‘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.