By strange coincidence, Quiz – Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett’s stage version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’s ‘Coughing Major’ scandal in 2001 – arrives at Cardiff’s New Theatre shortly after Netflix dropped its Beckham docuseries. Disparate on paper, aside from sharing the same time period of peak fame, both Beckham and Quiz make for interesting companion pieces: chronicling how public opinion, constructed television realities and a rabid tabloid circus can make villains out of heroes overnight, and back again.
You may be more familiar with ITV’s dramatisation of the play, which starred Michael Sheen as Millionaire’s then-host Chris Tarrant and raked in a sizeable lockdown audience in 2020. Here on stage, caricaturist Rory Bremner (Dead Ringers) resurrects his old Tarrant impression with great comic effect; Lewis Reeves (I May Destroy You, The Midwich Cuckoos) plays the mild-mannered Major Charles Ingram, Corrie’s Charley Webb his quizzing expert wife Diana, and seasoned stage and screen vet Mark Benton (Waterloo Road, Northern Lights) doubles up as Judge Rivlin and Mark Burgess, ringleader of the ‘Syndicate’ suspected of rigging the show’s admittance system to get the Ingrams – among many others – on the show.
Quiz is not a simple retelling of the events leading up to, during and around the Coughing Major scandal, in which Charles Ingram was accused of arranging a plant in the audience (Cardiff’s Tecwen Whittock) to guide him to the right answer using a system of coughs. Instead, the play uses its binary structure as a court case, with the case for the prosecution and defence presented in each half, respectively. The staging is therefore cleverly designed to move smoothly between a courtroom and television studio, recreating the trademark circular arena used on Millionaire – which, according to this version of history, aimed to deliberately evoke the feeling of a Roman senate.
In both instances, Ingram is at the centre, surrounded by his peers to either aid or condemn him while he’s questioned. It also illustrates that the two settings have more in common than those who trust our criminal justice system are comfortable admitting: purpose-built for the construction and deconstruction of truth. At the end of each half, the audience is invited to vote on Ingram’s guilt using Millionaire-style ‘Ask The Audience’ devices, the results of which are then displayed on-screen. If used too often, the gimmick could come across as just that; instead, it’s a novel way to feel fully immersed in the story.
The play also does a good job of reminding you how impactful Millionaire was – a deceptively simple format that appealed directly to the national pastime of pub quizzing and became part of a new wave of British reality TV that swept the world (the other two credited being Big Brother and Survivor). Diana Ingram and her brother, both avid home quizzers, became obsessed with the show, the latter developing ties to Burgess’ Syndicate as well as his own machine to practice for the ‘Fastest Finger First’ selection.
The siblings successfully got into the chair and took home £32,000 each, so when Charles also made it on, suspicions were raised among the production crew – especially when his rocky start seemed to evaporate overnight and his self-proclaimed thinking-out-loud performance gave the impression of someone randomly selecting answers on a sheer whim.
A cerebral and entertaining piece of the theatre, Quiz is at its least successful when drawing comparisons to the disinformation and ‘hearts and minds’ marketing spin of the Iraq war (Charles’ episode took place the day before 9/11), which feels like a jarring digression – even a trivialisation of the Major’s experiences in comparison. However, it does succeed in its core aim of highlighting how this era would lay the groundwork for the blurring of reality and fiction we find our media landscape bogged down in now. Did Charles simply play the game a little too well, or was he played by it? It might be 50/50.
Quiz: The Coughing Major Millionaire Scandal, New Theatre, Cardiff, Wed 18 Oct
On until Sat 21 Oct. Tickets: £24-£44. Info here
words HANNAH COLLINS