Interview: Edinburgh actor Mark Bonnar on the new drama set to shed new light on notorious Who Wants to be a Millionaire? 'coughing scandal'
Nearly two decades on, the “coughing scandal” which embroiled an Army Major who walked away from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? with the top prize is about to be reignited.
And the Scottish actor who has a key role in a new three-part ITV dramatisation of the story of Charles Ingram, his wife Diana and a coughing accomplice reckons it will leave viewers unsure as to their guilt or innocence.
Shetland, Line of Duty and Guilt star Mark Bonnar plays Paul Smith, the workaholic TV producer who saw his idea for the Chris Tarrant-hosted game show become a nationwide sensation with an obsessive following.
Although his character is a ruthless executive who leads the investigation into the Ingrams, which ends up with the couple being arrested and standing trial, Edinburgh-born Bonnar is convinced there will be surprising public sympathy for them when the drama unfolds.
Directed by Stephen Fears, whose movie credits include The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, Philomena and High Fidelity, Quiz – which will be shown from Monday-Wednesday next week – has been adapted by for TV by writer James Graham from his hit West End play. The star-studded cast include Succession star Matthew Macfadyen and Fleabag favourite Sian Clifford as the Ingrams and Michael Sheen as Tarrant.
Bonnar said: “The great thing about James’s writing is that he falls distinctly in the middle. You don’t really side with anybody. He has done a remarkable job of withholding judgement on anybody. He has managed to pull off something which I think leaves you with sympathy for all involved.
“He had a lot of help with his research from Paul but was also in touch with Charles and Diana. You’re kind of left feeling sorry for the Ingrams because they were really persecuted at the time. It would have been undoubtedly worse for Charles and Diana had it happened in today’s social media playground. It was bad enough for them. They had years of hell afterwards.
“Although they were found guilty in court, it still remains one of the greatest mysteries of our generation – did they or didn’t they? They’re still protesting their innocence, but Paul is still absolutely convinced of their guilt.
“When you watch back to see how Charles Ingram plays the game you just think: ‘He cannot not be cheating. Come on, surely he is.’ But his argument was that he was trying to make the game more exciting, by making all these strange u-turn decisions. It’s fascinating. The drama isn’t really a ‘whodunnit.’ It’s more of a ‘did they really do it then’?”
Mr Bonnar is in the unusual position of being able to talk about new work at a time when the television and film industries have suddenly gone into lockdown.
But instead of starting to film a new series of Shetland at the end of last month, Bonnar - who lives in Hertfordshire with his actress wife Lucy Gaskell – is now confined to a studio he has created in his garden, where he has been doing voiceover work and filming an appearance on Susan Calman’s new lockdown TV chat show.
He said: “I haven’t really sat down and watched telly for a while now. It probably will feel a bit strange. But it feels a bit strange just now. You switch on the news and it is horrific and then go and sit in the garden and the birds are tweeting. You just sit there and think: ‘Thank god we’re alright.’ This just feels tectonic as far as the human race is concerned. We are only at the beginning of it in terms of realising how much we’re going to have to change, until they find a vaccine.
“Actors are used to staring at the walls waiting for the phone to ring. It’s not unchartered territory for us. But I was meant to be filming Shetland now. There was supposed to be a read-through of the scripts in the middle of March and filming was due to start by the end of the month. The read-through had already been cancelled when lockdown happened and everything was thrown into chaos.”
Bonnar’s last major TV role was in the Edinburgh-set BBC Scotland show Guilt, starring opposite his old Leith Academy schoolmate Jamie Sives. Compared to Twin Peaks for its twisting plot and mix of drama and black comedy, it was hailed by critics as one of the TV shows of 2019 and a second series is said to be in development.
Bonnar said: “It was such a wonderful thing to be a part of. Neil’s scripts were brilliant and working with Jamie was like a dream come true. It was a proper team effort from the cast and crew and at the time it felt like we’d created something special.
“But the reaction really floored us. We couldn’t quite believe the momentum it got. It was proper, old school, word of mouth for something that was totally untried and untested. It’s kind of genre-less – it stands on it. I’m looking forward to seeing if they do some more - and seeing if they ask me back!”