‘Quiz’ tackles ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ scandal

  • Matthew Macfadyen, left, plays Charles Ingram who was accused of cheating in Britian’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game show. Michael Sheen plays the show’s emcee. The 10-part series, “Quiz,” revisting the event premieres on AMC Sunday. Matt Frost / AMC

  • Sian Clifford, right, plays Macfadyen’s wife in “Quiz.”

Tribune News Service
Published: 5/27/2020 5:44:23 PM

PASADENA, Calif. — It was the game show with one of the biggest payoffs of all time. When Who Wants to be a Millionaire? first dominated British television it was as popular as “Roots” had been in the United States years earlier. It reached as many as 19 million people in the tiny U.K.

Viewers were glued to their cathode rays as a series of multiple choice questions hammered one sweaty contestant at a time.

It shocked everyone when one of its surprising winners was an eccentric Army major, Charles Ingram, who stumbled through 15 mind-blowing questions to seize the coveted prize.

There was just one problem.

Backstage some of the show’s producers began to suspect that Ingram wasn’t wrestling with the questions alone. Somebody — they thought his wife or a male accomplice — was feeding him the answers through a Morse code of coughs.

AMC will resuscitate that story with its three-part drama, Quiz, premiering Sunday.

Author of the series, James Graham, says in his research, he was astonished to find that the contestants were often part of an upper-crusty “boys club.”

“I discovered a whole network of obsessed Quiz fans who tried to and successfully hacked into the show,” he said.

“It’s like the hole in the Death Star that Luke Skywalker found. And it was the most valuable asset the network had. And there were these fundamental weaknesses that meant a certain network of very well-to-do, middle-class dweebs were allowed to find vulnerabilities into it and get their people on the show,” Graham said.

Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen and his wife, Diana, portrayed by Sian Clifford, were enormous fans of the show, Graham said.

“And some of the things that we discovered in making it … has never come to light, and we’re going to be revealing in the show about quite how successful they were in penetrating Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Graham describes the Ingrams as “rural people” who loved quizzes. “They were like all of us. They would play board games as a family. They would go to the local pub quiz. And they tried really, really hard to get on a game show and allegedly they maybe tried too hard and were accused of getting on through illicit means,” he said.

Clifford, who plays Ingram’s wife, who may have been complicit in the scam, thinks the couple were ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. “That’s what’s at the heart of this story is the humanity of these people,” Clifford said. “And that’s what we were so keen to bring to light and to show that side of the story, and that’s what I love about the script.”

She and Macfadyen devoured information about the event to nail their characters, she said. “Matthew and I watched hours and hours of footage of them, as much material as we could get — just more to absorb something of them rather than do an impersonation. And I think what Matthew manages to capture, it’s exquisite because there are certain sort of physical tropes that you can pick up that tell you so much about a person and how they’re feeling. And there are little things, the little ticks that Matthew does that just because I’ve watched Charles so much, I see them in Matthew, and they’re so subtle.”

Michael Sheen portrays the uber-popular, blond-haired emcee of the show, Chris Tarrant.

“I watched the interviews with Chris Tarrant, and the more I watched the Charles Ingram episodes, the more I realized how brilliant Tarrant was,” said Sheen, who was seen most recently playing an angel in Good Omens on Amazon Prime and in Fox’s Prodigal Son.

“I mean, we sort of know he was brilliant at it, because it was such a huge success, and he was loved doing it. But to watch it really forensically and to see just what he’s doing there and how — I mean, he’s kind of running the show. He’s got all the timings. He’s like this extraordinary conductor. So I had a real, newfound respect for what he did on that show and how well he made that work just by watching it and watching it,” he explained.

No newcomer to portraying real-life personae, Sheen added, “When I played characters based on real people, I’ve never wanted to kind of get into sticking things on your face, and all that kind of stuff. I tried to do as little of that as possible because, on the one hand, it tends to draw attention to how much you DON’T look like the person if it looks like you’re making too much effort to look like them. And I just find it restrictive,” he shrugs.

“So we just went with a wig. And I had my hair bleached blonde for Good Omens for six months. I wasn’t going down THAT road again. So, we went with a wig, and the wig does all the heavy lifting, really, to be honest. It’s always the hair that does all the work. And it’s then just basic makeup.”

Whether Ingram was really cheating ultimately went to trial, but Graham isn’t reaching a verdict. “We ask the audience to make up their minds about whether they’re innocent or guilty,” he says. “But, ultimately, I think it’s meant to be an entertaining but forensic analysis of the criminal justice system.”

Animated musical tunes up

A new animated musical, Central Park, arrived Friday via Apple+. Helmed by Loren Bouchard, the daddy of Bob’s Burgers, it’s the wild story of a family who actually lives in New York’s Central Park and the wicked villain who hopes to evict them. Cartoon shows like Central Park are not new, Bouchard said.

“Animated musicals have been a huge part of our culture. Disney was doing them since the ’40s and it’s deep inside a lot of us … even the lesser ones are deeply under my skin, like Robin Hood and Jungle Book; they’re so important to me,” he said.

“They’re so far inside me that I always think about whether a medium has any power to get past people’s defenses. And I think animation does by itself, musicals do by themselves, and then animated musicals … I think you can reach inside, deep, deep, deep, sometimes on the very first go.”

Steve Carell joins the army

Steve Carell, the ineffectual boss of The Office, is back in charge. But this time he’s a four-star general assigned the difficult mission of putting ‘boots on the moon’ in a new 10-part sitcom, Space Force.

The comedy, which premiered on Netflix Friday, is the brainchild of Carell and the ever-wacky Greg Daniels (who was the genius behind transplanting Britain’s The Office into America.) Daniels was also the funny bone behind King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation and many of the wittiest Simpsons.

Carell, who left The Office with envious credentials, tells me his interest in performing goes way back to the second grade.

“We were doing a little class play about Indians and pilgrims. I grew up in the Massachusetts area, and I was an Indian, Native American, and I was paddling a canoe. And it was all mimed, sitting in chairs.

“But for some reason, I paddled on both sides of the canoe because just instinctually I knew if you paddle on one side you go in a circle. I remember this so distinctly. My teacher, Mr. Blackman, singled me out and said, ‘Did you notice that Steve paddled on both sides of the canoe?’

“And it was the first time ever I’d been singled out. And all of a sudden I thought, ‘Wow, that was fun to do that.’ And I kinda did it right and got a little star and it was kind of a big deal, my first improv. That was the first time I had any inclination that it was fun.”

Shakespeare on tap

While the groundlings are sitting at home fighting the doldrums it may be time to brush up on Willie Shakespeare. BritBox is going the make that easy. The streaming site — which specializes in everything with a British accent — is offering 37 of the Bard’s noble works featuring some of the greatest actors of our time.

How about Taming of the Shrew starring John Cleese? Or A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Helen Mirren? Or The Comedy of Errors with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry? Or King Lear with Brenda Blethyn? Or Hamlet with the honorable Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart?

Jacobi, who’s done everything from Dr. Who to The Crown tells me his secret. “I’m in the business of recreating, pretending, using my imagination,” he said. “That is most fed by observing other people’s behavior, also by travel, also by reading, also by seeing other actors act. Because I think actors are scavengers at heart. We all steal from each other. You see something and you go, ‘Oh, I like that bit! That was good. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that. Next time I get the opportunity, I’ll copy that.’ ”

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