Quiz, Monday 13th April, 9pm, ITV
I can remember the first time I watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It may seem run-of-the-mill now, but back in 1998, it was utterly extraordinary for a TV show to be giving away that amount of money. By way of reference, in 1990 I remember tuning in to a TV show called The $64,000 Question, hosted by Bob Monkhouse, because I couldn’t believe there would be a programme willing to give away such a large amount. And, indeed, there wasn’t – the top prize, rather confusingly given the show’s title, was £6,400. Yet eight years later, there was a show where you could win one million smackeroos, and where contestants routinely went home with five-or-six-figure sums.
This new three-part drama, showing over the next three nights, tells the story of how the show came into being, and of the infamous plot, hatched by Major Charles Ingram, his wife Diana, and a Welsh academic called Tecwen Whittock, to cheat their way to £1 million.
Proceedings begin with an on-screen quote. “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth” – Pablo Picasso. I don’t know about you, but I thought I was tuning into an ITV drama about a quiz show. If I wanted to be intellectually challenged (which, incidentally, is how my wife describes me) I’d be tuning in to something with subtitles on BBC Four.
Actually, the truth is, this is a classy affair. It’s by playwright James Graham, who has written an episode of The Crown, and also penned excellent TV dramas about the Brexit referendum and the coalition government. This series is also directed by Stephen Frears, and boasts a stellar cast including Mathew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford, Mark Bonnar, Aisling Bea, Helen McCrory, and Michael Sheen.
Paul Smith (Bonnar) is a TV executive at Celador productions. He has an idea. A quiz, with multiple choice answers, and a £1 million prize. It is, in fact, so simple that nobody can see the genius of it. Networks keep turning him down. Somewhere, there will be TV execs watching this from between their fingers, gazing mournfully at the colossal, golden-egg-laying goose that they bundled out of their office 22 years ago. We’re talking the-man-who-turned-down-the-Beatles territory.
Watching how the series finally came to be, how they ironed out the kinks, and how nervous they all were about whether or not it would work, is riveting. The show brilliantly captures what was a sort of TV mania that began to surround it. In opening episodes, Millionaire was a colossal hit, with over 9 million viewers. But before long, it was getting 20 million. That’s the kind of number normally reserved for your ‘Who Shot JR’ or ‘Happy Christmas, Ange’ moments, and it was happening night after night.
Of course, not everything about the show was positive. Although it kept us on the edge of our seats, it did also mean that, for at least a decade, we had to put up with wags shouting “Do you want to phone a friend?” every time a question was asked.
In the midst of all the excitement building around the show, a group of rather unlikely individuals was forming together to try and boost their chances of getting on to the programme. Among them was a man called Adrian Pollock, his sister, Diana Ingram, and her husband Charles. This is the story of just how successful they were – and the remarkable tale of how it all came crashing down around them. This is an extraordinary story told with wit and charm – and Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant is a thing of indisputable magnificence – and is the kind of show that will have you talking for weeks afterwards. Although, being as how we’re all stuck in isolation, you may need to… oh god, sorry… phone a friend.
The rise and rise of the TV quiz show
Prue Leith: Journey with My Daughter, Tuesday 14th April, 9pm, Channel 4
There must be worse things in the world than having Prue Leith as a mother. In many ways, she’s very like my own dear ma: Posh, gregarious, colourful, clever, kind, and filled with joie de vivre. But there is a key difference. My mum is to cooking what the Queen is to darts. Once, early on in her marriage, she tried to make jam for my father. He came home to find her stuck to the floor.
So Prue Leith, then, is as lovely as my mum, but with culinary genius to boot. She’s like Mum 2.0. She’s the new version of mum with improved updates.
As such, her daughter Li-Da did pretty well in the lottery of life. She was adopted as a baby by Leith in 1974, and enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the Cotswolds. It was a far cry from her unpromising start – born amidst the chaos of Cambodia’s civil war, she was spirited out of the country on one of the last flights to leave before Pol Pot’s genocidal regime took control.
