QUIZ, the three-part miniseries debuting on American TV on AMC Sunday, May 31, is based on a real incident. In 2001 England, Charles Ingram won the million-pound jackpot on the ITV quiz show WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. There was an ensuing scandal that resulted in Ingram, his wife Diana and her brother Adrian Pollock, all being brought up on criminal charges for “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception,” i.e., winning by cheating.
James Graham, who had previously done a play on the subject, wrote and is an executive producer on QUIZ. The miniseries explores not only the question of how and whether the Ingrams and Pollock had in fact cheated, but also the inner dynamics of the ITV Network – one of QUIZ’s producers – and the odd but real “syndicate” of English quiz show fans, scattered throughout the country, who could produce correct answers prior to taping.
Sian Clifford plays Diana Ingram. Clifford earned a 2019 Emmy nomination for Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her portrayal of Claire in FLEABAG. Clifford’s fellow Briton Graham was also nominated for an Emmy, alongside fellow producers Juliet Howell, Tessa Ross, and Lynn Horsford, for Outstanding Television Movie for last year’s BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR.
It was believed that Diana Ingram and her brother signaled correct answers to James Ingram by coughing. Graham says, “I remember watching this trial, and then the documentary that followed the trial, and being spellbound, and being utterly convinced that of course they did it. It was so obvious and so audacious. ‘I can’t believe that they are in front of cameras, with microphones with lights upon them, and in front of millions of people, they’re attempting to steal a million pounds by coughing on the right answer. To me, fifteen years ago, it felt so obvious that they were guilty. But then about five years ago, a book was published, BAD SHOW by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, which raised new doubts that the story is quite what people think. There’s a lot of inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case that they coughed their way to a million pounds.
“So we present both sides, and we do the classic WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE ask the audience. We ask the audience to make up their minds about whether [the Ingrams] are innocent or guilty. But ultimately, it’s meant to be an entertaining but forensic analysis of the criminal justice system and whether they’re guilty or innocent, whether or not they were let down by one of the first big media trials of the twenty-first century, where the guilt was so laced into the popular imagination before they went on trial. I think there are a lot of problems with that.”
Graham and Clifford sit down together to discuss their work on QUIZ, which also stars Matthew Mcfadyen as Charles Ingram and Michael Sheen as WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONARE host Chris Tarrant.
ASSIGNMENT X: Can you talk about the differences between the play version of QUIZ and the miniseries version?
JAMES GRAHAM: The TV version really does exist as its own unique thing. It’s a completely different language, a different form, a different intention behind it. The play was almost like a live, interactive performance art. It got audiences up on stage, it got the audience to vote on a MILLIONAIRE keypad about whether they thought the Ingrams were guilty, and it used the liveness of theater to replicate a live trial. We turned the audience into the jury. This is an entirely separate thing. This is about story, and about heart, about people, and living moment to moment through this extraordinary event that happened to this normal family.
AX: Were you in the stage version?
SIAN CLIFFORD: I was not in the play, no. And I didn’t see it.
GRAHAM: Which I think is good.
CLIFFORD: I think it’s good, too.
AX: How much is puzzle-solving at the heart of Diana?
CLIFFORD: Oh, my God. It’s her everything. She describes it as a hobby [laughs], and believes it to be, but I think for her, it’s what creates community in her family. That’s how she connects with people, is through quizzes, and she loves it. We have loads of people that do that in the U.K. Pub quizzes are such a big thing. “Come to the pub quiz on Tuesday night.” It’s this thing that’s inherent in British culture, and it’s a huge, huge part of our lives. I guess you could say that maybe she had an unhealthy obsession, and that it led to her encouraging her husband to go onto the show. She also went onto the show, her brother went onto the show, trying to win the million. I think occasionally we attach ourselves to things, and doggedly pursue them, and hers happened to be WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. I don’t think she ever anticipated that what happened would happen.
AX: But do you think that was that a bigger part of her life than her marriage or being a parent?
CLIFFORD: I don’t think so. That was the entertainment part of her life. Her marriage was enormously important to her, and her children – she’s very protective of her children – and I think at the heart of this show is a love story between her and her husband Charles, who are still together, despite everything that they have been subject to, which we reveal in the show. I think most people have no idea what they went through as people. I think their humanity was never considered during the accusation, or the trial, or at any stage, actually, of this. So it’s really exciting to shed light on that, and their relationship, which is very, very solid, and she adores her children. But she does love a quiz [laughs].
AX: At what point did you find out about the syndicate of quiz show experts? And what actually happened if you crossed them? Would you be beaten up? Would you simply be shunned?
GRAHAM: [laughs] I don’t know. They were very selective in who they picked [to share information with]. It was not to their benefit to humor you if you weren’t very smart, so you had to go through a rigorous acceptance process. No, ultimately, the reason why I love them is, they present themselves as like the Mafia, but essentially, they just really love a good question and answer. And of course, it was very lucrative.
Actually, we have only just begun to fully understand the [experience] of Paul Smith [played in QUIZ by Mark Bonnar], the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE producer, who went on this journey with us, to uncover as we were filming this show the extent to which the syndicate penetrated the most popular game show of all time. And it went way above what he could possibly comprehend. He remains today a mix of horrified and impressed that there are these people who like a pub quiz in a quiet village in England, who managed to hijack the most popular game show in history. But we know some of the people. It was highly lucrative, they made lots of money, but it came from a place of just really loving a quiz.
AX: ITV is part of the subject matter of QUIZ and isn’t shown in an always flattering light, and yet ITV is part of making the miniseries …
GRAHAM: Yes. It’s in danger of falling into its own black hole, but QUIZ is a drama on ITV that we’re going to hopefully pitch to an audience as event television about ITV event television. ITV is a character in the show, inarguably. We question whether or not the approach that ITV took in accusing these people of cheating was the right path to take, so fair play to the network for being open to having that conversation twenty years on and reopening what I imagine they thought was a closed case.
AX: Are any of the executives who were involved in the case still at ITV?
GRAHAM: They are not. So arguably, it’s easier for their successors to [participate]. But it was very important to us that we didn’t do this for spite. We invited those executives into the conversation. They came to meet me, and the producer, they came on set. At any point, they could have expressed concern to me about they were being portrayed. But we tried to balance it out as well as we can.
AX: How did you decide that QUIZ as a series should be three episodes, as opposed more or fewer?
GRAHAM: We’re very lucky to have been allowed to find the right shape of this. Actually, when Sian first read the script, it was a single feature film. But there was a classic three-act structure, which I cling to as a screenwriter, as a playwright, which I think serves these kinds of stories well. You set up and introduce a world that, through an inciting incident, shifts and changes. Then you watch the consequences of that. Then you have the analysis of the conclusion.
It took me awhile, because the play was very neatly prosecution and then defense, it was very binary in that sense. I think the evolution of telling the story that people expect, playing that out, and seeing the consequences, and then subverting that in the third episode, it’s a really nice, satisfying shape. Also, it means we could expand on the play, because we had more screen time. There’s no point in adapting something if you’re simply going to replicate it or, worse, contract it. You want to expand it. And with the three-act, three-episode structure, we could illuminate things on screen that we couldn’t on stage.
AX: Do you have the same characters in the QUIZ miniseries as in the play?
GRAHAM: The world of ITV didn’t exist on stage, so [in the miniseries] we get to see David Liddiment [played in QUIZ by Risteard Cooper] and Claudia Rosencrantz [played by Aisling Bea] and the whole executive team who created the show and went on that journey. And with the Waterford Syndicate, you could go to their villages, and their gardens, and see them conspiring. There is an aesthetic and a language to television that means you can tell a story, particularly a heist story, in a really fun and pacey way.
AX: Does Diana Ingram look like you, or do you do anything cosmetically to resemble her, or did you just study her?
CLIFFORD: I just studied her. I think we naturally have quite a similar bone structure, actually, and even when I met them, Charles said, “You barely look like her!” But he’s actually a big fan of FLEABAG, and he said it was funny, because he said, “When I watched you on FLEABAG, you reminded me of Diana” [laughs].
GRAHAM: Quite a compliment, isn’t it?
CLIFFORD: I think so. He was really rather thrilled when he heard I’d been cast as her. But no, it was just a lot of watching over and over and over, and absorbing as much as you can of her, and then throwing it away.
AX: Matthew Mcfadyen plays your husband in QUIZ. Did you know him before this?
