In 2003, Major Charles Ingram of the British Army became a contestant on the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? at the urging of his wife and brother-in-law, Adrian Pollack, both of whom had previously appeared on the show. Over two days of taping, Ingram marched his way through every question thrown at him, eventually answering the final question, worth one million pounds — but before he could cash his check, all hell broke loose. Quiz, the new British miniseries coming to AMC, is a gripping recreation/imagining of the events leading up to and following Ingram’s moment in the sun.
Quiz opens with Charles and his wife, Diana (yes, they were really named Charles & Diana) wading through a throng of reporters as they make their way into court to face charges that, along with fellow Millionaire contestant Tecwen Whittock, they conspired to cheat their way to the biggest prize in game show history. It seems that during the course of taping the show, some of the production crew found the manner in which Ingram approached the questions highly suspicious, along with the timing of a number of coughs coming from the audience, where Whittlock was seated.
Micahel Sheen — a man who’s been giving great performances in TV and film for years now — plays Millionaire host Chris Tarrant, a man puzzled by Ingram’s peculiar process and remarkable luck. Sheen’s Tarrant is joyfully incredulous as he watches Ingram nearly flame out, only to come roaring back. Really, Tarrant serves as a stand-in for the viewer at home, constantly remarking on Ingram’s curious behavior and otherworldly luck, both of which are literally unbelievable.
But it’s Matthew Macfadyen, so good as the scheming social climber and all-around d-bag Tom Wambsgans on Succession, who gives the star turn as Charles Ingram. Macfadyen has a gift for expressing one emotion on his face, while revealing his innermost feelings with just a flicker of his eyes. This conveys an air of duplicity that keeps you guessing about what he’s really up to, and even as he somehow maintains a veneer of innocence.
Early on, before he’s ever made it on the show, we see Ingram meeting with his new boss, who, it turns out, shares a fondness for Gilbert & Sullivan. Soon, Ingram is forced into a sing-a-long that he manages to smile his way through, while simultaneously expressing a uniquely British sense of mortification; the whole moment is hilariously pitch perfect.
The rest of the cast is littered with stars from the best British TV shows of recent vintage. Sian Clifford (so good as Claire, the relentlessly aggrieved sister on Fleabag) co-stars as Diana Ingram, Charles’ pub quiz-obsessed wife, who encourages him to go on the show and then drills him endlessly on factoids.
Helen McCrory, amazing as Polly on Peaky Blinders — in a just world, she’d be as well-known as her husband Damian Lewis — plays Charles and Diana’s defense attorney. And then there’s Mark Bonnar (Chris, the grouchy chain-vaping Chris on Catastrophe) as Millionaire producer Paul Smith, a man almost as disgusted with the glaring weaknesses in his show’s competitive integrity as he is with the people who exploited them.
Directed by the great Stephen Frears (Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen) with a screenplay by James Graham, who adapted in from his own 2017 play of the same name, Quiz moves at a brisk pace, with a brilliant cast that keeps you engaged as the plot hums alongs. Part of what makes Graham’s script work so well is that he makes Diana and her brother Adrain look guilty as sin, while leaving Charles just enough wiggle room that you might entertain the idea he’s the true innocent (which is, of course, impossible).
Frears last year directed State of the Union starring Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike, a fantastic series of ten 10-minute episodes about a couple meeting in a pub for a drink before going together to therapy. The format appears to have trained Frears to approach his narratives with a more stripped down and economical eye, and it pays off handsomely in Quiz, where there is nary a wasted moment.
Watch the premiere of AMC’s new 3-part limited series Quiz on Sunday, May 31st at 10pm ET