Quiz may have been the closest to a live theatre experience we can hope for right now

Will Longman
Will Longman

As theatre fans, there's always a buzz around the major broadcast of a stage-to-screen adaptation. Not only does it create a version of a play or musical you once adored on stage which can be experienced time and time again, but there's a great joy in drawing comparisons between what you experienced in the theatre, and how it's being presented on screen.

Of course, it's a matter of subjectivity as to whether a TV production gets this right or not. But it's objective to say If James Graham is attached to the show, it can capture the nation.

That's partly due to the nature of the subjects his films have covered in the past. Coalition and Brexit: The Uncivil War tackled two political events that were in the news at the time, and so clearly had a wide appeal, promising to add a human edge to the news cycles.

But while Quiz, Graham's latest TV drama and the first adapted from one of his plays, was based on a news event, this was one that played out two decades ago, and we all know how it ended.

Or did we?

Charles Ingram quickly became known as The Coughing Major after being embroiled in a cheating scandal on the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? The public saw the episode play out in September 2001, then they saw the court case as it was splashed across the front pages, and then a documentary delving into the events pulled 17 million viewers, all pointing firmly to his guilt.

But the power of the play, which premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 before a West End run in 2018, was its ability to shine a light on a whole new, almost untold perspective of the story, and prove we may have only been sold half the story.

As we saw in the TV series, the play was framed as a courtroom drama, presenting the facts, the case for the prosecution and the defence. But the production connected its audience to the play, with Ask the Audience-style keypads on every seat,  allowing patrons not only to interact in the quiz on stage, but they were asked at the interval - after the case for the prosecution had been presented - whether they perceived Ingram as guilty of innocent.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Graham said: "The audience always said at the beginning that they thought they were guilty. But then by the end of the play, every single night, they converted to innocent."

What was hardly highlighted in the press, and certainly not in the documentary which was created by the show's original producers Celador, were the failings and inconsistencies in the case for the prosecution. Ingram later described the prosecution as trying to cram the pieces into an ill-fitting jigsaw. None the less, he was found guilty, along with wife Diana and accomplice Tecwen Whittock.

On-screen over the past three evenings, audiences have experienced this same phenomenon at home. Aided by a stunning performance by Helen McCrory as Ingram's defence lawyer, audiences began to think again about what they thought was true. And instead of keypads to express their opinions, they had Twitter at their fingertips.

It's sparked debate about a case many thought was closed and forgotten. But it could have a resurgence, as Quiz ended with a statement that the family is still looking to lodge an appeal. If that happens, it's safe to say Graham's drama will have changed the complexion of the case, the interest there would be in it, and in showing a different side to their life, what we think about the Ingrams.

In the TV show, we witness the bullying and torment the family endured as a result of his appearance on the game show, including being spat on in public, and the shooting of a family pet. This creates empathy with the family, and the new perspective has been a hit. So much so, that the tabloids who were so quick to point the finger 20 years ago have published hundreds of articles in the last few days to cash in on the interest this series has created. 

While we're starved of theatre, you could draw a parallel between this online dialogue between the airings of the show has replaced that chat in the bar during the interval. It's not unique to Quiz, of course not. The latest Netflix hit Tiger King has captured imaginations across the globe, creating memes upon memes. 

But the difference here is in the event. When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was commissioned, producers were shocked when ITV decided to air it on seven consecutive nights, creating a sense of spectacle homes across the country could enjoy. One big pub quiz, every night of the year. It's no coincidence that Quiz was screened in three parts on three consecutive nights. To split it over three weeks might have caused it to lose momentum, but on the contrary, it got the country talking as every detail of the night before remained etched in their mind. 

And just when you thought you might have finally made up your mind one way or the other, the series ended with Ingram staring down the barrel, as if to ask: 'Is that your final answer?' To be honest, since I first saw the play two years ago, I've been asking myself the same questions ever since. 

Originally published on

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