Fleabag’s Sian Clifford On Recreating A Very English Scandal

The actress plays Diana Ingram in ITV's Quiz.

Sian Clifford

by grazia |
Updated on

Being part of an iconic TV show can be a blessing and a curse. For every Jennifer Aniston (who has found huge success and acclaim in serious drama, romcoms and last year’s The Morning Show), there are countless actors who have never been able to shake off a character they may have said goodbye to decades ago. For Sian Clifford, who played Claire in Fleabag, moving on from the beloved comedy brings new challenges – to find exciting roles that cement her status as so much more than an asymmetrical bob. First, a small role in Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins’ new comedy, Hitmen. Then, a major one in Sky’s Two Weeks To Live. And, most impactfully, this week a standout performance that takes on a very English scandal.

Easter Monday sees the broadcast of Quiz, a riveting depiction of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? scandal that gripped the nation in 2001. Sian is Diana, wife of the coughing Major Charles Ingram, played by Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen. The heist led to a criminal prosecution but, Sian points out, the couple were also victims.

‘You don’t need to dig very deep to point out what happened to them,’ Sian explains, pre-lockdown at an event at London’s Soho Hotel. ‘They were persecuted and harassed by the press, but also by the public. Their children were bullied so much they had to take them out of school. Their pets were attacked. It’s pretty gruesome.’ Indeed, one of their dogs – set upon by a gang of teenagers – was killed. ‘It’s quite extreme,’ Sian says. ‘So it wasn’t hard to empathise.’

The programme, written by James Graham, explores the real-life machinations behind this coup, a Middle England consortium of quiz fans who followed underhand – but technically legal – methods to get a chance to offer their final answers. Sian was 19 at the time, but remembers it well. ‘It just gripped the nation didn’t it?’ she recalls. ‘I was completely embroiled in it. To me, it was an open and shut case. There was no question. No consideration of the human cost. And I hope that this can contribute to that conversation in a big way. Because I don’t know that how they were treated was proportionate to what was going on.’

Footage from the media storm of the time provided ample inspiration for Sian’s depiction of Diana, but she was aided by the remarkable set of the ITV studio, with everything from the lights to the fastest-finger-first buttons recreated in meticulous detail. ‘That music is designed to get into your bones,’ she says of the memorably dramatic theme. ‘And it works. It really makes you feel tense, and it makes you want to play: that’s the beauty of how it was all designed.’

Sian recreates Diana’s scenes from her seat in the audience, watching helplessly as her husband first flails, then clutches correct answers from nowhere. ‘They were some of my most challenging scenes to film,’ she admits, ‘because I was quite isolated from Matthew, sat up in that chair, watching the whole time.’ It would have been exactly how Diana felt, and Sian got the chance to consult her, just once, when they came to visit during production.

‘They were so sweet, and it was really important for me to not engage at all with what was written about them at the time,’ she explains. ‘She’s painted as this kind of Lady Macbeth and I don’t think that’s who she is: she struck me as an introvert, someone who’s quite shy, very sweet and definitely naive. Charles commands the room, and she doesn’t doesn’t say very much. But they said they’re thrilled that Matthew and I were playing them.’

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