Oddly, or tellingly enough, when I spoke to Sian Clifford a couple of weeks ago before her miniseries, Quiz, debuted on AMC, we had the same conversation so many people are having right now. The catalyst was different of course: for Clifford, the revelation around media bias and accepting the stories that are told to us came after reading creator James Graham’s script, which rehashes a real-life decades-old scandal centered around a popular reality competition show. For so many others, this questioning of the truth has emerged thanks to incidents of police brutality and racial profiling.
There’s no comparison, but there is a thread, one that Quiz explores in-depth with only three episodes. The series finale airs later this month and manages to tie the story of the show’s leads — an average British couple played by Clifford and Succession’s Matthew Macfayden, who are accused of cheating during an appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire — to some of the same issues we’re facing now: issues of trust and media bias and questioning the status quo. We spoke to Clifford about revisiting this very British scandal, confronting her own bias, and what people can learn from this gripping story.
This cheating scandal was a much bigger news item in the UK. Do you remember watching it play out?
Absolutely. It was such a big scandal. I was a teenager when this was going on. You couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere and the show was so huge. That’s why this story was huge, ultimately. This was something that everyone watched with their family. A third of the country was watching it at its peak. It was event television. You made sure you watched it every night, so you had something to talk about the next day. It was a really hot talking point.
Reexamining the story now, has working on this show changed your opinion of what happened?
Well, yeah. There was absolutely no question at that time and that was how it was represented to us. Honestly, that wasn’t a time where we ever questioned our media or our news and what we were being fed. Now, it’s completely the opposite where we distrust everything, which is a theme that obviously James [Graham] is exploring with this project — when those lines started to blur when constructed reality became mainstream viewing and all of that. As soon as I read James’ script though… you don’t have to dig very deep into this story to realize how contentious it is and how biased the reporting was. My empathy with them was immediate. Also, as an adult, you consider people’s humanity and the cost to their lives that this experience created. I was shocked and appalled to read about what had actually happened to them and how they were treated. As soon as you look at it from that perspective, it raises a lot of other questions about the whole case.
If anything, this story feels relevant because we still treat our news reporting like it’s entertainment.
Yeah, the news is a television show, lest we forget.
One of the things that I love about this show is how it exposes editing, which so many people are unfamiliar with. The idea that when Diana coughs that could have been taken from any point in the show and placed there. I think, understandably, of course, if you’ve never been on a television set, you don’t know that’s how it works. Even that idea about editing very subtly points to how the things that are presented to us can be grossly manipulated in order to force us to look in a certain direction.
It also doesn’t help that we had a tragedy here that understandably overshadowed what happened to this couple.
Yeah, you’ll know this from the show, if we’ve done our job properly, but his performance was the two days prior to 9/11, which is why this story got lost in the news in the US. That moment in history, I believe, has contributed to where we are now along with everything else that was going around at that time. I think that is something that James certainly wanted to capture. There’s that brilliant moment where Paddy Spooner and Paul Smith finally meet. He said, “The bottom’s falling out of the truth market.” I just thought it was a very pertinent idea to be discussing now, because I think there is so much about that period of time that could answer some questions as to why we are where we are now.
Even though this is clearly a drama, there are moments of comedy here. Did you go looking for those or did they just appear organically?
I think what I love about this — what I love about Succession, what I love about Fleabag is I feel like there’s this new genre, and Atlanta does it as well, that’s pushing against the categories as we currently know as comedy and drama. I think what we are demanding as an audience right now are much more complex stories that are much more human. When you start getting to the heart of humanity, in that way, that’s when things are hilarious that maybe shouldn’t be because they’re awkward and they’re uncomfortable James wrote these people as human beings who had only, prior to that, been painted as these pantomime villains. I think that immediately draws you into their story and their experience. That’s why it becomes so heartbreaking because these two people Charles and Diana, in terms of this narrative, have never, ever been considered as human beings before. I think for people to suddenly go, “Oh my God, that is what they were going through whilst we were laughing at home,” I think it holds a mirror up to how we treat one another, how we consume our press. I think it’s really important that we question that. I think we need to change journalism and change how things are reported.
AMC’s ‘Quiz’ airs on Sunday nights at 9:00pm EST.