Quiz writer James Graham on the Ingrams' guilt or innocence: 'I kind of stopped caring'
The three-part AMC miniseries tackles the true story of an English couple accused of cheating their way to the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
So, did they do it?
If you just finished AMC's Quiz, that's probably the question you're sitting with right now. The miniseries stars Fleabag's Sian Clifford and Succession's Matthew MacFadyen as Diana and Charles Ingram, a real-life couple who were accused of cheating their way to the top prize on the U.K. version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? back in 2001.
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins), Quiz was adapted by James Graham from his West End play of the same name. Over three episodes, the audience is split 50/50 on the Ingrams' guilt. Could they really have been guided to the correct answers by a coughing crowd member? The show's host, British TV icon Chris Tarrant (played uncannily well by Michael Sheen), wasn't convinced of their guilt, so what hope do we, the TV audience, have of figuring it out? Then again, perhaps whether or not they cheated isn't really what's interesting here...
With that in mind, we spoke to Graham about adapting his play into a three-part miniseries, the challenges that presented, and his take on the guilty verdict.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about this story that originally made you want to turn it into a play, and now a TV show?
JAMES GRAHAM: I loved the story when it first became news here 15, 20 years ago. I thought I knew it. I thought I'd figured it out — it was so well covered, and their guilt seemed so certain. I put it to bed thinking that was it. Years later, in 2016, I was handed a book by a theater producer called Bad Show, by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett. That had reopened the case for many people, in terms of bringing all this new information to light about all the inconsistencies. That brought the story to life. I found all that really exciting. It's exciting to take a story that — certainly here in the U.K. — people had already made their minds up about, and then to get to bring it to a new audience in the U.S., who I'm guessing have never heard of these events.
Was it difficult to adapt it for screen, or was it just exciting to get to expand it in certain ways?
I've got to be honest, sometimes I find it really, really hard to adapt my writing to a different form, but for some reason this was just an absolute joy from start to finish. I think it's because TV is a narrative medium — that's its strength. The story — beat by beat, plot by plot — in this real-life tale has such momentum to it that I just really enjoyed writing it. The strength of television is that it can take you, the audience, into different worlds and it feels really enchanting. I was really excited to be able to, in particular, expand upon some characters who didn't get stage time in the play, and that's this group called the Syndicates. They're a completely real organization. I find them sort of strangely endearing. Their biggest crime, if there is a crime, is that they just really liked the show too much. They were just big fans of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? For me, the exciting thing about the television adaptation was to be able to visit that world, to go to those quaint English villages and the pub gardens and see these characters in their cardigans just loving the show and being part of this middle-class heist.
Did you learn anything new about the story or the case in the making of the series?
We learned loads between the play and shooting the television drama. It became really meta, strangely. The creator, Paul Smith [played by Mark Bonnar], called me. I've got to hand it to him, he was very helpful in the show, which he didn't have to be because it's opening up a question that he considers to be completely closed. He believes they're guilty and there's no reason to delve back into the story, but he was so generous and willing to play along. In fact, he wanted to meet members of the Syndicate, 20 years later. As we were developing this TV drama, his intrigue was reawakened by the story. We'd met people from the Syndicate because they'd come to see the show in the West End, so we were able to connect to them. The real-life Paul discovered all of these amazing new facts about this organization that was attacking his show for a decade. So the scene in the third episode when we really shift the timeline on, that actually only happened last year as we were going into production. He discovered that this organization had got hundreds of people into the chair in the U.K. and had probably taken — as we reveal for the first time in this television drama — at least 10 percent of all the prize money given away by way of the show. He learned that before we started shooting and we thought, "My God, we have to put this in a scene in the show."
Wow, that's so cool but also must've been such a weird experience for him since they truly loved his show but were also undermining it.
Exactly. I think he's conflicted here. It's a testament to how captivating people found that game show for whatever reason, and credit both to Paul and Paddy Spooner — who was the head of the Syndicate — they had a really therapeutic and cathartic reconciliation. I always thought of it like that scene in Heat where Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino meet and give each other mutual respectful for all they achieved.
Were there any new moments or scenes that were challenging to figure out logistically?
The hardest thing, which I didn't have to deal with in the stage show because stage theaters are a less literal medium and you can be slightly more playful, was in the third episode when we finally get to be with the Ingrams on their own, in their house, after they've been accused of the crime. I remember just pausing over my keyboard and realizing, I don't know what to do because they're on their own now, and surely if they cheated they'd say they cheated, and if they didn't cheat they would say that as well. It's about suspending the possibility that both of those things are true for the audience. That took a long time to write, and I leaned into the idea that even if they were guilty, they could still feel outraged by the level of punishment, by the scrutiny, by the media, and the fact that they didn't really think it was cheating.
Yeah, seriously. Can you imagine what would happen today with social media the way it is?
Yeah, yeah. I hope that the drama is, to some extent, kind of a foreshadowing of all of the existential threats and the truth that we're facing today in terms of misinformation and how real-life offenses are perceived and framed by different platforms.
We have to talk about Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant. He's so convincing. Were you excited we he took the role and then when you got to see him in action?
He's one Britain's greatest actors, so you have a certain amount of trust that he can do it. But it was all trust because he was filming in New York in the lead-up to his first day, so we'd never actually seen him do it. He'd spoken to Stephen Frears, the director, about whether it was an impression or just capturing the essence of him. We were very confident, but the first scene we filmed with him was when he's appearing in court to testify and it was like life imitating art. That whole scene is about the court being slightly charmed and excited that this famous person is coming to visit today. Everyone was swooning over Chris Tarrant, and the exact same thing happened when Michael Sheen walked into the room. He had that star quality, and then he opened his mouth and I'm thinking, "Oh, we're going to be fine."
There's so much humor inherent in this story, in the ridiculousness of being able to cough your way to £1 million, but it's also very serious in that the Ingrams are treated so harshly by the press and public. Was it difficult to strike that balance and not fall into mocking them?
We thought a lot about it in the script and kept dialing up and dialing down the humor because it is a naturally absurd story: It's crime committed by coughing. It is also a very painful human story for this particular family. Frankly, I think most audience members will probably come away thinking — even if they believe that they are guilty — that the proportionality of their punishment and what they suffered was not completely balanced. As we see Sian's character, Diana, say, they just liked a thing too much for a bit, and that's the biggest crime they commit. I really just trusted the actors to find that balance between pathos and farce and knew that Stephen Frears — who has chartered and chronicled so many important political moments but always with a twinkle in his eye — would get that tone right.
I imagine you won't want to comment on whether you think they're guilty or not, but did your mind change over the course of writing the play and then the TV series?
Yeah, you won't be surprised to know that I never say what I think, but I'm happy to admit that absolutely my mind goes back and forth. In a way, when writing the script, what was helpful was having asked that question for over 15 years, I've actually just stopped asking it because I realized that that wasn't really what interested me. It was the different points of view and then what it felt like to be on both sides of this argument, whether you're the producers or whether you're the Ingrams. In a way, and I mean this respectfully to everyone involved, I kind of stopped caring because it's just about telling the story.