Rory Bremner on his play about Britain’s quiz big scandal

He’s built a career on a series of short sketches, which makes his latest venture both something of a departure and a gamble. 

Rory Bremner, Britain’s leading impressionist, will play Chris Tarrant in a nine-week touring production of Quiz – the play about the infamous ‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram and his attempt to defraud the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? out of a cool million in 2003. 

And he’ll be doing so eight times a week.

‘Yes, that’s the bit that scares me,’ says Rory, 62. ‘It’s a stretch but I’ve seen other friends do it – Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson and Hughie Green, Alistair McGowan as Jimmy Savile

‘But the offer came out of the blue and I couldn’t resist it. To be honest my stomach did a somersault, but that said, the voice is locked and loaded.’

Now it’s a matter of nailing his friend Tarrant’s mannerisms. ‘He always claims my impression is nothing like him,’ reveals Rory. 

Rory Bremner will play Chris Tarrant (pictured) in a nine-week touring production of Quiz - the play about the infamous ‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram who was a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in 2003

‘I like to insert the occasional “Tee-Hee!” but Chris says he’s never in his life said either tee or hee. But they all say that. He’s not aware he’s doing it.

‘At one stage he did ask why they’d got the monkey for Quiz when they could have had the organ grinder. He said he should be doing it. So I told him that if I had a couple of nights off, he could step in.’

There’s much fun to be had in James Graham’s play (which was adapted for an ITV series in 2020), and some of it was drawn from real life. 

‘The judge at the trial couldn’t resist getting in on the act,’ says Rory. ‘At one point, when Chris was on the stand, the judge asked him, “Is that your final answer?”’

Ingram won the £1m jackpot, but he was being helped by an accomplice in the audience who coughed when the correct answer was read out. 

He, his wife Diana and the associate were convicted of ‘procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception’ and given large fines and suspended prison sentences. 

During the stage show, audiences are invited to vote on their guilt after the first half and again at the end and have often dramatically reversed their verdict.

Tarrant has said the Ingrams were guilty. ‘As guilty as Guy Fawkes is how he put it,’ says Rory. 

‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram won the £1m jackpot, but he was being helped by an accomplice in the audience who coughed when the correct answer was read out

So where does Rory stand? ‘I like to keep an open mind, though on balance probably yes. But there’s enough doubt to raise questions. 

‘Why did Charles Ingram respond to some coughs, for instance, and not to others?’

He also has some sympathy over the crime. ‘We love quizzes but we don’t like cheats. 

‘We love the underdog, and the makers of Millionaire made a fortune out of the programme, so would they really miss a million?’

The Ingrams became social pariahs. ‘Their cat was shot. Their dog was kicked to death. People spat at them,’ says Rory. ‘They were reduced to selling bric-a-brac at jumble sales.’

Born in Edinburgh, he’s always had the gift of mimicry. 

At Wellington College where he was a boarder he was the one who could take off all the teachers, and while at King’s College London reading modern languages he worked on the cabaret circuit. 

He fell into shows like Spitting Image and Whose Line Is It Anyway? before a long spell in Ch4’s Bremner, Bird And Fortune and, more recently, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue on Radio 4.

He’s long been quite a political animal. ‘I get called a liberal luvvie,’ he says. ‘Well, I’d rather be a luvvie than a hatie.’ 

He’s particularly concerned about the shift in political culture. ‘We’re living in an age of alternative truths,’ he says. 

Audiences get to vote on the Ingrams’ guilt after the first half and at the end – and often reverse their verdict 

‘A crowd smaller than the one that welcomed Obama into the White House can be described by Trump when he became President as the largest turnout ever. Say it enough and it becomes an alternative fact.’

Does he ever worry about making fun of public figures? ‘Yes, but only in that it makes them funny. Politicians used to have a sense of shame. But the landscape has shifted.’

Does Rory get cornered by people at parties requesting a burst of his Blair or Boris? ‘I do and I don’t mind. But more often than not these days people want to discuss my ADHD.’

He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in 2017. ‘Someone in the family had the symptoms which I recognised in myself. 

‘There are three adjectives to describe the condition: inattentive, impulsive, hyperactive.

‘I lack organisational skills. But I call ADHD my best friend and my worst enemy. It’s made me who I am and allows me to make leaps when I’m doing stand-up. 

‘By contrast I can’t tell you how many times I lose my phone and keys every day.’

But it does mean Rory, who lives with his sculptor wife in Oxfordshire, is always up for a new challenge. 

Quiz isn’t his debut in a play though. Ten years ago Trevor Nunn cast him in Noel Coward’s Relative Values alongside Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin. And in 2011 he partnered Erin Boag on Strictly.

Clearly, he’s never been someone who takes the safe route and he says retirement is out of the question. 

‘Am I happy? Yes, I think so. I certainly feel fulfilled, although there are always other things to do. 

‘But I still haven’t quite cracked the work/life balance. I’ve always thought the hardest impression of all is yourself.’

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