Quiz is the best thing ITV has done in a long time, in part because it’s bold enough to depict ITV executives as being awful, but also thanks to a wonderful cast, a keen socio-political undercurrent, and an enthusiasm for energetic farce.
This recap of Quiz Season 1 Episode 1 contains spoilers.
Given the current global goings-on, a cough these days is likely to get you an awkward glance, but perhaps not as awkward as some of those received by Charles Ingram and his wife Diana when they tried to clear their throats in order to scam ITV and their mega-popular quiz Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? out of a million quid. The show at the time was a juggernaut and the scandal perhaps eclipsed it, what with its brazen anti-Englishness that went against a proud national culture. All of this and more is the subject of ITV’s new three-part drama Quiz, which traces the genesis of the show, the national hysteria it whipped up, and the socio-political landscape that compelled an otherwise ordinary family to try and empty a national treasure’s pockets.
Quiz Episode 1 uses the trial of Charles and Diana as a framing device, but it isn’t the legal ins and outs that grab you so much as the cast. Matthew Macfadyen plays the Major as a reluctant conspirator of his wife, Diana (Sian Clifford), who is herself the devoted sibling of a quiz-obsessed brother, Adrian (Trystan Gravelle). The family isn’t vilified so much as slightly ridiculed; as it happens, Charles seems the most well-adjusted of the lot, and Macfadyen’s turn is masterful – a match, almost, for his work on Succession, which is quite something.
But it’s Michael Sheen slathered in Oompa Loompa fake tan and radiating camp as Chris Tarrant who really steals the show. Every moment he’s on-screen crackles with farce, even as the show gradually and smartly unpacks how a real-life quiz show became a national and then a global sensation, and how ordinary people were convinced by it that they could become something more. The public’s desperation to be seen, to be known, to be paid attention to, is the most damning thing in Quiz; the fact this first episode mimics the structure and tone of a heist thriller only serves to highlight how utterly ridiculous the subject really is.
Or is it? In gently ribbing the kind of people Charles and Diana were, Quiz is also asking how and why we value the things we do; how a show like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? can become such a national fixture. ITV is bold is allowing its executives to be portrayed – one assumes accurately – as shallow and obnoxious. But they must have been to invest so much, both financially and emotionally, into a show that, in its pageantry and excess, compelled Englanders to betray the sacred notion of fair play.