The Secret Jewish History of the Quiz Show

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I have decided to be motivated by whatever I’m reading or watching for this blog. The book I’m reading is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy which, halfway through, couldn’t be less Jewish if it tried which makes it an excellent candidate.

So, I’m turning to what I’m watching which, among other things (HomelandBetter Caul Saul — both too obvious for a blog unless you think otherwise), is ITV’s Quiz, a three-part dramatization of the time, in 2001, that a married couple, Major Charles and Diana Ingram, together with an accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, successfully cheated their way to winning the quiz show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The first thing to say is that Diana Ingram (née Pollock) and her brother Adrian who is also depicted on the show are Jewish. They went to the same synagogue as Jewish journalist, Jon Ronson, as he recounts here. You can see them both in the trailer for the drama.

The judge in the trial, Geoffrey Rivlin QC, is, I’m pretty certain, Jewish.

The drama suggests that the rather nice but dim Major is manipulated by his smarter Jewish wife and her brother.

Widening the parameters, this game show, like all quiz shows, is about accumulating vast amounts of cash, quickly, and with very little physical effort — something Jews have been accused of doing throughout the ages.

Secondly, it is predicated on being smart and knowledgeable — more traits stereotypically associated with Jews. It would be interesting to know how many Jewish winners of the world’s quiz shows there have been and whether this figure is disporportionately high (or not). In the meantime, with a hat-tip to Glyn Green, you can watch what Yair Rosenberg in The Tablet called “The Most Jewish Performance Ever On A TV Game Show” here:

I would amend this to “The Most Jewish Performance Ever On A Diaspora TV Game Show” presumably because most Israeli game shows are pretty Jewy.

In the ITV dramatization, Quiz, as in real-life, the then Controller of Entertainment for ITV was Claudia Rosencrantz who, you guessed it, is Jewish. The co-inventor of the game show format was David Briggs (not Jewish as far as I’m aware) but portrayed by Elliot Levey who is. Michael Sheen, who does a good impression of host Chris Tarrant, went out with Sarah Silverman between 2014 and 2018.

In the drama, it is revealed that they based some of their format, the quiz master’s chair and low-key lighting, on that in the legendary British quiz show, Mastermind. The man who devised Mastermind in 1972 was a former RAF gunner Bill Wright who based it on his experience at the hands of the Gestapo during World War II. His interrogator’s demands for name, rank and serial number were transformed into the game show’s “name, occupation and specialist subject.” Wright retained the darkness, the intimidating chair, and its host was labeled as “Interrogator.”

One of the appeals of the show, is as one writer points out, “because it makes them feel smart. We sit on the couch and answer all the questions while watching the shmo on TV sweat it out.” I’m not going to claim that this joy of watching other people suffer, or schadenfreude, is an exclusively Jewish trait. But nor am I going to deny that we don’t also suffer from it.

Back to Quiz and one of the most famous game show cheating scandals was that of Twenty-One as depicted in the 1994 film, Quiz Show, where John Turturro plays Herb Stempel who it is revealed is part of a scam whereby producer Albert Freedman fixes his loss so a more ratings friendly contestant, Mark Van Doren, can win. The scandal is uncovered by an even smarter Jewish lawyer, Richard N. Goodwin.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was adapted and shown on Israeli television for the less impressive sum (in British terms at least) of one million Israeli shekels (current approximate value of £220,000).

Proving that not all Jews are clever is the fact that there has been only one winner of the jackpot.

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