What could possibly make for more compelling television than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the British game-show sensation in which contestants answered multiple-choice trivia questions in hopes of walking away with a million-dollar cash prize?
A) A high-stakes drama about the cunning couple (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen and Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) who cheated their way to victory on said game show, a fellow contestant enabling the heist by strategically timing coughs to indicate the right answer.
B) The harrowing tale of that same couple—not so much cunning as lucky and quiz-obsessive—who, after producers doubted their unlikely victory on said game show, had their lives turned inside out by a media frenzy that branded them guilty long before they saw their day in court.
C) A show in which Michael Sheen, sporting a fake tan and bleached-blond wig, pulls off a truly uncanny impression of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant, and seemingly has the time of his career doing so.
For those who think there should have been an option D, for “all of the above,” the answer is actually AMC’s Quiz, a three-part miniseries premiering May 31. Already a ratings hit in the U.K., where it aired last month as a three-night event, the Stephen Frears–directed miniseries looks at the 2001 case of Charles Ingram, better known as the “coughing major,” who was accused alongside his wife, Diana, of cheating his way to victory on an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Whether Charles and Diana Ingram were in fact guilty is the central mystery of Quiz, which writer James Graham adapted from his own stage play. But that’s far from the only question it poses, instead taking a broader approach to explore how the media’s rush to condemn this couple distorted the public’s perception of what actually occurred. Fortune spoke by phone with Macfadyen and Clifford about the series, the unique way in which Quiz tackles British tabloids, and what it was like to see Charles Ingram himself live-tweet their show.
While these interviews were conducted at separate times, they have been edited together and condensed for clarity.
We’re speaking a few days after Quiz was first broadcast in the U.K., where it was a ratings hit, drawing more than 5 million viewers across all three nights. It must be surreal to see this reception for a series that goes inside the biggest scandal to befall Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a show that was once the country’s biggest TV event.
Sian Clifford: Our ratings went up every day, which is amazing. And, yeah, [Millionaire] was huge, wasn’t it? It totally captivated the nation, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in that first episode, where we explore the creation of the show itself, that at one time a third of the country were watching it, which is insane. We obviously watch TV in a very different way now, but that was a thing where people would really sit down and watch it.
Matthew Macfadyen: It’s been lovely to have such a brilliant reception, partly because everyone’s been home, I reckon. I think a lot of people remember that show, which is still on, at a time when it was very popular. I think at its height, it was pulling in 19 million viewers a night, which is a lot. And people remember that event. Our show, Quiz, is also something the whole family can watch—and then argue about.
When you both first read the scripts for Quiz, what about them persuaded you to get involved?
Macfadyen: They’re so eccentrically English, those people, and I thought it was beautifully, thoughtfully, wittily, and sensitively written by James Graham. And it was very different from what I’d been doing at the time, so that was a boon. And also, the cast, the other actors involved, I’d either worked with them before and loved them very much, or I was a big fan, as with Sian. It was a no-brainer, really.
Clifford: I think the vilification [the Ingrams] experienced is extraordinarily disproportionate to what was actually going on. They suffered so much, and it’s so ugly what they went through. It was very easy to cultivate empathy for them right from the offing, as soon as I read the script. You don’t have to dig very deep to uncover how awful it was, what happened to them. That was what most gripped me when I first read the script, because I had no idea. You don’t consider—or at least I certainly didn’t at that time, because I was a teenager—the human cost on the other side of these stories, and the way the press doggedly pursued these narratives and wrote their own narratives regardless of the truth, how dangerous that can be.
Macfadyen: There’s a very wonderful, skillful way in which James’s scripts suggested things that are quite deep and quite meaningful without beating you over the head with them. Stephen’s put the whole thing together with a real twinkle to it, where it’s almost like a caper. But it’s also an awful lot about truth, and what happens when truth is spun and sold.
Charles and Diana Ingram are still in the public eye today, as they challenge the verdict that court ultimately handed down in 2001. I understand that they came to set, but only on the last day of filming.
Clifford: We were asked right off the bat if we wanted to meet them. We knew they had a desire to come to set, to be involved. We decided the best thing to do would be for them to come right at the end. We thought that protected us, the integrity of James’s script and the project we were trying to create, and it also protected them, because it meant we couldn’t be influenced by them. And they seemed to just enjoy being on a set, seeing the inner workings of that. Our intention was never to impersonate them, but to emulate them in some way. We had to really rely on James’s script, but he’d put that script together with such tender care, that he’d captured them brilliantly, I have to say, having met them.
Macfadyen: I was a little nervous to meet him. I was pretending to be a real person, and I don’t know how I’d feel about somebody pretending to be me. But he was charming and very polite. It was a less than five-minute chat, in between takes, but it was lovely.
Charles Ingram was actually live-tweeting the broadcast, and he praised the accuracy of the series, calling it “significantly more accurate and just than the court ever was” at one point.
Macfadyen: I’m not in Twitter world, so I’m blissfully unaware of that.
Clifford: Charles sent me a message today! They’ve been nothing but kind and generous. I can’t overstate that. It’s all been lovely. I feel very lucky that I’m part of a project that’s been so balanced and so mindful of every single person involved. I know that all parties are happy, regardless of what side they’re on, which I think is an astonishing feat. Because everyone has been so sensitive and mindful throughout this process, I didn’t at any point feel concerned or compromised. I always believed everyone’s integrity was going to be protected.
The series is structured in this fascinating manner where each episode introduces a different point of view, with its own perception of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the events that transpired. You wind up with this panoramic view of the scandal.
