STV, 9pm

MIDDLE class, middle aged, middle England. Which trio of suspects was the Crown prosecutor describing? What’s that, you would like to go 50:50? Maybe phone a friend? Is that your final answer?

It is a measure of the popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? that the catchphrases associated with the game show have become part of TV history. But ask anyone about its greatest claim to fame (apart from being the first quiz to offer a million quid) and the reply arrives quick sticks: the coughing major, his wife, and the bid to cheat their way to the ultimate prize.

James Graham told the tale in his 2017 play, and the writer of Brexit: The Uncivil War (Benedict Cumberbatch IS Dom Cummings ...) has now turned it into a three part drama that started last night. Sly, witty, slick and nimble, this was the Ealing comedy treatment the caper deserves. The only missing component was Alastair Sim, though in place of one great Scot there was another in Mark Bonnar (Guilt), playing the TV exec who mortgaged his house to get the show made.

Graham framed the story as a morality tale, though it was more than the Ingrams’ standards that were under the spotlight. This was as much a gimlet eyed look at the ways of TV types and their lust for ratings (and premium phone line cash). ITV wanted “event TV” and Celador, headed by Paul Smith (Bonnar) gave them it. “People love a good pub quiz,” said Smith. “A uniquely British invention combining our two greatest loves – drinking and being right.” WWTBAM pulled in 19 million viewers at its height.

Quiz was particularly sharp in charting how TV magic is made, and the fine line between a ratings smash and a dud. WWTBAM, for instance, started out with the dreadful title of Cash Mountain and the pilot was a creaky bore. With a few tweaks, the portentous music, the low lighting, even pulsating speakers in the contestant’s seat to add to their tension (the Mastermind set was designed by a guy who had been interrogated by the Gestapo, Smith tells the crew), the show was transformed. Even watching the re-enactment was exciting.

Diana Ingram and her brother Adrian (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, Trystan Gravelle) were pub quiz fanatics, and they were not alone in wanting to get on WWTBAM. A shadowy network of quizzers grew up across Britain with one aim: to game this game show.

The format had its weaknesses, which the cunning could exploit, such as the same questions being asked in the initial telephone screening. Both Diana and Adrian made it on to the show after practising on a home-made buzzer to get through the fastest finger round and into the hot seat opposite host Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen). It’s not cheating, Adrian told his aghast brother-in-law, Major Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen), “it’s giving an advantage to myself”.

As time went on, the executives started to notice a similarity among the contestants. “White, well to do, middle class and southerny” as one put it. When Adrian appeared in the studio for the fourth time the stench of rodent was detected and the flag went up at the production company.

How the story proceeded from there and ended up at Southwark Crown Court plays out on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The cast of Quiz is uniformly terrific, with Macfadyen and Clifford the very model of posh folk down on their uppers. Having moved the family all over the country with her husband’s job, Diana Ingram felt it was the least he could do to follow her and her brother on to the show.

Sheen was at his usual shape-shifting best as Tarrant, the ultimate smoothy chops quiz master, and I would happily listen to Bonnar reading out the manual for a washing machine.

This was more than a retelling of a cracking story. In showing what happened after the case the Ingrams, who co-operated with the production, have been given a chance to have their say, perhaps even change the narrative. New answers to decades’ old questions – exactly how they did it, even if they did it. Like that £1 million prize, irresistible.

Continues Tuesday and Wednesday

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