Here’s a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style question for you as I’m watching Quiz (ITV). Who of these did best out of the “coughing major” quiz show scandal in 2001? (You’ll have to hum the tense incidental music to yourself as you consider your options.)
A. ITV, who broadcast the show
B. Celador, who made it
D. Mrs Diana Ingram
Obviously, I can’t give you the option of phoning a friend or asking the audience, and there’s strictly no coughing from anyone, but I can take two wrong answers away, which are C and D. In fact, I’d be happy to accept either A or B as the right answer, and sign the cheque myself. And cover you in metaphorical glitter.
As ITV’s dramatisation of the affair, Quiz, uncomfortably reminds us, the Ingrams and their co-conspirator Tecwen Whittock (the cougher) had their lives more or less destroyed by their appearance on the show. They have not been seen or heard from since they were convicted of “conspiracy to procure the execution of a valuable security by deception” at Southwark Crown Court in 2003. They escaped a prison sentence, but that’s about all they’ve taken home with them. By contrast, ITV enjoyed record viewings for the major’s appearance, then further huge audiences for a couple of documentaries and, now, this excellent three-part drama. The British love a pub quiz, and they also have an endless appetite for the more amateurish kind of crime caper; the Great Train Robbery, the Hatton Garden heist and the tale of the “coughing major” has all the popular ingredients to enthral an audience. And ITV and Celador got to keep the major’s winnings, and the show is still running.
Like the original Chris Tarrant-fronted quiz show itself which was broadcast on successive evenings, Quiz has been grippingly scheduled over three consecutive nights, and we certainly need the distraction at times such as this. Even though we all know how it ends, it is a treat to watch, and makes house arrest that little bit easier to bear.
Much of the final episode is concerned with the court case, which itself has its ludicrous moments and high dramas. I don’t know if the case actually had to be suspended for ten minutes after an outbreak of uncontrollable coughing among the jurors and the judge himself, but the farce is entirely appropriate.
It is skilfully done, and if the first two instalments of the drama deftly laud out the clues to the conspiracy, and point towards guilt, the courtroom scenes add the case for the defence. The Ingrams’s QC, played with quiet forensic intensity by Helen McCrory, should really have got them off, as she has an answer to each piece of the prosecution’s supposedly obvious evidence of guilt. The strategic coughing? Only if you count 19 out of the total of 192 miscellaneous coughs and splutters. The cougher-in-chief, Whittock? He suffers from hay fever, asthma and persistent rhinitis, and can’t control his cough? The “gaping hole” of 18 minutes when the major scores thousands in winnings and there is no coughing at all? The manipulation of the tapes and amplification of the coughing – which is never noticed by the host Tarrant, sitting next to Ingram? The case for the defence is that ITV, Celador, the police and the media have themselves conspired to create a “confirmation bias” against the Ingrams.
I am wavering by the end, and the producers are smart to add such layers of ambiguity to such a familiar story. The flashbacks to the Ingrams’s miserable lives, persecuted by their neighbours, the kids bullied, spat at and their pet dog shot are all sensitively done. The major becomes a laughing stock, cough, cough, cough, everywhere he goes, but there is real emotional harm done to a family too.
The producers of Quiz do everything else right too. The casting is perfect. Michael Sheen somehow reproduces Tarrant’s unplaceable accent, lame repartee and unsettling grin, another little award awaiting him for that supporting performance. Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford are more like the Ingrams than the Ingrams, so to speak, and Trystan Gravelle is a jumpy, twitchy tour de force as Diana Ingram’s ineffably strange brother. The little Dennis Potteresque dream sequence musical number at the end, inevitably a top hat and tails rendition of the song “Who Wants to a Millionaire?” is woven seamlessly into the courtroom sequences.
For what it’s worth, I end up opting to feel sorry for the Ingrams. Either they cheated, pushed their luck and lost everything, which is sad; or they didn’t cheat and had their lives blighted by a huge miscarriage of justice. If I were Celador or ITV, I’d have just let them keep the money. But then again, that would be – dramatic pause – the wrong answer.
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