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James Graham's brilliantly provocative account of the ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ ‘coughing major’ drama
Here we go. For £100*, is James Graham’s new play ‘Quiz’:
A) a wryly funny piece of early noughties nostalgia that fondly looks back with some amusement at a once-massive, but now only dimly remembered episode in British cultural history. Namely, the incident of Charles ‘The Coughing Major’ Ingram, who won the popular TV quiz show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ in 2001 only to be prosecuted over evidence that his wife Diana and an accomplice were coughing to signal the correct answers to the show’s trademark multiple choice questions.
B) a more thorough and studious excavation of the above that goes to some lengths to suggest that Ingram was not guilty, but inadvertently ‘framed’ by paranoid show producers who’d convinced themselves of a scam that wasn’t there and used selectively isolated and edited mic recordings to present an inaccurate version of the sound of the room.
C) an astute comment on the legacy of reality TV and the means by which its creators have almost blithely reshaped the world into one in which essentially trivial dramas are given the same weight as global crises.
D) a piercingly brilliant dissection of the British penchant for mob-mindedness and mass hysteria.
The answer is probably all of the above, and what a kinetic, eccentric, furiously exciting show James Graham and his director Daniel Evans have crafted.
Transferring in from Chichester Festival Theatre, this is Graham’s fourth West End show since the tail end of 2016, a pretty remarkable achievement. ‘Quiz’ exhibits his traditional strength: an unerring ability to find significance in the marginalia of contemporary history. It also has his usual weaknesses – his characters are thin, if not necessarily unconvincing. But it feels like the first of his ‘mainstream’ plays to successfully harness the love of formal experimentation previously only seen in his more obscure work.
Styled like a quiz show blurred into a courtroom drama, it puts naturalism to the sword, bombarding us with a wilfully ridiculous portrayal of ‘Millionaire’ host Chris Tarrant (brilliant work from Keir Charles), offering both a hilarious brief history of British TV quiz shows and an actual quiz for the audience. (Full disclosure: your humble critic won the press night quiz).
It is an extremely fun evening. But it has a lot of smart points to make, most pointedly that the reality TV era and the fake news era are effectively the same thing, and that our hunger to see everything as a story or narrative means those stories can be tampered with. Though Graham never comes down on one side of events, in the second half of ‘Quiz’ he depicts the show’s producers painstakingly convincing themselves of a conspiracy. They comb the mic tracks to create a recording that they believe shows Ingram’s guilt. But its relationship to reality is profoundly questionable.
The prosecution of Ingram was a success, and prompted a sort of mass hysteria and trial by media that Graham suggests as having a kinship with the rush to invade Iraq and Afghanistan post-9/11 and the rise of Trump via ‘The Apprentice’ (both explicitly referenced in the show). And it’s not hard to join the dots to other major events, from the EU referendum to Facebook and beyond.
A vote is taken at the end of each half to ask us if we think Gavin Spokes’s weak, affable Ingram was innocent or guilty. The pattern on most nights – as it was on press night – is for a majority guilty verdict at the end of the first act and a majority not guilty at the end of the second. But this doesn’t necessarily feel like a vindication for Ingram, more a proving of Graham’s point on the malleability of public opinion when presented with selective facts, on something that shouldn’t really be ours to vote on in the first place. We vote how Graham manipulates us to vote.
There is a certain glibness to ‘Quiz’, a sense that it uses bells and whistles and demonic chutzpah to prod us along rather than more conventional virtues of solid characterisation or watertight plotting. But form follows function, and ‘Quiz’ is a ruthlessly efficient piece of entertainment that raises an alarm about the dangers of ruthlessly efficient pieces of entertainment. The glory days of ‘Who Wants to be A Millionaire?’ may be over, with its scheduled Jeremy Clarkson-fronted revival essentially a retro curio. But Graham suggests that we are living in a reality based upon its founding principles, and it’s not clear that we have any lifelines left.
*NB not really for £100