Quiz writer James Graham: I still don't know if Charles and Diana Ingram were guilty

Susannah Butter
Adrian Lourie

When James Graham first heard about the Coughing Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana cheating on Who Wants to be a Millionaire he was convinced they were guilty.

“Back then in 2001 I was obsessed with the idea that a middle class, middle aged couple would try and steal a million quid in front of the cameras,” he says. “But now I have a lot of questions.”

Graham, aged 37 and an award-winning playwright, turned their story into a successful play, Quiz, which he has now adapted into an ITV drama, beginning on April 13.

“It has the sort of cast I wouldn’t have dreamed about five years ago — TV is in a good place,” he says when we meet after a screening.

Michael Sheen plays Chris Tarrant, Sian Clifford and Matthew McFaydden are the Ingrams (Diana is in charge, in a power dynamic with echoes of Shiv and Tom from Succession) and Helen McCrory is the Ingrams’ lawyer (“If I was arrested I’d want her to represent me in court,” says Graham).

Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford star as Charles and Diana Ingram (ITV / Left Bank Pictures)

Quiz leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the Ingrams did it — in the play, the audience could vote on whether they were guilty. This approach is typical Graham. He is an over-thinker, who as a child once designed a multi-storey car park for fun.

“I still don’t know if they are guilty,” he says, sitting bolt upright and alert, in black skinny jeans and a navy jumper.

“People wanted the cheating accusations to be true because against this background of extraordinary things that were happening with 9/11, they were this sideshow to villainise. They were so well-spoken, why did they need the money? It’s not British fair play. But what if the Major had just been coughing and it had been edited so they looked guilty?”

We meet in February, before coronavirus took hold on a mass scale over here. When theatres closed earlier this month, Graham decided to donate his fee from Quiz to new charity Funds for Freelancers, to support all those now out of work. He later emails some stark words about the situation the arts now face.

Michael Sheen plays quizmaster Chris Tarrant (ITV / Left Bank Pictures)

“It goes without saying that it was the right thing to close the theatres but it is devastating. Friends and colleagues are scared about the weeks and months ahead. There will be a mountain to climb to reopen and the choice will be whether we want arts and entertainment to exist. If we do, it’ll need a bailout. Given how frigging good we are at [the arts], how much money it generates, how much it adds value to our lives, I hope they choose that it should continue to exist.”

On a brighter note, he adds that shows like Who Wants to Be A Millionaire are newly relevant. “It’s interesting to see everyone gravitate back to traditional media during self-isolation. Quiz depicts an age where we would generally gather as a nation to watch the same thing. Now we want that again.”

He’s met the Ingrams, who were found guilty and given suspended sentences. “Charles is political, he’s a staunch remainer and we talk about lots of things.” Graham also spoke to the prosecuting barrister who thinks justice was done and doesn’t want the public watching Quiz to lose faith in the justice system.

Quiz Trailer - This April on ITV

Graham says that’s not what the show is about. “Whether you think they did it, this drama wants to generate some understanding of how disproportionate what they went through was to what they may or may not have done.

"The Ingrams had to take their children out of school, their pets were attacked, even small things like not being able to walk anywhere for years without anyone coughing, it does something to people.”

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was part of the advent of reality TV, which Graham says “puts normal people under pressure”. “We are all thinking about what happened to Caroline Flack and the impact that huge scrutiny can have on a person’s health,” he adds.

Graham has some personal experience of this. When his Brexit drama The Uncivil War aired on Channel 4 last year he says: “Strangers said things like ‘I hope your mum is proud of you for destroying the country’. People get worse but it was new to me. My approach was to be frustratingly reasonable.”

The drama airs next month on ITV (ITV )

Does Graham, who voted remain, feel any responsibility for Cummings’s rise? “I couldn’t have foreseen this,” he says. “Dominic Cummings emerged against my will as the strongest voice. In a world of vanilla political speaking his voice was the most unique but I was surprised as anybody that he gravitated to the centre of our ideological existence.”

They met up while Graham was writing the show, along with Benedict Cumberbatch who played Cummings.

“I’ve no idea if Cummings is a Machiavellian genius but Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly encapsulated the way he spoke, the bluntness, not suffering fools, sometimes very soft. He wasn’t bad company. Cummings was worried about what to serve Benedict for dinner and settled on a vegan pie.”

Graham’s next play is about John Major and the culture of whipping during the Maastricht ratification bill (“sounds sexy,” he jokes).

Would he like to go into politics? “I feel sorry for the level of scrutiny MPs are put under and politics has become so reductive, government as PR is depressing, so I’d struggle.”

He is from Mansfield but now lives in Kennington, alone, which is “dangerous because I can dive into my own head too much but I like it”; he’s near lots of politicians. “Ken Clarke’s over the road, I used to see Paddy Ashdown getting milk at the local shop and Tom Watson having a curry.”

Graham wants his industry to be more representative and more ambitious (Dave Benett)

Graham is aware that he enjoys his job a little too much and last year had therapy for work addiction. “I feel wary labelling it an addiction,” he says. “But it follows the same form, you get hits from work and then you need another; it’s an unhealthy cycle. I wouldn’t eat or sleep, I’d behave badly with the people I love, I’d lie, saying I’d got up at 7.30am when I’d actually been up since five.”

Therapy “felt bourgeois and indulgent, where I’m from you deal with things yourself”, he says. “But it’s better now, although I still get up too early and cancel friends at impossibly rude short notice because I’m stressed about deadlines. What’s the point working all the hours God sends if you don’t get to enjoy it with the people you love?”

He mentors new playwrights and wants his industry to be both more representative of the country and more ambitious. “It’s embarrassing that more than half the country is female but less than a quarter of their plays are on our stages,” he says.

“It’s a systematic institutional problem and it’s entirely fixable and I am glad to see people engaging with that now. But the biggest thing we’re not talking about is class because that is not visible. And there is no reason why new playwrights have to write two person small plays. They should write state of the nation plays, whatever that means.”

Outside the room a queue has formed of people waiting to congratulate Graham on Quiz, Helen McCrory is among them. The state of the nation playwright puts on his blue puffa jacket and modestly goes to meet the fans.

Quiz starts on ITV on 13 April

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