That was really important that when you’re standing in the middle of that stage. One of the things that impacts is the distances between the various characters involved — they’re very close. They were really on top of each other and if we had changed the perspective, you wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Pearse: I think the actors really appreciated having that arena and the audience, and the distances. So Tecwen Whittock is the exact distance behind Charles.
Deadline: That shot over Charles’ shoulder, you can feel the proximity.
Graham: I think the audience will just assume that we went on the Jeremy Clarkson set and just filmed it there. But the production design was amazing. That morning when I walked into the set, I was like a three-year-old child. It was so exciting to have that playground and we were there for two weeks. Stephen [Frears] had fun with that, and we wanted to celebrate the claustrophobic studio as a means of adding tension to this crime.
Winch: In the drama world we don’t often get the chance to build a big set in that way.
Pearse: Normally you’re cheating it and it’s smoke and mirrors but this felt really felt real. The camera angles are very established, so you’re used to seeing a certain view of that space. There was something so freeing dramatically to break those rules and have that full access around the studio space so it makes the viewer feel like they’re there. They can hear the coughing, they can hear the pin drop.
Graham: I tried to communicate that in the script. In the first episode, we see those established shots, what the contestants and Chris Tarrant should look like through a screen. But then you break through the fourth wall of that. One of my favorite moments is when they go to the commercial break at the million-pound question and it’s just Chris Tarrant and the Major waiting. You realize what it feels like to be in the show rather than watching the show.
Deadline: Yes, it’s a slightly awkward moment.
Pearse: For Tarrant trying not to give anything away. He was such a master at what he did. That’s one thing that struck us and Michael Sheen in particular is just how in control Tarrant was of that space. He was like a conductor. He’s not hooked up to any sort of relay, he was just with the contestant. We wanted to recreate that — we even had the graphic cues loading up on the screen. We really faked very little. For the actors, it felt quite method in a way.
Deadline: It’s rare that the entertainment and drama worlds collide in this way. Did it give you an appreciation for the enduring quality of Millionaire and the ingredients that went into making it a hit?
Graham: Absolutely. The danger in making television about television is that it would be really self-congratulatory and exclusive. One of the challenges was reminding the audience how big this show was and how extraordinarily simple it was on paper. We had to rediscover in ourselves our love of that program. Reminding myself what it was like to be 16 years old with my grandparents watching that very first show. We had to rediscover our childish awe at that to then communicate that to an audience who are now so familiar with all those tropes.
Deadline: You have the scenes with all the ITV and Celador executives. How much research did you do on that? Did you speak to those individuals?
Pearse: They’re all on Andy Harries’ Rolodex. So that was very handy.
Graham: The only person I’d spoken to when we were doing the show in the West End was Paul [Smith]. But you always have to ask yourself what value can I bring to this, and as ever, it’s because you get to iris out into a bigger world and really feel the different environments, like a country village or an ITV exec room. So we expanded our research.
With Alice, I met Claudia Rosencrantz and David Liddiment and they were happy to speak to us. They were very honest. They firmly believe that the Ingrams were guilty. As long as you’re sincere and honest with people, they recognize what you’re doing. They would strongly disagree with some of the positions that the drama hints at, but they were happy with us doing it and putting their point of view across.
Pearse: We’ve been really diligent with sharing the show and keeping people involved who James has long-standing relationships with — without them consulting in any formal way. A fair number on both sides of the argument have seen it and all responded really positively. It’s a testament to James telling the story in a balanced, humane way.
Winch: We’ve got DVDs winging their way over to Chris Tarrant. One thing that struck us when we spoke to him is he’s incredibly proud of what they put together. One feature of the formulaic approach to Millionaire is that it was the first show that did the lingering result. As Chris said, that has been replicated everywhere. He’s gutted they couldn’t trademark that.
Pearse: The drama is so inherent in that format. You really get that sense in the boardroom scene when they’re pitching it and playing it, and Liddiment can’t help but lose himself in the game. It’s so thrilling to watch someone run up the scale so quickly, winning more and more money. That hasn’t aged I don’t think, it’s really timeless.
