‘Quiz’: Looking For Answers


Isolation may last a year. Global warming is killing the world. Famine and flood approach. The US president has gone mad. What can we talk about that’s more uplifting?  

How about the latest work from playwright James Graham? His TV version of ‘Quiz’ (download all three episodes now on Sky) proved much better than the earlier play version, and follows his terrific TV play meticulously taking apart the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Before that were his superlative plays about the fourth estate and parliament respectively, ‘Ink’ and ‘This House’. Who needs movies when such thoughtful, intelligent television is freely available?

‘Quiz’ is the story of the ‘Coughing Major’ scandal, which, as the superb Helen McRory points out as the major’s defending lawyer, is actually about the gaps between truth, memory and lies. The first false memory occurs in the name of the scandal itself. It wasn’t the major who coughed.

For those who missed it, the quiz show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ offered a million pounds to one person getting general knowledge answers right before a live audience, during which you could phone a friend to help. The host was a radio presenter called Chris Tarrant, here played by the chameleon-like Michael Sheen. The production company Selador made such a fortune on public phone lines calling into the show that they could afford to lose the prize money, but something they hadn’t expected evolved; human nature intervened.

With such high stakes it was perhaps inevitable that the public would start forming odd little social club-cum-societies to beat them. These societies were born of pub quizzes, populated by nerds with heads for trivia and cataloguing systems.

The major’s brother-in-law belonged to one such syndicate which worked out odds, sourced questions and stayed just within the limits of the law. When you phoned a friend you were actually calling an expert – it’s an idea I’ve used in books past. The contestants could do this because the game was fundamentally flawed – the production company had not closed its most serious loopholes, starting with one that allowed three members of the same family to go on the game.

Matthew MacFadyen inhabits his role as the kind of blue-eyed innocent who says ‘Golly!’ when surprised. As a major in the British army he finds the behaviour of the TV producers and media-blowflies around him morally incomprehensible. Quite how he this straight-arrow Middle-England military man allowed himself to get caught up in his naïve wife and hopeless brother-in-law’s scheme remains a puzzler. But that’s what Graham does. He’s not a lyrical writer, but someone who presents facts clearly and then throws in just enough theatrical pizazz to make you remember it. And the key moment here is the defence’s speech about the neurological paths to memory access.

I’m shocked to realise that the real-life tragedy unfolded against the background of 9/11, which makes this a period piece, beautifully directed by Stephen Frears. There can be no perfect final answer to ‘Quiz’ that assigns full culpability, but the questions it raises place much of the blame on media greed – and the fallibility of decent people.


16 comments on “‘Quiz’: Looking For Answers”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    ‘These societies were born of pub quizzes, populated by nerds with heads for trivia and cataloguing systems’.

    I take exception; I ran a very successful Sunday night pub quiz for 14 years until the pub was taken over by a witless management team. In January this year I started a new quiz at another pub which brought in 50 people a week – not bad for a Tuesday in winter. Of course that’s all stopped now.

    My Sunday quiz was attended by teachers and lecturers who attempted to show off their knowledge, students (8 in a team, drinking halves and jumping at the free food, never got in the top 8) and a lot of groups of women; mothers and wives who got together for a drink and a good chat because they knew that the pub would not be full of tanked-up Romeo’s bothering them.

    As for lecturers – I once did a specialist round on China, a team member came up and chose it (which meant he could get double points), he said ‘I’m the Head of Chinese Studies at the university’. He got no questions right and never came back.

    Pub quizzes are a strange beast but they are loved by many; a way to get families and friends together to drink and socialise without loud music and drunkenness. A part of the glue that holds communities together. An opportunity to display wit, knowledge and erudition.

    A bit like this blog really.

  2. Bernard says:

    “the chameleon-like Michael Sheen” — just perfect!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I did like Peter Dixon’s description of his pub quiz experience. A person can organize such an event but is completely at the mercy of the people who show up. We treat some of our coffee shops the way “you” do your pubs and I wonder why we haven’t got into quizzes. Possibly because we don’t have enough general knowledge?

  4. Jan says:

    He is clever that Michael Sheen I like him. BUT could someone please explain to me (the Queen of the Thick People) whether he’s acting or impersonating people? And also what the essentially differences are between the two.

    Lots of Mr. Sheen’s roles seem to feature him engaging in impersonations of famous folk. Like Tony Blair in “The Queen”. He really caught something of the younger Mr Blair that Bambi like caught in the headlights look he used to have. Even when Sheen did that speech that T.B made at the death of Princess Diana he caught that element of acting itself that was there inside Blair that day. A touch of his internal theatricality. Clever thing to pull off.

    I never saw Frost Nixon (A bit intellectual for me ) and I know Michael Sheen has played other similar roles but can’t remember them.

    Chris Tarrant said himself during publicity for “Quiz” that Mr Sheen caught something in the way he talked, the way in which took a breath during sentences that he wasn’t aware of himself till Sheen shone it back at him. (Like furniture polish) Interesting that I thought. So is he impersonating or acting?

