“We need more ‘characters’…you know, the working class”
– Quiz by James Graham (not an exact quote)
I saw James Graham’s Quiz on Thursday and I feel Weird about it. I’ve not seen any of his other plays and because there was so much hype around his previous works I was super excited. I thought it was going to be amazing. But, it just…wasn’t. Instead it left me with lots of thoughts and feelings about class which have been circling around in my head for quite a long time.
For those who don’t know, Quiz revolves around the 2003 court case about Major Charles Ingram, who was thought to have cheated his way to a million pounds on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’. It was a pretty big case at the time, and the show follows this court case; act one is about the prosecution, and act 2 is about the defence. I found it a pretty interesting subject matter – I am fascinated by pop culture. (if you’re interested, the full episode is here)
But what the play does is skirt around a million (ha) different strands of thought without settling on what we’re really supposed to take away from it.
Is James Graham’s ‘Quiz’ about…
A) The bare facts
B) The British judicial system
D) Money and class
I had no idea. Strands would get extracted and then brushed away, leaving me frustrated. I was being given ideas but not enough time or scope to think about it.
I think what frustrated me most was that, because of this, is just ended up being a story about middle class people who swindle their way into earning even more money. What am I, as an audience member, supposed to do with that information? I may as well have read the Wikipedia page about the case.
There’s a moment in the script where the Ingrams discuss swotting up on soaps and sport, because the producers have put more of those questions in it to entice the ‘characters’ to apply for the show. There’s mentions of class but they’re just skipped over. I reckon this play could have been a cool way to explore the class system, but just turned into a statement of facts.
The show is currently playing at the Noel Coward theatre in the West End, a theatre which I associate with classic musicals such as ‘Half a Sixpence’. It is an intimate theatre, but it’s also quite classical and what you’d expect a central London theatre to be. It’s the sort of theatre your Nan would take you to, rather than a theatre you’d see a show about a 2000s quiz show in. The set – with stairs at the front, screens all around the auditorium, and a ridiculous amount of audience interaction – just doesn’t fit in with this theatre. It should be somewhere like the Almeida, instead.
I remember looking around me, seeing all of these couples over 50 (probably), in their silk shirts and pearl necklaces, laughing at the scenario of Charles not knowing about Craig David (who cares about pop stars anyway!? I feel I hear them think) and it just didn’t feel right. The whole thing felt in the wrong place.
I spent a week at the National Student Drama Festival, a festival which celebrates the diversity of student theatre. It did, but not in accent or class (that I could tell). Every institution who performed was from England (no Wales, Scotland, or NI), and there weren’t many accents that were not Southern/RP.
[side note: this might sound weird coming from me, as I have a southern accent. I guess I could be considered ‘middle-class-passing’ due to my diction and pronunciation, which means that people perceive me as coming from a much higher class than I am]
I remember a moment when a company from Oxford got asked a question which skirted around the lines of privilege, and it boiled my blood. The question felt out of place, and insinuated that this company was somehow ‘better than us all’ because they supposedly would have had funds/expertise others wouldn’t because they’re from Oxford, and then presumably, rich families. It upset me because I have friends from my background who are at Oxbridge, and certainly did not have affluent families or an education higher than a state school one. I hate the idea that everyone at Oxbridge are Etonians (I mean, most of them are, but let’s not presume before we know the situation of someone in particular).
This ties in to a much deeper issue in theatre around the voices we hear – not just in the writing but quite literally, too. There was a brilliant article in Exeunt recently which talks about accents which hits the nail on the head of what I think.
I also just want to hear more working class stories. Stories told by people like me, coming from council estates or families who eat out of Tesco’s reduced section or whose daughter helps pay the bills because she got a part-time job at 16.
And I don’t want ‘rags to riches’ stories either. I’m done with those. I don’t want poor representations of working class communities like in ‘The Suicide’ which play at big venues like the National for people who can pay £80 a seat to laugh at. I don’t want stories that say ‘oh, you may be poor now, but if you work hard, you could be rich just like us!’. Aspiration is good, yes, but that’s just not how it works unfortunately.
I don’t want stories like ‘Rita, Sue, and Bob Too’ to be played up for laughs at the Royal Court. Where the audience laughs because the northern parents argue. Where the audience keeps laughing because of how they say the word ‘slut’ continuously, not realising they’re laughing at these girls’ situation of sexual exploit.
I want working class characters (without stereotypes/terribly caricatured accents etc.) to be at the centre of stories, and tell their story. I want these stories to be written by people who know what it’s like to come from that background, and to cast actors who can voice those characters well without making a mockery of them.
In short, I want a lot of things which I am finding hard to articulate. Maybe I’ll just write a play myself.