TV Viewpoint: Quiz and Back

Truth is stranger than fiction, when it comes to the golden age of gameshows

TELEVISION genre crazes come and go. Scandi noir had its moment, true-crime documentaries have reached their peak, laugh-track sitcoms seem to have fallen out of favour after the golden-age of Friends, dying completely when the last episode of The Big Bang Theory aired.

Cast your mind back to the early 2000s, and you’ll have reached the era of the prestige gameshow. The Weakest Link was absurdly popular and Deal or No Deal had viewers tune in in their droves, but what started it all, and remained the biggest and best, was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

The Indian version of WWTBAM may have inspired Oscar winning feel-good movie Slumdog Millionaire, but all the drama of the Chris Tarrant fronted UK offering came from its real-life scandal. When Major Charles Ingram won the coveted million pounds, to rapturous public goodwill.

Originally broadcast on ITV over three nights last year, Quiz came to RTE One last Sunday, and will air the next two episodes over the coming weeks. Fitting, since appointment TV is the name of the game here. The first thing that’s driven home in the first episode is the network’s hunger for ‘event TV’; television that people will tune into en masse and discuss over the water-cooler the next day.

The opening credits consist of archive footage of old gameshows, the likes fronted by Bruce Forsyth and Terry Wogan. Family friendly, silly Saturday night entertainment. But back at the turn of the century, programme makers were eager to turn the tide, amp up the tension and create drama, rather than forgettable formulaic fare.

Quiz comes to the story of Charles Ingram’s controversial win from two angles; Charles’ family life, and the behind the scenes concept and creation of the show. We learn that it’s his wife Diana, and not Charles, who is the quiz fiend, a family trait she shares with her brother and father.

In a witty scene of a programme much more tinged with humour and mirth than I expected, Diana and her brother Adrian sit down to sceptically watch the new TV quiz show. Soon they are hooked, and immediately after the programme ends, Adrian hops on the phone to get on the waitlist to appear as a contestant.

It’s here the saga really starts. Adrian’s desperation to get in the chair leads him into the dark underbelly of TV quiz fixing, and when he does eventually end up in the hotseat, the £32,000 he wins isn’t enough to pay off the phone debt he’s racked up trying to get on the show.

So, it’s Diana’s turn next, and when she comes away, happily, with the same amount, Adrian confesses his debts and compassionate sibling Diana signs her husband up to take part. Despite being the least interested in quizzes of the lot, he takes the top prize.

We all know what happens next. But Quiz is an excellent dramatic re-telling of the story, with brilliant performances and an engaging script. Featuring comedic performers like Aisling Bea and Sian Clifford (as Diana, but known for her award winning performance in Fleabag), there’s a touch of absurd comedy to the drama, which lends itself well to the story.

Matthew McFaddyn is Charles Ingram, playing him sympathetically as a mild-mannered major just going along with things for a nice, quiet life, and Michael Sheen is disturbingly convincing as Chris Tarrant, nailing the voice and mannerisms in a performance bordering on pastiche, but ultimately fitting in to the off-kilter nature of the production. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Unlike many American made TV shows that have fallen foul of Covid, David Mitchell and Robert Webb vehicle Back has returned to Channel 4 after a three-year gap. Netflix crowd-pleaser GLOW was cancelled just before its planned final season because the network felt too long a wait between series’ would lose audience’s interests, so why is Back so special?

Then answer could simply be a British confidence in their viewers’ memories and attention spans? I watch the first episode of season 2 on Thursday, without a recap, and could recall what happened last time just fine.

Webb’s Andrew had returned to his favourite foster placement from his childhood, ruffling the feathers of Mitchell’s Stephen. There’s a cast of eccentric characters and quite a droll script. It’s funny, with an undertone of malice, and a welcome addition to the Thursday night schedule.

  • First Published in The Tuam Herald on 27 01 21

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