Macfadyen: That’s right. You have to lay out the case for the prosecution, and the case for the defense. James had originally written a play, which came into the West End a few years ago. The audience members had keypads, and they were asked to vote as to their guilt or innocence at the interim, then again at the end. And it’s a similar structure in our TV series, showing different arguments.
And without spoilers, the third and final episode of Quiz complicates this central question of the Ingrams’ guilt or innocence, which their highly publicized trial had at one point been seen as answering.
Clifford: So many people are in turmoil today because I think in their own personal spheres they’ve never questioned this story. They’re having a kind of reckoning with themselves: “What does it mean if I’ve accepted that narrative that’s been sold to me by the press as true? If I don’t believe it anymore, what does that mean?”
Sian, your portrayal of Diana is remarkable, and you bring out so many sides of her. You see her watching Charles compete on the show, helpless to weigh in as he struggles through questions and yet manages to find the right answer, seemingly out of nowhere. And as they’re bombarded by the media, you can feel Diana’s fear, how much the attention confuses and upsets her. How did you approach this role?
Clifford: I just wanted to be really sensitive to her. Honestly, I treated her with the same care I would any character. I think it’s not your job as an actor to comment on your character, ever. My job is to make them a three-dimensional person, and what was interesting about Diana is that she was never presented as that. But it was still my job to do that, so I had to create this three-dimensional person that people had never seen her as before. She was just painted as this Lady Macbeth, a calculating woman who led her husband into this mess. I knew intuitively to ignore anything that had been written about her, to try to get to the core of her. There was a Fiona Bruce documentary that was made about a year after their convictions in 2004, and I watched that probably a hundred times. I watched it over and over and over, to pick up speech patterns and physical traits, to just capture some essence or spirit of her that I could tap into.
Matthew, you’ve played some particularly unctuous, conniving characters lately, between Tom Wambsgans on Succession and Wilcock in The Assistant, but there’s still a certain charm to them that I find fascinating. It’s the inverse with Charles Ingram, where I found it so easy to cultivate sympathy for him, given all he went through, but there are glimmers of doubt about his guilt or innocence. How much do you consider the morality of the characters you play?
Macfadyen: I don’t really think about their moralities as such. I do what they do, and I think that’s all you really can do as an actor. You can’t play good or evil. You simply play actions, and do good and bad things. What’s good and what’s bad is often in the eye of the beholder. Often, people think they’re doing the right thing, but it’s the wrong thing. I don’t think Tom Wambsgans thinks he’s a bad guy. In fact, I think he thinks he’s sometimes quite heroic. [Laughs] He thinks he’s doing the best under his circumstances, with a difficult father-in-law, a frightening wife, and an idiot assistant working for him. I think he thinks he’s wonderful, sometimes.
Succession is an interesting comparison point for Quiz, because it plays out in this almost impenetrable bubble of privilege. Quiz, conversely, offers the Ingrams no insulation, no escape. They are swarmed by press, someone shoots their pet, and they’re utterly terrorized. I feel like the nature of British tabloids is difficult to explain to those who’ve never lived in the U.K., the intensity of what it can mean when they go after you.
Clifford: What, how vile it is? A lot’s changed, obviously, because we consume media in a completely different way now. But even in the show, I think it’s so hard to capture the tabloid furor around something, that frenzied pursuit of a story and of people, the harassment that goes on. I guess that equivalent is TMZ, or something, where people get doorstepped, or surprised in the street. It’s like that, but it’s 100 journalists on your front lawn. I don’t know. There isn’t really a comparison.
Macfadyen: They’re just rapacious. It’s weird, prurient, sanctimonious, invasive—it’s just horrible. They rile people up, appeal to their worst fears, and it’s all a little peculiar—as well as desperately unattractive. I’m not talking here about good journalism or accurate reporting, but more the tabloids. And they were much more powerful then than they are now, which gives you a sense of how truly revolting it must have been. Thank God they didn’t have social media to wield while harassing the Ingrams. All the red-tops—the Sun and the Daily Mirror, that lot—they really went after them. Because that narrative was a great story: A bumbling major and his Lady Macbeth wife cheated their way to a million quid. The editor must have been licking her lips.
Quiz really does get at that media mob mentality, how quickly you can vilify people while knowing nothing about them. It feels like a timely story to be telling now, with Twitter as major a force in cultural and political discourse as it is. The potential for people to be dragged over the coals, misrepresented or maligned, is so high.
Clifford: It’s a level of cruelty that I don’t think is acceptable on any level, to persecute people in that way. The second we dehumanize anyone, I think we’re in deep trouble. There’s so much gray. There’s no black and white to this story. There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of cruelty that people didn’t even consider. That’s what was so important to Matthew and I, to humanize these people.
Both of you have become better known as actors in recent years, Sian through Fleabag and Matthew through Succession. What has it been like to navigate any increased media attention you might have had to field, and did that at all inform your performances?
Macfadyen: That’s a good question. I don’t think it did inform it. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t felt an increase in media scrutiny. I’ve had to do a bit more publicity for the show, I guess, but I have amazing publicists…That helps. When my wife and I got together, there was a spike in tabloid attention, and we were followed and papped. And then it dies away. That was, like, 15 years ago. Then you do something on TV and get papped again, and then it dies away again. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who are really, properly famous, who get stalkers. I’ve known very successful actors who’ve been stalked for years. And it’s grim. And nobody knows what that feels like until it happens to them.
Clifford: That’s probably what helped me cultivate a lot of sympathy for the Ingrams. I only experienced a certain level of exposure in that way, and I’m in the entertainment industry, so there’s a level of expectation about having media involvement. But for them, I cannot imagine how terrifying and discombobulating that was for them to experience. It’s hard. I don’t think there’s anyone who’d say it’s something easy or necessarily something they enjoy.
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