How Quiz restored national memories of ‘coughing major’ Charles Ingram - Anthony Clavane

At the beginning of the last Doctor Who series The Master gleefully told his arch foe: “Everything you think you know is a lie.”

James Graham, who wrote Quiz. Photo: Ian West/PA

This, sadly, has become the mantra of myriad conspiracy theorists, gaining traction during a frightening pandemic which has prompted a deep-rooted paranoia about mainstream media narratives.

In recent weeks, for example, it has become fashionable on some social media platforms to argue that 5G contributed to the spread of Covid-19.

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When ITV reporter Alice Beer dismissed these claims as “incredibly stupid” on This Morning a few days ago, Eamonn Holmes interjected: “What I don’t accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true.

"No one should attack or damage or do anything like that, but it’s very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative.”

Holmes has since retracted his statement, but frightening global pandemics are fertile ground for conspiracy theories and there is clearly an appetite for myth-debunking. There appears to be a general lack of trust in “the establishment”, whether it be the media, the Government or scientific experts.

It is in this context that, in the fourth week of lockdown, James Graham’s gripping drama Quiz triumphantly entered our homes. Shown on ITV over three consecutive nights, it proved to be the perfect entertainment for the post-truth era. “There must be any number of versions of the truth,” wrote one reviewer. “That’s the world we’ve built for ourselves.”

The story it told, or perhaps should we say reimagined, is part of popular culture folklore. In 2001, a British Army major called Charles Ingram scooped the million-pound jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

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As Tarrant – or rather his brilliant impersonator Michael Sheen – might put it: “Were the Ingrams guilty of stealing a huge amount of money from ITV?” Is the answer: a) maybe; b) don’t know; c) no, we were all duped; or d) guilty as sin? You can ask the audience, phone a friend or go 50-50.

For those of us who remember the scandal, it is hard to accept we were duped. Yet this is what Graham seems to be suggesting. The finale, in particular, was an Ingram-friendly version of the truth. We are made to feel sorry for the “coughing major” – a misnomer as he, himself, wasn’t accused of having a frog in his throat – and be moved by the couple’s loving relationship.

The courtroom scenes featured the charismatic Helen McCrory who, as the Ingrams’ barrister, waxed lyrical on the unreliability of memory and argued that the police and the media conspired to create a “confirmation bias” against her clients.

As one viewer joked on Twitter: “McCrory could tell me the Earth is flat and I would be convinced.” But the Earth is spherical. The Pope is Catholic. The actor playing Tarrant is called Michael, not Martin, Sheen (a continuity announcer mixed them up).

And, after watching Martin Bashir’s documentary A Major Fraud – and then going back to the original show on Youtube where a frequently baffled Major behaves like no other contestant has, before or since – it is clear why a jury convicted the Ingrams beyond reasonable doubt.

Graham’s drama – which, please note, is not a documentary – has every right to put a spin on the show to make us think the couple are innocent. And he has raised important questions about trial by television in the 2000s.

But in its attempt to debunk the “myth” and challenge the narrative is not Quiz, itself, guilty of trial by television? In a fantasy sequence at the end, Sheen looks into the camera and asks us our verdict: “What’s your answer? We’re all dying to know!”

I’m with the real-life Tarrant who, on Monday, said: “Ingram and his wife Diana… made a crass, brazen attempt to cheat us out of a million quid.” And that’s his final answer.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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James Mitchinson

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