LOS ANGELES – When “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” made its American debut in 1999, it became an instant hit.
But in England, where the show originated, it was nothing short of a phenomenon.
At its peak, 19 million viewers were tuning in — roughly a third of the country — including an underground network of fans determined to find their way to the hot seat.
“It just kind of ripped through the fabric of reality into a new world,” said Michael Sheen, who plays founding host Chris Tarrant in “Quiz,” AMC’s new miniseries about how three contestants were accused of cheating their way to the million-pound prize.
The three-part story, directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), centers on Charles Ingram, a British Army major who snagged the grand prize, even while admitting to Tarrant during the taping that he was taking wild stabs at the answers.
Producers got suspicious. They quickly insisted that Ingram and his wife, Diana, had helped orchestrate a series of coughs from the audience to guide him to the right answers.
Their subsequent trial became almost as big of a sensation as the show itself, with the couple becoming the laughing stock of the United Kingdom.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” says Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen, the British equivalent of Brendan Fraser: “If people think we’re criminals or idiots.”
Sian Clifford, who plays Diana, said she found herself sympathizing with her character, especially after she re-watched how the media treated her during the hoopla.
“They exploited her hard edges and portrayed her as something that she wasn’t,” Clifford said earlier this year during the TV Critics Association press tour. “But I think there is something beautifully and sadly naive about them and that’s what is the tragedy of this story.”
Writer James Graham didn’t have many warm feelings for the couple when the scandal broke nearly 20 years ago. He was convinced they were guilty.
But the book, “Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major,” published five years ago, forced him to second-guess himself. As a result, his play, which he adapted for the small screen, doesn’t provide any final answers.
“There’s a lot of inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case that they coughed their way to a million pounds,” said Graham, who also wrote the Tony-nominated play, “Ink,” about Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Sun newspaper. “So we just sort of present both sides, and we do the classic ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ thing and ask the audience whether they’re innocent or guilty.”
That ambiguous ending might frustrate viewers who approach “Quiz” as a mystery.
Better to treat the three hours as a look into how a TV show has the power to grip viewers to the point of madness. “Millionaire” continues to play in our heads. It’s inspired the Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire” and an American reboot hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, which just got picked up for a second season.
For the “Quiz” actors, even leaving the project took some adjustment.
I got really disappointed after we finished filming that every time I entered the room in real life the lights didn’t go down and the music didn’t go ‘ba-dum’ every time I walked in,” Sheen said. “That was very upsetting.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin
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