As the U.K. lockdown wears on and our reality still feels inconceivable, a TV show about a surreal TV drama became appointment viewing this week, underlining the lifeline that broadcasting has become to millions of people.
Commercial broadcaster ITV consistently drew more than five million viewers across three nights for “Quiz,” from “The Crown” producer Left Bank Pictures — a superb dramatization of the true story of a cheating scandal on ITV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2001.
Based on James Graham’s eponymous play, the series depicted “Fleabag” star Sian Clifford and scene-stealing “Succession” actor Matthew Macfadyen as couple Diana and Charles Ingram, who were accused of cheating on the hit show via a coughing accomplice in the audience, and eventually stood trial.
Stripped across the week, “Quiz” debuted in its 9 p.m. slot on Monday with 5.3 million and slowly rose to 5.8 million by Wednesday night, well ahead of the average 3.8 million for its timeslot. The AMC co-production was the biggest drama launch across any U.K. channel this year, and comes at a time when broadcasters are enjoying record-breaking ratings.
While lockdown editions of quiz and variety shows such as BBC One’s “Have I Got News For You” and ITV’s “Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway” are pulling in their best figures in years — 4.6 million and 9.5 million, respectively — 28 million tuned in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech, and 23.5 million watched the Queen assure the nation of “better days” ahead.
“Quiz” had all the right elements to drive ratings: “Fleabag” star Clifford’s permanent disquietude simmered on screen; Macfadyen convinced the nation he may actually be Tom Wambsgans; and the expert hands of executive producers Andy Harries and director Stephen Frears guided the show throughout.
But there was more to its success. “Quiz” stirred up a nostalgia for simpler times, and just for a moment, Craig David lyrics distracted from coronavirus, and entertainment on TV — a genre whose breakout hits are now practically decades apart — was at its best. No surprise, then, that ITV executive Claudia Rosencrantz, who commissioned “Millionaire,” found herself trending on Twitter.
Rosencrantz, who’s played by Irish comedian Aisling Bea (“Love Wedding Repeat”), is responsible for most of ITV’s biggest hits, including “Love Island,” “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” and “Pop Idol,” which was adapted Stateside as “American Idol.” One awestruck executive quietly tells me, “The people after her were only employed to safeguard her legacy.”
Rosencrantz, who has yet to watch the program but whose family has labelled it a “surreal” experience, was told she’d be effectively “managing decline” upon joining ITV as head of entertainment in 1995, due to a lack of adaptable hits coming out of the U.S.
“I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to get up in the morning to manage decline.’ I would just make shows and commission from paper,” Rosencrantz tells Variety, adding many of the broadcaster’s biggest shows under her weren’t piloted at all.
“The fact that they’re making a drama out of a quiz show takes me back to what I was trying to do, which was make the quiz show into a drama. It’s come full circle.”
Ultimately, “Quiz” was, in essence, an extraordinarily meta show, tailor-made to evoke breathless commentary from countless media journalists (gestures at self) and executives. Was it going to resonate outside our TV bubble? As it turns out, it did.
“Quiz” was a love letter to TV that was accessible to everyone, and it couldn’t have come at a more auspicious moment for broadcasters, who have in recent years been waging battle against encroaching global SVOD players aggressively poaching broadcast talent and serving up pricey domestic originals of their own.
The show’s resulting success was well deserved. “Quiz” launched at an impossible time for the U.K.; it was deprived of a glam premiere or splashy marketing spend; and it still managed to be a triumph for the broadcasting world. If you ask the audience, I expect they’d tell you much the same.