Why ITV's new drama Quiz is about so much more than the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? 'coughing Major' scandal

The three-part drama delves into the 2001 Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal and its subsequent trial, but it may have you questioning the story you first accepted as truth...

By Sophia Moir Published: 14 April 2020 - 9.27am

Hit Play above to watch Sian Clifford and Michael Jibson from Quiz talk the making of the show exclusively with BT TV

Think you know the story of the infamous ‘coughing Major’ on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

A new ITV drama called Quiz is set to shed new light on the quiz show scandal of 2001, in which former British army major Charles Ingram was caught cheating his way to winning the top prize of £1 million. Or was he?

The three-part series is about so much more than what happened on the show, and raises issues around press harassment and unfair trials-by-media that are still relevant today. 

It also shows a different side to the Ingrams that you may not be so familiar with - leaving you with questions about the story you thought you knew all about.

Ahead of the launch of Quiz on ITV, we reveal why it’s a must-watch for the Easter weekend.

1. It will make you feel nostalgic for the original

Because Quiz airs on ITV, the channel that launched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? back in 1998, you'll recognise all the same branding, music and on-screen graphics from the original quiz show.

From the moment you hear the iconic theme tune for the first time in Quiz, you’ll be transported back to an age when this big-money quiz show gripped the nation.

Keep your eyes peeled for the scenes where the show is beginning to hit its peak and was on TV every night of the week. One scene, in which a contestant was virtually in tears talking to her dad as her phone-a-friend, is a real archive clip from the original show that Quiz creator James Graham couldn’t resist including in the drama. 

One of the reasons the show will make you feel so nostalgic is because the set that’s used for Quiz is an exact replica of the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio from the late 1990s.

Quiz set ITV

Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Major Charles Ingram, says that filming in the replica set helped him get into Charles's mindset and made him aware of the pressure Ingram must have felt sitting opposite host Chris Tarrant.

“Walking on to that set for the first time was fantastic," he said.

“No acting was required because you are there under the lights feeling all of that fear real contestants would have felt as they tried to get into the chair.

“Sitting in the chair itself was great, although it wasn’t very comfortable. It was so weird sitting opposite Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in that studio.”

Sheen himself was amazed that they recreated the whole set. “I assumed they would just build bits of the set, like you do on films. Little aspects of it," the Welsh actor admitted.

“But no. They built an absolute replica of the classic set from the 1990s. As you walked into the studio it was like walking into the studio to film that show. That does a huge amount of work for you.”

Just be warned, you will have the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? theme tune in your head for a long time after watching Quiz...

2. It raises issues that are more timely than ever

The show is set some 20 years ago, but some of the issues that it raises - namely press harassment and trial by the media - are just as timely and topical now as they were then.

Quiz writer James Graham has said himself that he ‘never doubted for a second’ that the Ingrams were guilty of cheating on the show - based on how it was all reported in the media at the time.

But how accurate were those press and newspaper reports that millions of people across the country were reading, and how fair was the subsequent court trial?

Ingrams at court Getty
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James explains: “It’s the idea that we think, assume and hope that our trial begins the minute we sit down in the dock. But, of course, that’s not the case in Britain and across the west because the media plays such an intrusive and prevalent part from the moment the story begins to get traction. 

“It’s very hard to argue with any conviction that the criminal justice system is completely immune from the influence of institutions like the press and media.”

There was such a public and media frenzy around the excitement of the Ingrams’ trial that the members of the jury may well have had opinions on them before they stepped into the dock - based on what they’d heard and read.

Sian Clifford, who plays Diana Ingram, says the Ingrams must have felt terrified by the whole ordeal.

“I can only imagine what it’s like having your lives thrown into the press like that, the negative psychological impact and how damaging and frightening it would have been... Maybe one day we will stop harassing people for our own entertainment.”

Sian Clifford Matthew Macfayden ITV

At the launch of Quiz in February 2020, Sian - who many fans will recognise as Claire in Fleabag - alluded to the similarities between the press hounding that the Ingrams’ received to the tragic events of "the last few weeks". 

Just days before TV presenter Caroline Flack had committed suicide. There had long been a public fascination with Flack, but after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, the public and the press became obsessed with every minute detail of her trial.

Similarly, the launch of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coincided with the invention of reality shows and the launch of the 24-hour news cycle, all of which combined to make the Ingram's trial a media event in its own right, or as Quiz writer James Graham calls it: “The proper blending of justice with entertainment and politics with celebrity”.

“Those kinds of things all emerged around the time of this ‘coughing Major’ trial which was therefore one of the first symptoms of the post-truth age in terms of how quickly this story gathered pace and ran away with itself," he added. 

“The obsession by the media in whipping up a mob outrage in the public. And the potential for that story to be manipulated.” 

A description that could equally be applied to the tragedy of Caroline Flack. 

3. You’ll see a different, private side to the Ingrams

You may well remember the scandal playing out two decades ago, but how much do you know about the Ingrams beyond their media caricatures?

Quiz invites you into the world of Charles and Diana Ingram, into their family life and their private moments. On top of scenes where they’re filming Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, we see them with their children, walking their dogs and being a normal couple at home.

Matthew Macfadyen (who plays Charles Ingram) says the opportunity to explore the Ingrams’ relationship attracted him to the project.

“I found it quite affecting as a love story. It’s about Charles and Diana Ingram and their relationship. Sian and I found that very touching. They have stuck together all of the way through this experience," he said.

Sian Clifford Matthew Macfayden and the Ingrams composite ITV / Getty

Sian Clifford, who plays Charles’ wife Diana, agrees.

“It was very moving to film some of the scenes of them together. I think there is a deep love and respect between them," she explained.

"We were very careful to be sensitive towards them and their story because up until this point no-one had portrayed their side of things. 

“Matthew and I talked about their love story very early on. The fact that they have stuck together throughout this entire experience. We really wanted to honour that relationship. We felt they were such a solid unit.”

Seeing this different side to the Ingrams may well make you question the story you thought you knew - and the people supposedly behind the million-pound heist.

“People may think they know this story but there is so much more to be discovered in this drama. I think the audience will find it both very interesting and surprising," said Macfadyen.

In fact, many of the lead cast involved in making Quiz are no longer convinced the Ingrams are definitely guilty - or not guilty. This is despite them going along with the narrative that the media portrayed after the Ingrams’ trial, that they did cheat and they were guilty.

Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant ITV

Michael Sheen says his opinion of their guilt has changed over time. He says: “By the end of filming, I certainly didn’t feel as sure they were guilty as I had in the time between when it happened and then coming to work on this. 

“I don’t really feel qualified to say either way. But it certainly made me question stuff and be open to the possibility that the truth is still to be discovered.”

Macfadyen and Clifford, who play the Ingrams, are equally undecided.

“I’m still in two minds as to the guilt or innocence of Charles and Diana Ingram. I haven’t come to a conclusion about whether they are guilty or not. I don’t know how you can. I played it as it was written. Who knows? I didn’t know what to think by the end," Macfadyen admitted.

Clifford says the show raises a bigger question about whether the Ingrams should have a criminal conviction, and whether they deserved to have their lives torn apart by the trial.

“Whether you believe they are guilty or innocent, the consequences they subsequently faced and what happened to them do appear disproportionate," she said.

Ultimately, the show leaves it up to you to decide whether you think the Ingrams cheated or not. 

So when you've seen all the evidence, what verdict will you deliver - guilty, or not guilty?

Watch the Quiz trailer

Quiz continues tonight at 9pm on ITV.

Catch up on Quiz with the ITV Hub app on BT TV.