AS a nation, we love quizzes – look how many people enjoy weekly or monthly pub contests! And the television block-buster Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (which ran from 1998 to 2014) was the biggest quiz of them all, with the biggest prize.
It was fun to watch, amusing to see if you could answer the questions before the contestant, and we all held our breath when, in 2,000, Judith Keppel faced her final, million-pound multiple-choice question.
But it was a huge amount of money and big money calls to people, it offers the chance to change your luck, change your life … and where there is big money there will also be big crime, big fraud … Greed, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins – a basic flaw in the human psyche.
So, no surprise that a vast network of fraud and under-the-wire quiz-busters grew up around Chris Tarrant’s hit show. When a well-spoken, clean-cut, but slightly bumbling army officer stumbled his way through the first four or five rounds and came back the following night to go right through, with a peculiar blend of uncertainty and sudden conviction, questions were asked. Why was there a cough from the audience before he changed his mind/made up his mind (take your choice!) and moved to his “final answer” (the right one).
Over the following months, Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana from Upavon in Wiltshire were, with a third person (Tecwen Whittock), accused of defrauding the show, had to move their children to another school because of bullying, their dog was kicked to death and their cat was shot.
It was a game show! Yes, there was a lot of money involved, but it was still just a game show. Why did the “coughing major” and his so-called co-conspirators make so many people SO angry?
The prolific and brilliant playwright James Graham dramatised the story for television (hugely acclaimed, with Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford, and Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant), and for the stage, first at Chichester and then in the West End, where it was a big hit. Now it is on a national tour, at Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 25th November, with chameleon impressionist Rory Bremner as the quiz-master.
The play is set within a court-room that morphs seamlessly into the television studio, as well as a typical Wiltshire village pub, and the action plays out from the moment before the jury is asked to withdraw and consider its verdict. We, the audience, are the jury, and also the TV show audience when the contestant takes the option of “asking the audience.”
You think you know the story, you probably disapprove of cheating – we’re British, we don’t approve of cheats! – but actually what do we know? Charles Ingram is not super-bright and well-informed like Judith Keppel. He uses up all his four safety nets. He is clearly not as clever as his wife and he seems deeply unsure of the answer to even really easy questions. Or … is he trying to entertain the audience, to prolong the tension with the question, to tease us into thinking he is more stupid than he is …
Tarrant is the ring-master but is it possible that HE is complicit in the fraud, if there even is fraud? Does he have an inkling what is going on and chooses not to challenge the contestant? The game is predicated on playing with the contestant’s confidence – do you really think that is the right answer, do you want one last chance to change your mind … wouldn’t you be happy with the £2,000 … £16,000 … £64,000 … £500,000 …
It’s clever stuff, and it is brilliantly realised in Graham’s script and directors Daniel Evans and Sean Linnen’s fast-paced staging, with set designer Robert Jones’ flexible and dazzling sets.
The action revolves around the charismatic Bremner/Tarrant, with Lewis Reeves as the amiable major and Charley Webb as his quick-witted (and sharp-tongued) wife. Leo Wringer and Danielle Henry having great fun (while being appropriately barristerial) as the prosecution and defence lawyers and Mark Benton has multiple roles offering lots of character-acting as the judge, the ITV boss who commissioned the show, another Millionaire winner and the man who pulls the strings in The Syndicate (the network of quizzers).
This is what theatre is about – dramatic, funny, occasionally shocking (there is a collective gasp at the news of what happens to the Ingrams’ children, dog and cat), engaging, believable, with plenty of tension and lots of questions …
And finally, the ultimate question: Were they (a) guilty as charged or (b) not guilty? And you, the audience, have to make up your mind!
Photographs by Johan Persson