    Oh and I finally wrote to you Chris. Not been time really. Such a rubbish letter I wrote …… like I was writing home from somewhere. I have decided that I can’t write by hand now and need to be pressing buttons! I wonder if that’s actually a thing that the way you write and what tech you use actually CHANGES what and how you write? I am thinking a bit this morning, never good for me. Hope u r well and all ok. Jan x

  5. admin says:

    I think actors like Mr Sheen, John Sessions and others may specialise in mimicry but it’s another acting tool. True chameleons like Alec Guinness (and sometimes Gary Oldman) were subsumed in their roles to the point where they became invisible. Female actors don’t seem to specialise in this as much.

  6. John Howard says:

    Not sure what others think but I would say that impersonation is more a caricature of the person whereas what Michael Sheen is doing is acting. Yea as admin says, mimicry. Much more subtle.

  7. Is there a law against coughing? Coughing with intent to win money?

  8. Liz Thompson says:

    Peter, probably not. But make sure you don’t cough your last in the process.

  9. Kevin Woolard says:

    I went to school with the guy who played Paul Smith. He’s a good guy and also terrific in BBC Scotland’s “Guilt” – worth checking out.

  10. John Griffin says:

    Pub quizzes are also events that bring out the grossest cheating, not just the phone under the table but in my local the deputy manageress conniving with two mates so they won most weeks (£50 voucher for food and drink).

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    I remember this at the time, the couple didn’t appear to be very sympathetic. There is an implicit contract which they broke, cheating this way really is fraud.

    Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren spring to mind.

    Acting is pretending anyway, you can impersonate and act at the same time or separately. To mind they are different things. When an impersonator tries to give the character they are doing emotion, many times it’s not believable even though the mannerisms and voice are right.


  12. Ian Luck says:

    Not long after our mum died, my brother and I went to our local to have a couple of pints and a meal. When we got in, we saw that it was quiz night, so we thought it might be a laugh, and bought a quiz sheet. Near us was a large team, of ‘trainspotter’ types, all of whom had mobiles out. Ours were off in the middle of the table – we were eating, simple as that. When it came to the end of the quiz, and the marking, we were tied with the big team. They didn’t take kindly to that, and started mumbling stuff like ‘Cheats’, etc. The MC that night, was the local vicar, who would wander round the room, and he said, quite loudly, that our phones were in the same place every time he walked past – unlike some people. A tie breaker was asked, and it was: ‘Who wrote the novel ‘The Riddle Of The Sands’?’ The big team put their heads together, and came up with, if I remember correctly, ‘H.G. Wells’. I answered: ‘Erskine Childers.’ That’s the right answer, which started a huge amount of unhappy noise from the big team, who were cordially invited to leave by the landlord. My brother and me got a free dinner, and some cash left over. A good evening. We bought the Vicar a pint. Rude not to. There’s no point doing a quiz if you are going to cheat. A load of us used to do pub quizzes years ago, and found one team had a mate who didn’t sit with them, but texted them the answers. He shot himself in the foot, as he always went to the gents for the first question. A quick word with the pub manager stopped this. Another team of older people, had a non-player, who sat with them, who had a big notebook full of hundreds of questions and answers from past quizzes. He’d suggest things to the other players. We saw him week after week, and one day, he left it on the bar – as I was getting a round in, and I handed it in to the barman, telling him what it was. He showed the manager, and the next week, that team did not appear. The manager had had a stern word when he returned the book, and it wasn’t just the one pub these people were cheating in. The prize money for this quiz on a slow night, would be £75+. Our team won several times, by using the stuff between our ears, nothing more. If we didn’t win, no matter – it just meant we had to pay for dinner.

  13. Liz Thompson says:

    Years ago, I was on a week’s residential training course in a village near Scarborough. The local pub had a quiz night every week. Apparently, the teams from the residential courses had been winning regularly. So they introduced a “local” question, for example, “Who is Chairman of the Parish Council?” Abrupt end to the incomers winning every week! Triumph for the locals.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    But Liz is there a reason the incomers shouldn’t win? Other than that they take the money out of the community. I admit that it would be more fun if it was locals winning, though.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    I think that it might be fun: to borrow from ‘The League Of Gentlemen’, the organisation of
    ‘A Local Quiz For Local People.’
    1) How long did Big Les borrow Gerry’s Rotavator for, in 1996?
    2) How many kittens did Jean from the Co-Op’s cat have, last week?
    3) Old Ted, from the Vicarage, owns a yacht. What is it called? (the second word is a bit rude)
    4) What did Sheila from the chemist’s Eric do in the war? (anyone writing ‘Nazi war atrocities’ will be disqualified)
    5) Glenn, from the Old Forge, has something interesting in his shed. What is it?

    That sort of thing.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    The answers:
    1) He still has it, and took it with him when he emigrated to New Zealand, in 2004, the thieving bastard:
    2) Four. All of which she named ‘Brian’.
    3) Old Ted’s yacht is named: ‘The Farting Parson’.
    4) He hid in a wardrobe in Bootle for the duration.
    5) A tiny nuclear reactor which powers a matter transporter, which is why tons of slightly radioactive rubbish, crossed with various pond life, has appeared on the big layby on the Thrott bypass.

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