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‘Quiz’ tackles ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ scandal

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It was the game show with one of the biggest payoffs of all time. When “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” first dominated British television it was as popular as “Roots” had been in the United States years earlier. It reached as many as 19 million people in the tiny U.K. 

Viewers were glued to their cathode rays as a series of multiple choice questions hammered one sweaty contestant at a time.

It shocked everyone when one of its surprising winners was an eccentric Army major, Charles Ingram, who stumbled through 15 mind-blowing questions to seize the coveted prize.

There was just one problem.

Backstage some of the show’s producers began to suspect that Ingram wasn’t wrestling with the questions alone. Somebody — they thought his wife or a male accomplice — was feeding him the answers through a Morse code of coughs.

AMC will resuscitate that story with its three-part drama, “Quiz,” premiering Sunday.

Author of the series, James Graham, says in his research, he was astonished to find that the contestants were often part of an upper-crusty “boys club.”

“I discovered a whole network of obsessed ‘Quiz’ fans who tried to and successfully hacked into the show,” he says.

“It’s like the hole in the Death Star that Luke Skywalker found. And it was the most valuable asset the network had. And there were these fundamental weaknesses that meant a certain network of very well-to-do, middle-class dweebs were allowed to find vulnerabilities into it and get their people on the show,” says Graham.

Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen and his wife, Diana, portrayed by Sian Clifford, were enormous fans of the show, reports Graham.

“And some of the things that we discovered in making it … has never come to light, and we’re going to be revealing in the show about quite how successful they were in penetrating ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’”

Graham describes the Ingrams as “rural people” who loved quizzes. “They were like all of us. They would play board games as a family. They would go to the local pub quiz. And they tried really, really hard to get on a game show and allegedly they maybe tried too hard and were accused of getting on through illicit means,” he says.

Clifford, who plays Ingram’s wife, who may have been complicit in the scam, thinks the couple were ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. “That’s what’s at the heart of this story is the humanity of these people,” says Clifford. “And that’s what we were so keen to bring to light and to show that side of the story, and that’s what I love about the script.”

She and Macfadyen devoured information about the event to nail their characters, she says. “Matthew and I watched hours and hours of footage of them, as much material as we could get — just more to absorb something of them rather than do an impersonation. And I think what Matthew manages to capture, it’s exquisite because there are certain sort of physical tropes that you can pick up that tell you so much about a person and how they’re feeling. And there are little things, the little ticks that Matthew does that just because I’ve watched Charles so much, I see them in Matthew, and they’re so subtle.”

Michael Sheen portrays the uber-popular, blond-haired emcee of the show, Chris Tarrant.

“I watched the interviews with Chris Tarrant, and the more I watched the Charles Ingram episodes, the more I realized how brilliant Tarrant was,” says Sheen, who was seen most recently playing an angel in “Good Omens” on Amazon Prime and in Fox’s “Prodigal Son.”

“I mean, we sort of know he was brilliant at it, because it was such a huge success, and he was loved doing it. But to watch it really forensically and to see just what he’s doing there and how — I mean, he’s kind of running the show. He’s got all the timings. He’s like this extraordinary conductor. So I had a real, newfound respect for what he did on that show and how well he made that work just by watching it and watching it,” he explains.

No newcomer to portraying real-life personae, Sheen adds, “When I played characters based on real people, I’ve never wanted to kind of get into sticking things on your face, and all that kind of stuff. I tried to do as little of that as possible because, on the one hand, it tends to draw attention to how much you DON’T look like the person if it looks like you’re making too much effort to look like them. And I just find it restrictive,” he shrugs.

“So we just went with a wig. And I had my hair bleached blonde for ‘Good Omens’ for six months. I wasn’t going down THAT road again. So we went with a wig, and the wig does all the heavy lifting, really, to be honest. It’s always the hair that does all the work. And it’s then just basic makeup.”

Whether Ingram was really cheating went to trial, but Graham isn’t reaching a verdict. “We ask the audience to make up their minds about whether they’re innocent or guilty,” he says. “But, ultimately, I think it’s meant to be an entertaining but forensic analysis of the criminal justice system.”

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