It seems incredible, looking back at a distance of 25 years, to recall just what a big deal Who Wants to Be a Millionaire felt like when it hit our screens for the first time.
Although game shows had been a staple of primetime schedules for decades, the prizes were by and large far from life-changing. Granted, they could be glamorous in some cases. The speedboat up for grabs on Bullseye, for example, which legend has it was won just the once – by a couple who lived in a council flat. In Coventry.
So you can imagine the excitement in 1998 when ITV unveiled its new format – and its stonking top prize of £1 million. Who wants to be a millionaire? We all did, even if the thrill would be enjoyed vicariously through our TV screens.
And it seemed as though everyone in the land was tuning in to watch contestants answer a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions in pursuit of that prize. At its peak the show was drawing in more than 19 million viewers, all desperate to see if someone would finally scoop the jackpot.
Quiz: The Coughing Major Millionaire Scandal – playing at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until Saturday – is a brilliantly performed revival of James Graham’s play re-telling the tale of a scandal which erupted around the show in 2001.
Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and their co-conspirator Tecwen Whittock hit the headlines after being accused of cheating their way to a cheque for £1 million. But Quiz invites the audience to reopen the case, and look upon the scam itself and the subsequent court case with fresh eyes.
The opening act begins with the story of how the show came about, overcoming initial scepticism from TV execs who doubted the format – essentially a souped-up pub quiz, with multiple choice questions and audience participation. But the simplicity of the contest, and a star turn by Chris Tarrant in the host’s chair, made it a smash hit that was soon snapped up by networks around the globe. Thankfully the working title of Cash Mountain was dropped.
At its heart, Graham’s play asks the audience a simple question: did they do it? And, if a game show resembles a trial, is a trial a game show? The set design and the direction of Daniel Evans and Seán Linnen keep the story engaging, as the narrative jumps through time from the TV studio to the crown court. Act one puts the case for the prosecution, act two the defence.
Tarrant is played to perfection by Rory Bremner, surely the pre-eminent satirical impressionist of his time, who captures perfectly the tics and mannerisms of the host to great comedic effect. Bremner’s performance is so on the money that I would defy anyone who remembers the heyday of Millionaire not to be swept away on a wave of nostalgia.
Lewis Reeves, all pastel shades and chinos, plays Charles Ingram as a somewhat buffoonish stooge caught up in the currents of conspiracy swirling around him, while Charley Webb in the role of Diana Ingram exudes an ambiguous air of a rather straight-laced quizzing obsessive who may or may not be the mastermind of an audacious primetime heist. By the interval it is hard to view the pair as anything but caught bang to rights.
The second act, however, begins to sow doubt in the audience’s mind. The play toys with themes of class and the power imbalances of the nascent age of reality TV, leaving us to ponder if the Ingrams were in fact part of a wider effort – spearheaded by the mysterious ‘Syndicate’ – to tip the scales towards the people and away from the powerbrokers with the ability to rig the game in their favour.
It all makes for a riveting night at the theatre. The pacing is perfect, the more slapstick moments add to the drama rather than detracting from it – reminding us of the inherent silliness of the coughing ruse – and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall only adds to the sense that the audience is sitting in judgement as surely as any crown court jury.
Quiz is a most entertaining play, which manages to marry moments of claustrophobic drama with tension-piercing comedic set-pieces. Choose me as your ‘phone a friend’ call, and I’ll respond instantly. The correct answer is ‘A: see it while you can’.
Quiz: The Coughing Major Millionaire Scandal is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until Saturday, November 18. Tickets range from £55 ‐ £16 and can be booked online here.
You can also book by calling 01227 787787.