Some ideas are so simplistically brilliant there’s no way they can fail. Such is the case with the now classic quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? When the game show first premiered on British television on ITV in 1998, it quickly became a big hit. Big enough to launch a franchise of similar shows across the world, including the Regis Philbin-hosted American version that launched in 1999.
The very premise of the contest is cooked into the show’s name. Like a benevolent bridge troll, the show asks the viewer, “would thee like to be a millionaire? Then answer these questions 15.” Simple enough. After all, who doesn’t think they can correctly answer 15 consecutive multiple choice questions. If not, then what was the whole point of school? Still, some contestants may not have wanted to take that chance. And that’s how just a few years into its existence, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was rocked by a cheating scandal.
This is the story that AMC’s excellent miniseries Quiz sets out to tell. The show first aired on ITV (hey that network sounds familiar!) in the United Kingdom in April. You can check out our reviews here. Now Quiz’s three episodes are set to premiere for American audiences on AMC Premiere on May 31 (AMC will broadcast the three episodes weekly as well, beginning on May 31 at 10 p.m. ET). As crafted by British playwright James Graham, Quiz tells the story of Charles and Diana Ingram (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford), two middle class Britons who found themselves at the center of a media firestorm and high profile court case when it was discovered they may have cheated on the game show with a rudimentary coughing system.
Earlier this year Den of Geek spoke with Graham and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) about the series and why the original case struck a virulent chord on the British Isles. Interestingly this interview took place in January, right as news of both the Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time tournament and the Houston Astros cheating scandal were breaking, providing a relevant backdrop to examine pop culture’s preoccupation with trivia and cheating. Graham and Clifford went deep on both concepts, discussing how the story of the Ingrams in many ways set the stage for the media-saturated landscape we live in today.
DEN OF GEEK: Early on in the show a character says, “You know the Brits love their pub quizzes.” Is that true? If so, why do the British people love quizzes and trivia so much?
JAMES GRAHAM: Yes, we do love our pub quizzes. Well, the answer that the character Paul Smith in the show gives is because it combines our two great British loves: drinking and being right. I think there is a truth to that. Fundamentally, it’s quite a new phenomenon. It came only in the early 1990s as a way of pubs that were quiet in the middle of the week, dragging people in by appealing to their inner Neanderthal primeval desire to prove themselves in front of their mates. I just think it’s that. Ultimately it’s not complicated at all. We are competitive beings from prehistoric days and now we’re not fighting to kill and eat food. We’re fighting to show off about our knowledge of kings and queens of England, but it’s the same instinct, I think.
What was it like assembling this cast? It’s filled with a lot of Great Britain’s most recognizable and interesting character actors.
JG: It’s not false modesty to say that whenever you start writing something you assume nobody will do it. I thought this was maybe going to be so niche and so geeky – will it appeal to anybody? Yes, it’s a heist, but it’s a game show heist with some very well-to-do middle class people trying to get more money. As soon as we started sending out to our ideal people, however, they started saying yes. I think partly it’s because the story resonates with so many people in the U.K. It still captures people’s imaginations, the audacity of this alleged crime of stealing a million pounds in front of cameras and spotlights and microphones. I think it appeals to the mischievous nature of most British actors who quite enjoy real life stories that tap into often the very eccentric and bizarre and idiosyncratic nature of Britishness. And this does feel like a very British crime. But I would defer to you (Sian) about why you decided to do the show.
SIAN CLIFFORD: God, I think I lept at the chance. James and I have known each other for almost as long as I’ve known Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I’m a huge, huge fan of all his work; prolific and very renowned in the UK. So to work on something that James had created, to work with Stephen Frears, to be a part of this fascinating story, which as soon as I read the script, which at the time it was actually one long thing it wasn’t split into three…
JG: Oh yes, it was one single TV movie.
SC: I was salivating. It’s such a rich, multilayered story. What’s amazing about it is it’s a story that you think you know, but you don’t. There’s another side to this story that we never heard because it was never represented by the media that influenced their trial enormously. It was very biased. It’s just absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t wait to say yes, quite frankly.To play someone who the media has told you who they are and then you watch footage of them and you go, “Oh wow. They’ve been very, very poorly represented and I’d like to do that person justice.”
Did you guys think they did it?
JG: Well, that is what the show is all about. I would hate to deny the audience their ability to vote on what they think is the right answer. Obviously, by the virtue of the fact that we’re doing this probably speaks to the fact that we think there are inconsistencies and doubts in the narrative that’s out there about this story. It’s way more interesting and way more shocking. I think what we all agree on as a creative team is whether they’re innocent or guilty, what is true is that all of the instruments that line up to create this new passage of justice from the police to the media, to the courts, weren’t quite firing on all cylinders. I think they were let down by a lot of those systematic failures, which still exist today and probably, to be honest, exist more in the American system. There is a vulnerability of a court case to be hijacked as entertainment, especially when it’s something that’s as iconic as a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing scandal. It’s fair to say that their guilt is not as cut and dry as was originally presented. We want the audience to reassess that. They may still come to the conclusion that they did it, but something was wrong, I think, in how it played out.
