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'There are human beings involved in this scandal in the final analysis'

ITV drama Quiz raises new questions about the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? fraud case. Gemma Dunn goes behind the scenes


Matthew Macfadyen as Major Ingram and Michael Sheen as quizmaster Chris Tarrant

Matthew Macfadyen as Major Ingram and Michael Sheen as quizmaster Chris Tarrant

Matthew Macfadyen as Major Ingram and Michael Sheen as quizmaster Chris Tarrant

Most of us can recall the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing scandal, but how much do we really know about what went on? The story as we know it charts the fallout for Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and an accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, having been accused of cheating their way to a million pounds on the hit Noughties show.

The trio, who allegedly attempted the "audacious heist" in 2001, stood trial for conspiring by coughing during the recording to signify the correct answers to the multiple-choice questions posed by host Chris Tarrant.

Nearly two decades on, the infamous case is set to be revisited in brand-new ITV drama Quiz.

Steered by renowned director Stephen Frears and written by playwright James Graham, the three-parter casts Matthew Macfadyen as Major Ingram, Michael Sheen as Tarrant, Sian Clifford as Diana, Mark Bonnar as Celador Television chairman Paul Smith, Helen McCrory as Sonia Woodley QC, Michael Jibson as Tecwen Whittock and Aisling Bea as ITV entertainment commissioner Claudia Rosencrantz.

The tale of the Coughing Major is a "very human story - and one that most people think they know", reasons Graham (37), who also tackled the sensational turn of events in his 2017 West End play Quiz.

"I certainly thought I knew it; it was a cut-and-dried case; they were obviously clearly guilty. And then a book published a couple of years ago presented evidence I hadn't seen before and it shook me from my certainties.

"A couple of years ago, one of the things that was making me most anxious in the political world was the death of truth and post-truth and how our perceptions could be skewed by social media, or tabloids. So, I enjoyed the idea of asking questions about how objective reality is under threat, but through the very unlikely story of a cheating scandal."

To offer up a balanced view, he deliberately engaged with the Ingrams, even inviting them on set.

"They met Sian and Matthew and I think - I hope - that we're at least raising the possibility that maybe all is not quite as it seems.

"They seem quite pleased that this conversation is being had. But, equally, we wanted to be fair, so we spent a lot of time with Paul Smith and the ITV people, who still very much believe that they did it (too)."

As for portraying Charles, 45-year-old Macfadyen insists he played it as truthfully as he could.

"I think that's all you can do as an actor, just play it straight down the line and then allow audiences to project whatever on to that.

"I'm still in two minds as to their guilt or innocence. I played it as it was written. But, who knows? I didn't know what to think by the end."

What is certain, he says, "is Charles Ingram is a clever man, with real achievements in life. He had a very good career in the Army and is a member of Mensa.

"It's true to say their lives were totally ruined by what happened. It was pretty hard going for them. It feels like they have suffered disproportionately. It's a game show. Nobody died."

Likewise, Clifford has her own views on the couple. "They've been so generous with their time throughout this and it was really important for me to not engage at all with what was written about them at the time," mirrors the Fleabag star (38).

"Diana was painted as this Lady Macbeth character and I don't think that's who she is. She struck me as an introvert, a nerd and someone who is actually quite shy, sweet and definitely naive.

"I wanted to get to that and protect them and be sensitive towards them, but I also wanted to protect the integrity of James' remarkable script, which is completely balanced."

Sheen (51) is, arguably, the king of the biopics, having portrayed a range of real-life figures, from Tony Blair to David Frost and Brian Clough.

Honing Tarrant was much the same, he says, having donned a bald cap and blonde wig for the part.

"I just watched him and listened to him," quips the Good Omens actor. "But it's different to ones I've done, where I'm playing the main character, because this isn't about Tarrant, it's about Charles and Diana, so there's less of a 'take'.

"In some ways, that makes it slightly harder, because all you have got is really what everyone is familiar with; it's him doing Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

"But this gave me a real respect for what a brilliant job he (Tarrant) did on it. He's not just presenting it, he's stage managing that thing, so it's not a straightforward thing to just copy what he does. It takes skill."

Of the physical transformation, he adds: "My tendency is to try and do as little as possible, not add too much, so you do what you can with your own hair, do what you can with your face.

"I shy away from prosthetics and all of that, because I feel like it draws your eye to how different you are. You want people to forget about that really quickly and just get involved in the story."

So, are the Ingrams deemed innocent or guilty? It's up to the audience, confirms Graham.

"I try to do it with most of the plays and things I do, to be as balanced as possible. It's politically and dramatically inert to answer the question that you ask.

"But beyond the innocence and guilt of the Ingrams, it's a bigger question; it's about the game we all find ourselves playing sometimes and the threat to truth and objective reality when you have all of these forces competing."

"I hope it reminds all of us that there are humans on the other side of these scandals in the final analysis, and, whatever you think of them, we've got to take care of each other," adds Clifford.

Quiz, ITV, Monday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph