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Meet the TV writer reconsidering modern Britain's 'beautifully ludicrous' history

Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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 that premiered 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 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."

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."

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