Back in 1998, all of England seemed obsessed with “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”
Old people watched it; they always seem to like quiz shows. But so, surprisingly, did others.
“I was 18 years when it launched,” writer James Graham, whose delightful “Quiz” (shown here) starts Sunday on AMC, told the Television Critics Association in January.
He first saw it on a Saturday, he said. “I was a hugely geeky child. I should have been out with my friends, but I was at home with my grandparents watching.”
Sian Clifford, one of the “Quiz” stars, knows the feeling. “It was an event in our family …. We would all gather around to watch.”
Then came a news story people found more compelling: In 2001, Charles Ingram – a major in the British army – and his wife were accused of cheating to win the show’s top prize, a million pounds.
After watching the trial and the subsequent documentary, Graham recalled, he was “utterly convinced that, of course, they did it. It was so obvious and so audacious.”
But when the book “Bad Show” came out in 2015, he said, it “raised new doubts that the story is quite what people think.”
So he wrote a play and then the mini-series, walking a delicate line between guilt and innocence … and between drama and humor. The humor was boosted immensely by the mini-series director.
“Stephen Frears is a very mischievous, subversive, twinkly director,” Graham said. Making this story fun was “a challenge that he relished.”
In “Queen,” Frears had Michael Sheen play Tony Blair, the former prime minister. This time, he had Sheen play another person familiear in England, “Millionaire” hos Chris Tarrant.
“The (blonde) wig does all the heavy liftng,” in the performance, Sheen said. “It’s always the hair that does all the work.”
Clifford plays Ingram’s wife, who (with her brother) was obsessed with “Millionaire.” Both were on the show, before convincing her husband (superbly played by Matthew Macfayden), to try.
“These are rural people who just really, really liked quizzes and games,” Graham said. “They were like all of us. They would play board games as a family. They would go to the local pub quiz.”
Then “Millionaire” stirred new ideas. Some people developed schemes to selected; some found a way to use a call room for their phone-a-friend.
“They tried really, really hard to get on a game show,” Graham said. “And allegedly they maybe tried too hard.”
– “Quiz” debuts at 10:02 p.m. Sunday (May 31) on AMC, rerunning at 12:07 a.m.
– Three-part mini-series. The other parts are 9 p.m. June 7 and 14