Li-Da describes her childhood as ‘perfect’. Today, she is married, and has adopted a son – a moral imperative, she felt, in gratitude for her own good fortune. But there are also many unanswered questions on her life. Most people who are adopted want, at some point, to find out more about their background. For Li-Da, her need is cultural as well as familial. She wants to learn more about her Cambodian roots, her heritage. And she wants to find out if her birth parents are still alive.
This intimate and emotive one-off documentary follows Li-Da and Prue as they travel to Cambodia in an attempt to track down the past. It is a far-from-easy job in a country where the past is so harrowing and opaque. Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population. It is a statistic that Prue find difficult to deal with. She says the country would have been the last on her list to visit. “Any country that spawned the Khmer Rouge… I just can’t bear the thought of people being killed.”
As far as Li-Da is aware, her birth mother was killed in a rocket attack, and her injured soldier father had to give her up for adoption. But this information is sketchy, and based on hearsay. A Cambodian producer has been conducting some research, and thinks there may be more to the story.
What is undeniable is that Li-Da’s life was saved by a Frenchwoman called Yvette, who rescued countless Cambodian children and arranged for them to leave the country. Li-Da and Prue visit the flat where, as a sickly baby, Li-Da was nursed back to health by Yvette, a woman who dedicated herself to saving children all over the world, who died more than 20 years ago.
It was Yvette who arranged for Li-Da to be flown out of China. She and her mother go to visit an American pilot, now living in Phnom Penh, who is able to show her photographs of the man who had flown her to safety. He talks about the sacrifices mothers made for their children out of sheer desperation. It is a profoundly moving moment.
And then they go and see someone from the records office. He hasn’t been able to find any specific information stretching that far back, but he does have a story to tell. It is one that could be about to change Li-Da’s life forever.
This is fascinating, powerful telly, a story of tragedy and genocide, of families torn apart, but also of love and nurture, and of families becoming complete. Li-Da and Prue are delightful, unsentimental company, and as ever, Prue has her fabulous array of colourful glasses, a televisual rainbow for us all in these troubled times.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 11th April
Easter from Kings, 7pm, BBC Two: The traditional choral offering from the choir in the magnificent chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. Although quite how they’ll get this done under current circumstances is anyone’s guess…
Britain’s Got Talent, 8pm, ITV: The 14th series of the talent-show-juggernaut roars back on to our screens. ITV execs will be fervently hoping the live semi-finals in a few months’ time don’t end up being someone filmed on an iPhone playing the violin in their living room.
Charles and Camilla: King and Queen in Waiting, 9:25pm, Channel 5: The 9 berjillionth royal documentary on Channel 5 this year, this one is about Charles and Camilla, from their first meeting, through the troubled waters of their respective first marriages, to their exalted place today.
Monday 13th April
Springtime on the Farm, 8pm, Channel 5: Helen Skelton and Adam Henson pop on their wellies and find out how the farming community has been coping with the rigours of COVID-19.
Dolly Parton: 50 Years at the Opry, 9pm, BBC Two: Highlights of the inestimable Ms Parton’s concert to celebrate her 50 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, featuring familiar hits and special guests.
Tuesday 14th April
The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer 5/5, 8pm, Channel 4: The last in any series of Bake Off is always tinged with a degree of sadness. But the fact that this show represents Sandi Toksvig’s final appearance in the Bake Off tent lends a particular poignancy to proceedings. Guests are Carol Vorderman, Kelly Brook, Rob Rinder and Mo Gilligan.
Wednesday 15th April
Devs 1/8, 9pm, BBC Two: New cyber-drama set in a California-based quantum computer company, from the pen of Alex Garland. A young employee is recruited for a secret project, before he goes missing.
Thursday 16th April
Grayson’s Art Club, 8pm, Channel 4: New show from the award-winning artist, in which he will teach viewers how to sculpt, draw and paint, and speak to fellow artists about their processes. An ideal opportunity to embrace your inner Hepworth or Renoir during isolation.