Meet the TV writer reconsidering modern Britain’s ‘beautifully ludicrous’ history
James Graham vividly recalls sitting down with his college housemates to watch “Millionaire: A Major Fraud,” a 2003 documentary about a tabloid scandal that had captivated all of the United Kingdom. In the special, provocateur Martin Bashir built the case against Charles and Diana Ingram, a seemingly mild-mannered, middle-class married couple then facing criminal charges for allegedly cheating their way to a £1-million jackpot on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” using a system of coded coughs.
More than half of the TV audience in the U.K. that night watched the documentary. Most of them — including Graham — left with the impression that the Ingrams were not just guilty, but brazen idiots.
“I just couldn’t believe how obvious it was and how audacious their crime was and how stupid they were for thinking they could get away it,” said the writer during a trip stateside earlier this year.
Nearly two decades later, he is taking a second look at the supposedly open-and-shut case in “Quiz,” a three-part limited series premiering Sunday on AMC (and available to stream in its entirety via AMC Premiere). Directed by Stephen Frears, “Quiz” not only questions the Ingrams’ guilt, but implicates the media for its distortions of reality and suggests the narrative crafted in the courtroom was as manipulative as an episode of “Millionaire.”
“The point is to take any story that everyone is so certain about and go, ‘Maybe those certainties are misplaced’ in an attempt to to ask questions about the nature of truth and what can be believed anymore, especially in this day and age in my country and your country.”
HBO’s “McMillions” and AMC’s “Quiz” show why we can’t get enough of the grift — while introducing a new type of character into the trend.
Starring Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen as the Ingrams, the series is set during the dawn of reality television and the run-up to Iraq war — a period when, as Graham put it, there was “a wider blurring of the lines of what had previously been quite rigorous ideas around truth and the news.
“I think it is not an accident that all these things aligned at the same time,” he added.
Adapted from his stage play of the same name, “Quiz” is the latest fact-based drama from Graham who, at 37, has distinguished himself as one of his generation’s most astute observers of British culture and politics by revisiting familiar events from the recent past from an unexpected angle.
He had his breakthrough in 2012 with “This House,” an Olivier Award-winning play set in the House of Commons during the 1970s, a turbulent period of trench warfare between the Conservative and Labour parties. He wrote last year’s HBO film “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” which chronicled the successful Vote Leave campaign, and “Ink,” a Tony-nominated play depicting Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Sun newspaper in 1969.
“I really enjoy finding these cultural moments, whether it’s a referendum or a game show cheating trial, which in and of themselves don’t necessarily feel like more than the sum of their parts,” he said, “but if you step back they seem to represent something bigger about who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Rather than tackling the obvious subject, “I consciously look for those peculiar back doors,” he said.
“Ink” is “an origin story for Fox News” illustrated through a lesser-known chapter in Rupert Murdoch’s career. When he made a film about Brexit, Graham focused not on Theresa May or David Cameron but on a then-obscure political strategist named Dominic Cummings, who helped engineer the Conservative Party’s historic win in December’s election and is now a chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson — but is facing calls to resign because he traveled across the country while sick with what was likely the coronavirus.
“At the time he was completely unknown, so to drag him into the light felt like an important public service, but also just a more exciting, fizzy, subversive way” of looking at the referendum, Graham said. (Cummings’ subsequent rise “kind of ruined my movie,” he joked.)
Graham did not grow up steeped in the arts: He was raised in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, a former mining community in the Midlands region. His family was working-class. His mom was a barmaid and now works as a school receptionist while doing evening shifts in a warehouse. His stepdad was a window cleaner. He was the first person in his family to go to college.
Graham wasn’t always interested in politics, but he was captivated by the episodic dramas that unfolded each day in history class. “I really liked turning up every class and the story advancing one chapter forward. I remember specifically during the French Revolution, they were about to storm the Bastille when the bell rang and, I was like, ‘Noooo, what happened to them?’ Politics was an accident of loving history. And history was just a love of stories,” he said.
An introverted kid who preferred hammering out prose on a typewriter to hanging out with friends, Graham was encouraged to get involved in theater by his drama teacher, “who just really believed in working-class kids from a deprived town doing plays,” he said. “It’s very clichéd, but I found the confidence of being someone else on stage and making people laugh, and being silly was really helpful.”
After studying drama at the University of Hull, he quickly earned a name for himself in London’s scrappy theater scene — where he met old friend Clifford, with whom he reunites on “Quiz.”
For three seasons, Netflix’s “The Crown” has inspired viewers to research the royal family and British history. Wikipedia and Google data bear that out.
“He’s got a real political conscience, James. That’s always been in a lot of his writing and in all of his plays — they always have this thread through them that isn’t an agenda, but it’s such a balanced examination of the subject he’s dealing with,” said Clifford, who spends much of her screen time outfitted in mom jeans that were “in danger of giving me thrush.” “We’ve come a long way from disused pubs in the east of London to now.”
Graham’s other recent credits include “Tywysog Cymru,” a standout episode of “The Crown’s” third season that followed young Prince Charles as he struggled to learn the Welsh language. But unlike “The Crown” series creator Peter Morgan, he’s not particularly interested in royal drama, such as the decision by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to live as private citizens, which at the time of our interview dominated the news cycle.
“I’m sort of dweebier than that,” Graham said. “I don’t want to diminish their experience, but it feels quite soapy. Whereas I like finding weird systems and processes. … England is so effing old and we have so many bizarre, sometimes beautifully ludicrous, sometimes horribly reductive rituals.”
He expounded at length about the archaic, centuries-old customs in the House of Commons. In a practice known as nodding through, a member of Parliament who is too sick to enter the chamber can vote as long as he or she is physically present within the gates of Westminster Palace. In the ‘70s, when no party had a clear majority and every vote was crucial, this led to “aging and sometimes dying MPs” being transported into the yard to vote, Graham explained. “So there were these absurd scenes when ambulances would turn up, like 10 or 12 of them, for the vote at night and the whips would go through the ambulances and check that everyone was alive.” (Graham mined these rules to comic effect in “This House,” which is available to stream on YouTube through Thursday morning as a fundraiser for the National Theatre.)
“The best way to look at any institution is to see it at its most absurd and when it’s in its biggest moment of crisis. I think the moment at which a half-dead person is in an ambulance and people are questioning whether his pulse is democratically viable enough, you know that the system is flawed,” he said. “I just think it resonates now in my country and your country. Because things feel like they have escalated to the point where you’re watching a nominee for the Supreme Court in tears proclaiming his love of beer and you go, ‘How did we get here?’”
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