ITV's Quiz is perfect TV – a delicious ode to Crap Britishness

I mean it as a compliment when I say that the whole thing came with a powerful whiff not only of dog, aftershave and Marks & Spencer’s frozen food, but of Midsomer Murders, too.

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Kids, what I want to say first about Quiz is that this is how TV used to be: I mean in days of yore. Everyone, or almost everyone, used to watch the same thing, and everyone, or almost everyone, used to discuss it endlessly afterwards – a bonding experience that, between them, James Graham (the writer of Quiz) and the lockdown happily returned to us for three blissful nights on ITV this week.

Yes, the drama itself was perfection: a delicious extended essay in what we might call Crap Britishness (see also A Very English Scandal which, like Quiz, was directed by Stephen Frears). But what made it extra-special – it fell on us like an enormous yes, for all that it was populated by crummy prosthetic teeth, a selection of balsa wood TV executives and a courtroom not much bigger than the average downstairs loo – were the particular circumstances in which it was screened: closed doors and nostalgia combining to render it such a veritable balm for the soul that not even all the coughing involved could unsettle us. 

I saw Quiz in the West End when it was a play. But this was miles better. It seemed both more ambiguous – did Major Charles Ingram and his wife, Diana, really cheat their way to £1m on TV’s biggest game show? Graham never quite closed the case – and more beady in terms of character and social class. Matthew McFadyean inhabited Ingram’s unappetising multi-coloured polo shirt with such ease, a Tim-Nice-But-Dim for the ages. Sian Clifford (aka Fleabag’s sister) was brilliantly twitchy as Diana: part Lady Macbeth, part Shula Archer. And then there was Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, the one-time host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? 

How does Sheen do that thing where he looks nothing whatsoever like the person he’s meant to be playing even as he becomes their doppelgänger? It’s mostly, though not exclusively, in the voice. When he took the oath at Ingram’s trial, I laughed out loud. The perfect combination of adenoidal and self-important, he sounded like a man who was dealing with a bad dose of constipation and trouble down at his local Jaguar dealership at the same moment. 

I mean it as a compliment when I say that the whole thing came with a powerful whiff not only of dog (Ingram), aftershave (Tarrant) and Marks & Spencer’s frozen food (Diana), but of Midsomer Murders, too. The devil was in the detail. A syndicate of quiz fanatics led by a long-haired biker who went by the name of Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick). Muddled renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan in one’s commanding officer’s, erm, office. A chap called Tecwen Whitlock (Michael Jibson) – Welsh, you know – who once managed to win a doggy bed on Brain of Britain. A glitter man (this is the technical term for the guy whose job it is to make sure winning contestants are showered with tinsel) who got distracted by a pasty and the sound of the Weather Girls at the wrong moment. Quick-fire practice rounds of questions about Emmerdale. Mensa badges worn as proudly as medals.

Here was wild eccentricity, utter incompetence and, yes, total ignorance, at least when it came to the Dingles, the Tates and the Sugdens (these are Emmerdale references in case you’re wondering; I owe them all to my granny – and, yes, I do claim my £4,000). 

It was quite delightful to see an ITV drama sending up its own former executives, television not only eating itself, but taking care to cover every morsel with tomato ketchup first. After their elusive primetime hit had passed the pilot stage, we watched as ITV’s director of programmes, David Liddiment (Risteard Cooper), and the rest of his colleagues worried – sometimes in code, and sometimes in plain English – about the basic disconnect between themselves and the people they were trying to reach. Was the show too common, or too posh? Too hard, or too easy?

Once they realised it had been hacked – that the Syndicate was helping Britain’s quiz-obsessed legions, who all belonged to the same socioeconomic cohort, bag a seat in the Fastest Finger First round – it was hard to know just how sorry to feel for them. Sure, no one likes a cheat. But I have to admit to having taken a certain delight in the quizzers’ determined storming (up the trivia-loving middle classes!) of Tarrant’s neon palace. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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