James, Andy and I went up to see Jeremy Clarkson hosting the show and watch it being recorded. We were trying to suss out at first whether we might be able to use their set, but it was just so radically different the technology, so we thought that’s not going to work for us. It really did strike me how thrilling it is, especially being there live. There was a teacher from Birmingham who got to the million-pound question.
Winch: The show plays long, there’s no time limit. So when you then condense it into a drama, in terms of how Charles [Ingram] played his game, which was extraordinarily long and formulaic. We worked with Stephen [Frears] in the edit to make sure that those answers have the time that was appropriate to really make you think about what Charles is thinking. Rather than cutting it in a true drama way.
Deadline: My memory of the story at the time was Charles being completely vilified in the press, so I was surprised at how sympathetic the portrayal of him and the family was. Was that the ambition, were you trying to paint a rounder picture?
Graham: Yes, without a doubt. I don’t know how else to write. I don’t know how else you write a person without getting in their head. But also, it’s to counter the perceptions of these being ludicrous, stupid, greedy people. People are way more complicated than that. The joy for me with this story is there are no bad guys. It’s a crime but there are no murderers. If they did it, it was a crime that was done out of love for the show. If they didn’t do it, nor does that make the ITV executives and producers villainous either because they really passionately believe that someone came on their show and broke the rules. We’re British you don’t do that.
It was really high stakes, people’s freedom was at risk, their faces were splashed across newspapers around the world, but ultimately it’s a story about real people, with flaws and strengths and weaknesses.
Deadline: What were some of the things that weren’t known about the Ingrams?
Graham: It’s hard to talk about that without making them known. What was exciting to me was you would think it’s a story about these two people and this marriage and a third phantom cougher in the audience, but what’s extraordinary is it goes way beyond them. They are the symptom of a wider culture that became obsessed about this game show. We discovered this group, which we call The Syndicate, but they were really called The Consortium, which was a professional outfit made up of Britain’s top pub quizzers who existed to help people get on the show. We were all surprised how effectively they penetrated Millionaire.
In the third episode, we recount a very recent meeting between Paul Smith and Paddy Spooner, the head of this outfit, where — as in real life — they reconciled and understand where they were coming from.
Deadline: These professional quizzers still exist today…
Graham: I don’t know what need they’re trying to serve or itch they’re trying to scratch, but I find it quite endearing and very British.
Pearse: They had a passion.
Winch: One of the special things about this show being a public event is, almost everyone you speak to, unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with, everyone feels like they have a little bit of ownership of it.
Pearse: One of the things I found surprising when I first started working on this was I never realized that Charles’ episode had never been transmitted. It was broadcast within the body of the Major Fraud documentary. Celador had to put together a tape for the police, for the trial, and unavoidably they had to made creative choices along the way. Which shot do we use, what do we do with the audio at that point? That’s been very interesting and very meta.
Deadline: Why is there such a hunger now for dramatizing real-life stories?
Graham: I think it serves a need in us to make sense of the completely nonsensical nature of the world at the moment. Most of how we receive reality now is an exhausting endless stream of minute-by-minute information, which doesn’t amount to anything. Every second of every day you’re getting new information, which is incomprehensible and unprecedented, and it feels like you’re in touch, but it actually has the opposite effect of making the truth harder to see because you have the worms-eye view. What TV drama does is give you a birds-eye view of something. It takes something that feels relentless and meaningless and random — pauses it, puts it in a frame and allows you to look at it and make sense of why we do this to each other and what it says about our systems or institutions.
That was always my justification for the Brexit drama to go out because people said ‘why do we need this? why is it happening now? surely it’s too soon?.’ I was flabbergasted that, what was obvious to me, that in the messy cauldron of misinformation about Brexit and the lack of humanity in that argument, I thought the value of a story that just calmly look at what happened back then, humanize the people that did it, try to understand their motivations and try and make sense of it. An audience enjoys having that context.