Graham James’ winning streak continues. Having hit the jackpot with This House, Ink and Labour of Love, he once again struts the treadmill of success with Quiz, a compulsively enjoyable social comedy of bad manners inspired by ITV’s blockbuster Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the 2001 scandal that followed after a certain Major Charles Ingrams and his wife Diana were accused of cheating by means of some strategic coughing emanating from the audience. The show was recorded on September 9 and 10, 2001, its consequences initially paling into insignificance by what happened the following day.
Though the episode in question was never aired and Ingram’s million-pound win withheld, the show hit the national headlines in March 2003 when ITV versus Ingrams went to Southwark Crown Court and lasted four weeks (including the three days it took the jury to deliberate). Charles and his wife were found guilty of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception,” given a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined.
The million-pound question Graham asks in his cannily constructed replay of the event is, were Charles (Gavin Spokes) and Diana (Stephanie Street) really guilty of cheating or had there been a miscarriage of justice? The question taps into our national sense of fair play and justice, our obsession with quiz shows (both trivial and serious), our grudging envy of the winners and a secret satisfaction (depending on the size of the stakes) when they lose. Quizzes cater to our acquisitive instincts, our competitive spirit and the lure of getting something for nothing. They appeal to some of the baser instincts of human nature, which is why they’re so irresistible.
Set in a TV studio with all the familiar paraphernalia of flashy game shows (sets by Robert Jones, lighting by Tim Lutkin), the first half cleverly involves the audience in a pub-like quiz of their own, complete with notepaper and pen and a keypad with multiple options. The evidence of cheating we’re given from the ITV executives involved in that fateful unseen edition of Millionaire would seem to be conclusive against Ingram, his wife and their alleged accomplice, a quiz-addicted Welshman called Tecwen Whittock (Mark Meadows). What is particularly suspicious is that Ingram, having forfeited two of his lifelines with relatively simple questions in the early rounds, was able to return the following evening, answer the harder remaining questions and (quite literally) become an overnight millionaire. As the play moves towards its halfway mark, the evidence appears so overwhelmingly against him that, when asked to vote, the majority of the audience voted guilty.
In the play’s second half, set mainly in a courtroom, the spotlight focuses on Ingram’s defence barrister, Sonia Woodley (Susan Woodward), and the emphasis suddenly shifts. The defendant’s flighty, contradictory, suspiciously erratic behaviour in choosing his answers are now interpreted as deliberate game playing to add drama and tension to the proceedings. Or as Woodley puts it, “Have we chosen a more entertaining lie over a less extraordinary truth?” She argues her case with such conviction and credence that, when asked to vote for a second time, the audience – on the night I attended the show – voted not guilty.
As there is no summing up from the prosecutor, you might justifiably feel you’ve been manipulated. But that’s not the point. Graham, by examining the ambiguities of justice, takes on the role of devil’s-advocate-cum-provocateur. It’s a ploy that gives the play its heft and sends audiences home challenging their preconceptions.
Eight members out of a cast of 11 play multiple roles, most notably Keir Charles, who offers delicious caricatures of question masters Des O’Connor, Leslie Crowther and, funniest of all, Chris Tarrant, the original Millionaire host, with all his defining tics, catch-words and gestures hilariously on parade. Spokes endows Ingram with an enigmatic unflappability and even calm at the centre of the storm in which he finds himself. Street offers dedicated, rock-solid support. And Woodward is full of authority as their barrister.
It is splendidly directed by Daniel Evans with a comfortable blend of show-biz panache and courtroom gravity. Like the scandal on which it is based, Quiz is compulsive viewing.