How ‘Quiz,’ a Drama About Coughing, Captivated Lockdown Britain

How ‘Quiz,’ a Drama About Coughing, Captivated Lockdown Britain

How ‘Quiz,’ a Drama About Coughing, Captivated Lockdown Britain

How ‘Quiz,’ a Drama About Coughing, Captivated Lockdown Britain

LONDON — This Easter, James Graham, the playwright and screenwriter, was worried. His latest show, “Quiz,” was about to be broadcast in Britain, but the country had only recently gone into lockdown. He was concerned people might not want to watch a three-part drama on network TV, perhaps preferring to binge a Netflix series or do Zoom calls.

There was also a bigger worry, he said: “Quiz” is largely about coughing.

“I didn’t know whether people’s sensitivities would be so heightened around coughing, they’d lose their sense of humor and maybe call to ban the show,” he recalled with a laugh in a recent telephone interview.

The next day, he was accused of having cheated. Ingram’s wife, Diana, and Tecwen Whittock, a college professor, who sat among the potential other contestants when Ingram won, were said to have coughed at strategic times to give him the correct answers.

His winning appearance was pulled from broadcast. In 2003, the three were found guilty in a trial that captured global media attention (including from The New York Times). They were sentenced to suspended jail terms, but that did not signal relief. The Ingrams were coughed at in the street for years afterward.

Graham, 37, who originally wrote “Quiz” as a play, said that the idea was rooted partly in his obsession with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The game show achieved a level of drama he’d never before seen on British TV, he said, by making ordinary people play for high stakes.

“We used to have game shows where you’d win some new dinner plates,” he said, “so £1 million was huge.”

Then, a few years ago, he read a book that raised doubts about the guilt of the Ingrams and Whittock. During the trial, for instance, the jury had been shown footage of Charles Ingram’s appearance, which had been supplied and edited by the company Celador, which produced the series. The footage focused on 19 coughs, whereas there had been 192 in total, some appearing to signal wrong answers, others at random times.

The Ingrams’ case offered the chance to tell the story of a peculiarly British heist — a middle class “Ocean’s Eleven,” almost, Graham said — but it also let him delve into bigger issues like the nature of truth and trial by media.

“Ultimately, we just wanted to make an entertaining, funny, slightly escapist drama,” he said. “But I do pompously believe that embedded in this bizarre story are the origins of a climate and culture that had led to some of the things that are most dangerous about the world today.”

After their trial, the Ingrams were humiliated in Britain and Graham said he dreaded to think how they would have been treated in the social media age, he said.

It is those wider questions that seem to have attracted some of Britain’s major stars to “Quiz,” including its director, Stephen Frears. The cast includes Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”) as Charles Ingram, Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”) as Diana, and Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, the show’s host.

“It was one of those stories I thought I knew,” Clifford said in a telephone interview, “and then a few pages into the script, my mind started to explode.”

Clifford said she remembered the original case and how Diana Ingram had been “portrayed as this kind of Lady Macbeth figure” in the British tabloids. Reading the script allowed her to consider the couple as human beings for the first time — as quiz obsessives, she added.

“I definitely think it was a miscarriage of justice,” she said, “regardless of whether they did it or not, I don’t think you can prove it beyond reasonable doubt.”

In the show, the cast members play up the uncertainties around the case. In some scenes, one assumes the couple must be guilty. (There is talk of a plot involving pagers strapped to Charles’s body). But after other scenes, one feels sure that they’re innocent.

Graham said that achieving that high-stakes uncertainty had required far more takes than a show might typically film, which sometimes involved getting the cast to do “more innocent” takes, then film “more guilty” ones straight after.

“Matthew was such a good sport,” Graham said. “I think anyone else would have asked us, ‘So you want me to play like I’m both cheating and not cheating at the same time?’ then said, ‘No.’”

Sheen, a regular on celebrity episodes of British quiz shows, said in a telephone interview that the cast and crew had spent much of their time arguing over the Ingrams’ guilt. But, for his own view, a key moment came when he walked onto a re-creation of the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” set. It had been built to scale, he said, and felt like “the greatest reconstruction of a crime scene ever.”

Sheen said that he had sat in the host’s chair and it had immediately reinforced his view that the crime was unlikely.

“I’m sitting there, and I was struck by how close I was to Tecwen Whittock. He’s literally right there, in front of me, and the idea that somehow he’d been coughing to give Charles the right answers and Chris Tarrant wouldn’t notice. … ” Sheen sighed in disbelief, although he said he was still not completely sure what happened or why.

Graham’s worries about whether British people would watch “Quiz” in lockdown turned out to be misplaced. On the day the first episode was broadcast, social media in the country was filled with jokes about the coughing on the show.

Perhaps the most surprising reaction came from Charles Ingram himself, who tweeted about the show as soon as it finished, praised it to the hilt and retweeted people who said they were convinced of his innocence

In a joint email, the Ingrams, who have always maintained their innocence, said they still felt frustrated and sad about the case despite the show’s success. “The case has never settled, anywhere,” they said. “For us, it is the elephant in the room, every single day.”

People still cough at them in the street to mock them for the crime, they said. They sometimes receive worse.

“Only last week, a driver screamed abuse as he sped by, only to turn around at a roundabout and have another go,” the couple said. “A young child of about five said something abusive to Diana over a garden fence,” they added.

But “Quiz” had changed some people’s minds, they added, and that was welcome. “It has taken 20 years for the press and public to accept that another version of events is possible,” they said. They are looking at ways to appeal the original verdict.

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