"Quiz reveals itself to be James Graham’s most perceptive, prescient project to date"
There was a period, two-and-a-bit years ago, when it seemed as if James Graham were on a one-man mission to take over British theatre. His smash-hit parliamentary play This House was preparing for a UK tour, and he had not one, not two, but three plays running concurrently in major theatres.
In the West End, there was Ink, his Almeida-originating drama about Rupert Murdoch’s war on Fleet Street, and Labour of Love, his Martin Freeman-starring story of factional fighting on the left. In Chichester, soon to transfer to the West End, there was Quiz.
At the time, Quiz was the least well-received of Graham’s sudden gamut of plays. Comparing it to his more obviously heavy-hitting dramas about politics and papers, or perhaps simply suffering from James Graham fatigue, many critics considered it a fun but fundamentally frothy frivolity about an overlooked moment of pop-culture history.
How wrong they were. Now adapted into a three-part drama for ITV – Graham’s first solo TV project since last January’s divisive drama Brexit: The Uncivil War – Quiz reveals itself to be his most perceptive, prescient project to date, and confirms to a wider audience what theatre fans have known for nearly a decade: that Graham is a writer of rare, rare talent.
Many critics considered Quiz a fun but fundamentally frothy frivolity about an overlooked moment of pop-culture history. How wrong they were.
The true story, for those unfamiliar with it, is barely believable. An upright military man and his wife – the improbably named Charles and Diana Ingram – are drawn into a world of gameshow obsessives through the fervent fandom of Diana’s brother Adrian. Their particular prize, and the one to which they go to extraordinary lengths to obtain, is the million-pound cheque guarded by Chris Tarrant and his 15 progressively tougher questions on the nation’s favourite game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
The TV adaptation is less loud and more naturalistic than the stage version, which was stuffed full of sketches and skits and audience votes, but the fundamental structure remains the same. Over three episodes, the tale is told within the framing device of the Ingram’s trial – the case for the prosecution, followed by the case for the defence – with plenty of other background detail about the origins of the show interleaved in the mix.
Part of what makes Graham’s drama so watchable – on stage and on screen – is how damn interesting all the minutiae are. Who knew, for example, that Millionaire was originally called Cash Mountain? Who knew that the Charles Ingram episode was filmed the day before September 11, 2001? Who knew that the Ingram’s trial had to be suspended because, ironically enough, a coughing fit broke out in court?
These details, coupled with the sweet nostalgia rush of returning to 2001 – the Millionaire theme music! The mobile phones! The studio set! – would make for enjoyable TV by itself, but what sets Graham apart as a writer is his ability to take esoterica and spin it into essential drama. To take half-forgotten, seemingly unimportant pop-culture titbits and turn it into thrilling ideological argument.
Thus, as Quiz progresses, it becomes not just a toe-wrigglingly delectable re-enactment of a time and a place and an outlandish event, but somehow an insightful debate about the very nature of truth itself.
Graham plays with our perception throughout. Was that cough just a cough? Why did Charles just rub his ear? Do we know for sure that he cheated, or have we just heard that he did and believed it? How can we separate fact from fiction when there are so many different versions of what happened? How can we navigate a post-truth world of fake news and narrative spin, and alternative facts and echo chambers, in which the simple concept of a straightforward answer to a straightforward question has vanished. That, argues Graham, is the million-pound question.
And it is asked in style by director Stephen Frears, whose ability to spin real life into drama has been proved beyond doubt with films including The Queen, The Deal, and Philomena.
He’s helped by a truly terrific cast, many of whom – like Frears and Graham – also have a background in theatre: Matthew Macfadyen as Charles, all clipped consonants and rounded vowels and sweat; Fleabag’s Sian Clifford as his middle-England, middle-everything wife Diana; Helen McCrory as their cut-glass lawyer, and Mark Bonnar as slimy Celador producer Paul Smith.
The cherry on top of it all, though, is Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant. Decked out in shiny suit and blond-grey wig, he supplies one of the all-time great impersonations, capturing Tarrant’s wry humour, his back-of-the-throat drawl, his instantly recognisable mannerisms – the lean, the fingers to the temple, the iconic proffering of a cheque only to snatch it away. It is a genuinely astonishing transformation.
Does Quiz lose something in the transition from theatre to television? Yes, it does. The play had a whole political angle linking gameshows and greed and Thatcherism that has been excised for the small screen, and something of the show’s chaotic, carnival energy has been squeezed out by TV’s regrettable demand for realism.
But some things are gained as well: Sheen’s Tarrant, for one thing, and viewers, for another. Quiz was seen by a few thousand in Chichester, and a few thousand more in London; the ITV adaptation drew more than five million, night after night. A writer as rare as Graham, and a play as piercing as this, deserves an audience like that.