CLIFFORD: I’d never met him before and, I’ve been saying this all day, meet your heroes, if they’re Matthew McFadyen. It’s just the most extraordinary working experience. I was hugely overwhelmed when I found out he was playing my Charles. We both went to the same drama school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He left a little while before me, he’s a little bit older than me, but yeah, I’ve known about him and revered him and admired him from afar for a very long time. But yeah, to get to work with him is just such a joy. And he’s absolutely majestic in the show, I think.
AX: Did the two of you go for coffee or something to talk about your characters’ relationship?
CLIFFORD: No. We were put in touch by the production team, so we emailed, very sweetly [laughs]. He had like a week between SUCCESSION ending and this starting, so he went on holiday, and I was here [in Los Angeles], doing press for the Emmys, so we couldn’t meet before. But as soon as we met, we had an immediate rapport, and we were completely on the same page about these characters. He’s also the nicest man in England, if not the world, which I know James will also testify to. And so it was very easy, because we just felt exactly the same about how to honor these people, and be sensitive towards their story, and share their humanity. And so we talked at length every single day on set about what we were doing, and what we were creating, and how we felt, but nothing beforehand.
AX: How much did you talk to the real Diana and Charles Ingram, and when was it in relation to the creation of the project?
GRAHAM: I think we probably did it in the right order, in that I tried to absorb as much as I could privately, because obviously, the job that Sian and Matthew have to do is very different, and they have to be free, slightly, from the real people, so I tried to make sure that the accuracy was in the script. And I think, well, the balance about when you contact people to tell them that you’re doing something [about them] is key. It should always be before it’s announced in the press that you’re doing the show, but sometimes, if you do it too early, you don’t quite know what you need from them, or what you’re asking them. So I’d written a couple of drafts of the stage play before I got in contact with them, because I wanted to get a sense of what it was.
I was really surprised. I thought the last thing in the world that they would want is for this story to be reopened and given new coverage in the press and in the media, because they had just started to live a normal life. But they were so willing to come in and speak to me and the team making the show. I think they were more open to coming in because they knew the proposition of the work was to question whether or not the standard narrative of their guilt is correct or not. I met them and I probably spent a few hours with them over the course of the past two years. I’ve always been in contact with them on the phone and email, updating them on what’s happening, and they very generously agreed to come to set, but toward the end of the production.
CLIFFORD: Yes. We [Clifford and Mcfadyen] just met them once, very briefly. It was a wonderful experience and, yeah, we wanted to be sensitive towards them, but we also wanted to have the freedom to play them. Because there were moments in the show where we were having to play them as guilty, and I think we were both concerned that if we’d met them, that we would feel compromised. And so we staved that off right ‘til the end, which was a really good decision. And when we met them, I think it was the last day, and we were filming some really lovely scenes that they got to see. They’re a very sweet couple.
AX: Do either or both of you have any other projects that we should know about right now?
CLIFFORD: I’m very fortunate. I’ve got quite a few things coming up this year. I’ve got a little guest role in the second season of LIAR that’s coming out, I’m in two Sky shows, one called HITMEN, I’m doing a guest role. And I just wrapped on another project [the series TWO WEEKS TO LIVE] with Maisie Williams from GAME OF THRONES. We had a right old time, we were filming up until Christmas, a completely mad, dark comedy about a woman and her child who have lived off the grid for fifteen years, and the daughter’s revenge on the death of her mother is completely mad [laughs].
GRAHAM: I’m doing more theater at the moment. I’m writing a musical with Elton John. Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters is doing the lyrics, Elton’s writing the music, I’m writing the book. It’s about televangelism and its crossover with politics in the 1980s. That should maybe be towards the end of this year or the beginning of next, we’ll be getting that together on stage. I did a dramatization of the Brexit referendum [BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR] with Benedict Cumberbatch that was on HBO last year, so I’m pursuing ideas about how to tell the next chapter of that never-ending story.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about QUIZ?
CLIFFORD: They don’t know the full breadth of this story. There’s so much of it that’s contentious, and we really, really want to share.
GRAHAM: [laughs] I agree. Don’t feel like you have to know this story. The excitement, in fact, for the American audience is that this is before the time they would know the narrative. But you don’t have to feel that this is a British story. It’s a story for any country, any people, and I think the [it fills] universal desire to enjoy heist movies and cheating scandals.
CLIFFORD: And quiz shows.
GRAHAM: And quiz shows.
This interview was conducted during AMC’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with QUIZ creator James Graham and actress Sian Clifford