“Quiz” at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester
“Do we choose a more entertaining lie over a less extraordinary truth?”
Well, this is the third new play by the prolific James Graham I’ve seen in four months. “Quiz” reimagines what may have happened behind the scenes during a now infamous moment in television history, when, in 2001, a contestant on ITV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire was accused of gaming the system to win the million pound prize. The contestant is the “Coughing Major” or Charles Ingram, a former army officer who in 2001 who successfully answered all of Chris Tarrant’s questions to win the jackpot. Suspicions were quickly raised and two years later he was found guilty of deception, a jury believing the charge that he used an accomplice to cough when an answer was correct.
In the years that have passed James Graham finds there’s something brilliantly enduring about their story. But we don’t want to give you that….yet!
First, we are free-wheeled, with a revue-like approach, to learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel. We are reminded that ITV from the outset was built around game-shows such as Take Your Pick, Bullseye and The Price is Right, where the coveted prize was a vacuum cleaner. For the latter, audience members are invited onstage as contestants, and, yes, we, that was me, my husband, and a friend, amongst others, were asked to value a 1951 vacuum cleaner. The correct answer- £39 – the prize: an ice cream voucher!
Along the way, we see the televising of parliament and the way the news media blur fiction and fact. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. We’re told the main thing people remember about you is your appearance. Your voice and body language make up 38% of your impact. What you actually say on TV only accounts for 7%.
Finally, we zoom in to focus tightly to the story of Ingram (Gavin Spokes) and his wife Diana (Stephanie Street) while also revealing the ways in which Millionaire is structured to encourage popular interest, and various techniques to circumvent its constraints on getting selected and then progressing through the stages of the show.
Nothing is as it appears. The quiz show gives the appearance of featuring common people answering fair questions but may be rigged in favour of the show’s working class demographic. The evidence against the defendants may not be as conclusive as it first appears. Major Ingram appears to be simply a lucky contestant but he has actually played the system to get in the chair and may have cheated to win. There are even audience votes on the couple’s guilt after the first act (prosecution) and second (defence); the radical difference (on opening night, anyway) between the two votes makes its own point about our susceptibility to media. (In real life all three accused were convicted but given non-custodial sentences.)
The second act: the case for the defence is a brilliant blend of court case and quiz show which asks profound questions about the way the values of light entertainment have distorted our institutions. Beneath lies the most important question of all: what is true and what is false and how do we know the difference?
Robert Jones’s design is cleverly built around a revolving, illuminated cube and most of the 12-strong cast play multiple roles. Keir Charles nails it not only as Chris Tarrant but as Des O”Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth. Gavin Spokes offers a plausible ambiguous portrait of Ingram, , while Stephanie Street is both a sympathetic and determined as his wife Diana. Sarah Woodward as an earnest defence counsel and Mark Meadows as both a very modern major-general and the Ingrams’ supposed helpmate.
In 2017, doubt still hangs over the conviction and it seems clear where Graham’s convictions lie. But, with more inter-activeness, it is the theatre audience who pass judgement. Not Guilty was the final verdict but not overwhelmingly so but a radical reduction from 90% voting Guilty before the interval. The retrospective voting displays on screen how previous audiences had voted.
Quiz is not perfect but it is compelling; a unique, slick, innovative and ambitious production that delivers in plenty of style. It is full of engaging humour and astute observations on popular culture — and absorbingly immersive.
Quiz asks more questions than it answers about how we dissect entertainment, how we distinguish fact from fiction in a dramatic setting and how to best interpret the modern version of reality.