SC: For me, a much bigger question is whether or not they should have a felony conviction for a crime of this nature, for one thing, but also whether you can prove beyond reasonable doubt that he didn’t know the answers. And I think that is impossible. That’s a much bigger, more serious question that we’re asking with the show. But we’ve tried to be balanced and fair and both sides have seen the show and are happy. I think that’s an enormous achievement. It’s pretty balanced, but it’s the side of the Ingrams we’ve just never seen before and we’ve never seen their sort of… I think there was a humanity chip missing in the telling of this story originally. But hopefully we’ve got at the heart of our version.
JG: I think even on the other side, that would be the side of the show’s producer Paul Smith, he still believes that they did it. Nobody enjoyed this. The producers didn’t enjoy this trial. They found it really upsetting. Paul Smith has a huge affection for this game show that they sold around the world and were very happy that it made people happy. He was furious and upset that it had been undermined by people trying to, as he saw it, abuse it and destroy it through exposing its flaws. Nobody was happy this happened.
SC: There aren’t any villains in this story, really.
JG: Even if they did it, obviously you can tell that we’re questioning that, it’s increasing your odds on a game show. It’s not robbing a bank or murdering anybody. I just think it’s always been disproportionate – their big, big sentence.
That’s a thing that the show does well in revealing how virulent people’s reaction to the cheating was. How important was it to portray that and why do you think our reaction to cheating is so intense? Or perceived cheating?
JG: I think that question goes to the heart of why it captured a nation and captured me. I was one of those people. I was the baying mob cheering at the stocks because I thought they did it. There’s something about unfairness and you cutting in front of me in line or you cheating on a game, even if it’s a board game that you’re playing with your family. It just, more than almost anything… I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t think it is just a British thing.
SC: I think it is a British thing. We get so riled up. But ultimately it’s deception, isn’t it? Being lied to. I don’t think anything makes me angrier than that. In this context it’s cheating. That’s how the lie manifests or it’s perceived to be cheating.
Maybe it makes us feel vulnerable somehow that somebody out there creating an uneven playing field?
SC: Well, you invest in something, don’t you? You emotionally invest in something. And if you’re being honorable, you’re playing by the rules and then you find out that someone didn’t. I don’t know, suddenly things become skewed and it does make you feel vulnerable. (In the show) we’re examining what the truth means to us. This happened at that moment in history. It was two days before 9/11 and suddenly something shifted and reality TV suddenly became really prominent. When did Big Brother start? ’99?
JG: ’99, 2000, yeah. (EDITOR’S NOTE: James and Sian are right twice-over. Big Brother technically started its first Dutch iteration in 1999 and a year later followed up with both the U.S. and U.K. versions in 2000).
Survivor shortly thereafter.
JG: And then eventually The Apprentice. This whole story is one subset of the wider symptom of when the rigid boundaries of truth and fiction began to flow a lot. Look at the war in Afghanistan and the fact that the British government used a game show format. They sent game show producers out to the desert to create an Afghan version of Pop Idol, as a way of socializing Afghan people towards the values of the West and teaching them how to vote. The lines between entertainment and reality and truth and fiction just really began to blur, to the extent where you have reality show formats now creating fictional characters that go on to become the president of your country.
This story is not bad, but it exists within a culture where objective reality started to change. That’s not a judgment on whether Trump is a good or bad person. It’s a judgment on Brexit to Trump to anything else that fiction and fact have begun to merge. I think the Ingrams are a small victim of that that happened very early on. It is almost like an origin story for where we are today. In a world where objective truth feels less attainable than it used to be.
How many times do you think people cough in this? Did you guys attempt to keep track?
JG: Let’s talk about it, there’s a good cough and a guilty cough.
SC: We would film different versions of things because you wanted the options in the edit. What’s funny is that watching things back that we filmed as, okay, a guilty version and I would see it in isolation and be like, “Oh God, yeah, that’s really… Oh, you went with that option? I don’t know if that’s right.” Then you see it in the context of the show and it reads completely ambiguously. When Diana coughs, that’s one moment for me that is questionable. I’ve watched back because there’s something to me that almost looks like bad acting when she coughs. I’ve watched it repeatedly and there’s something odd, but you’ve also got to remember that you’ve got people in front of the camera who are not used to being on camera. And there would have been a cameraman in her face that entire studio session obviously. So for something like that. I pulled the studio stuff. Matthew (Macfadyen) and I, we both tried to capture a lot of the footage that people will be familiar with or whatever. So that one I think is pretty incriminating, my cough that I do. She does sort of do this very odd little “hmm-hmm” that I don’t think anyone’s done since the 1920s.
JG: I have such admiration for you guys, because of how you both perform a cough, which maintains the possibility of innocence and guilt at the same time, is a really hard achievement.