Quiz Show

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 September

The “Coughing” Major, 2001

On this day in 2001, Charles Ingram, a former major in the British army, won £1,000,000 in the UK TV gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But before the payout could be made, accusations were already flying that he’d been tipped off as to the real answer to various questions by two plants in the audience – his wife, Diana, and a friend, Tecwen Whittock – who would cough when the right answer was read out. Ingram did not cough himself, nor was he any longer a major, but tabloid newspapers, preferring a story to the facts, dubbed him “the coughing major”. The case went to trial and lasted four weeks, at which point Ingram, his wife and Whittock were convicted of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception” (ie cheating). Whittock proclaims his innocence to this day.

Quiz Show (1994, dir: Robert Redford)

Robert Redford’s interest in the “unofficial” version of American history is very apparent in one of his best films, which picks apart one of the great scandals of the 1950s, when a nationally syndicated TV quiz show turned out not to be a contest to find the smartest but a set-up designed to keep the most attractive guy on TV – as defined by the ratings – until a more attractive one came along. John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes are the stars, Turturro the brusque Jew who’s been on a hot winning streak, Fiennes the refined Wasp chosen by the show’s sponsors to replace him, both lured into playing along with the deception that they were genuinely answering brain-bustingly difficult questions by the promise of fame, fortune, the usual. Quiz Show is unusual in coming right out and saying what has to be said – the network was NBC, the sponsor was Geritol, the show was 21, the host was Jack Barry and the two dupes were called Stempel (Turturro) and Van Doren (Fiennes). Names are not changed to protect the guilty. There’s a reminder of All the President’s Men in the late-night procedural business as lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) starts burrowing to reveal what’s been going on. But does Quiz Show have a broader resonance? It’s a Redford film, so of course. To drag in the title of another Redford movie, it’s about “the way we were” – when probity in public affairs seemed to matter, when broadcasters were interested in more than the overnight figures, when the broader public believed in education for its own sake.

Why Watch?

  • The great cast includes Paul Scofield
  • Cameos from directors Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson
  • One of Redford’s best – heart not worn too overtly on sleeve
  • John Turturro’s best ever performance?

Quiz Show – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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