From Fleabag’s Sister to the Woman Who Scammed ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
Sian Clifford turned heads last year as Claire in “Fleabag.” Now she’s leading-lady status, playing a real-life woman accused of cheating TV’s biggest game show in AMC’s “Quiz.”
In 2001, the blockbuster game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was at the peak of its popularity in the U.K. One-third of the country’s population was tuning in live every night. ABC, which is owned by Disney, had recently purchased the rights to air an American version of the series, and suits at ITV were offering prayers of gratitude to Mickey Mouse as they cashed their checks.
Charles Ingram, a former English army major, and his wife, Diana, a teacher and mother to their two children, both appeared as contestants on Millionaire during its meteoric rise, as did Diana’s brother, Adrian—a remarkable coincidence for a game show notoriously difficult to win a seat on. While both Diana and Adrian tapped out at the £32,000 point, Charles, despite a disastrous start to his run and a confusingly erratic pattern of answers, took home the £1,000,000 prize.
The glory was short-lived. Charles and Diana, along with an accomplice, were accused of an elaborate cheating scheme and scamming their way to victory. Charles was stripped of his earnings, and the trio were tried in court for their “audacious heist”—stealing £1,000,000.
The details of their alleged con add up to one of the wildest pop-culture scandals in modern television history. In Britain, as the trial dragged on for years, the couple became the kind of notorious media celebrities that the Y2K-era appetite for salacious news coverage was primed for birthing—especially when the pillorying turned into skepticism as people wondered if they may have been innocent all along.
It is a 100 percent true, outrageous story. So why haven’t you heard of it?
“It was a huge event in the U.K., but it happened two days before 9/11,” actress Sian Clifford explains delicately. “So I think it kind of got buried in the U.S., obviously, in other news stories.”
Clifford, the actress best known for her Emmy-nominated performance as Claire, the sister to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s titular character in Fleabag, was as rapt as the rest of Britain when the headlines unfolded almost two decades ago. But she’s become even more intimately acquainted with the nuances behind those headlines now, thanks to her starring role portraying Diana in the new limited series Quiz.
Premiering stateside on AMC this Sunday after a critically lauded airing on Britain’s ITV, Quiz rallies all of your British favorites to dramatize the sordid tale. In addition to Clifford, who is high on the crest of her Fleabag breakout, the series stars Succession’s indelible Tom, Matthew Macfadyen, as Charles, with Michael Sheen taking on Millionaire presenter Chris Tarrant and A Very English Scandal’s maestro Stephen Frears directing the whole thing.
“I think I saw what everyone else did, which is that they were absolutely guilty,” Clifford remembers of the time. “There was never any doubt in terms of how it was portrayed by the press at the time.”
It’s hard to characterize just how big a phenomenon Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was, because nothing on its scale exists now, or will ever exist again. Both when it premiered in the U.K. and eventually found its way stateside with Regis Philbin and his shiny satin ties in the quizmaster chair, the entire country gathered to watch each week.
The concept was brilliant. “Pub quizzes”—what we call “bar trivia” here—were already popular nightly activities. As one executive says in the series, “People love a good pub quiz, a uniquely British invention combining our two greatest loves: drinking and being right.” Why not translate that experience to TV...and sweeten it with the biggest prize in game-show history?
“It's kind of odd to look back and think about that now because the trends of how we watch television have changed so dramatically in the last 20 years,” Clifford says.
Her family watched every episode live and tried desperately to get her step-father onto the show, but to no avail and a massive phone bill. But she had no delusions of million-dollar grandeur herself. “I’m horrible at trivia,” she says. “Unless you hit on some obscure category like the albums of New Kids on the Block.”
But she understood Diana’s obsession and desperate desire to get on the show, if not necessarily the lengths to which she would be accused of going: practicing on home-fashioned “Fastest Fingers” buzzers, infiltrating a syndicate that would share information on how to game your way into being chosen as a contestant, and, in the ultimate downfall, allegedly coughing from the audience to help Charles win.
Times were more innocent. There were no mobile phones. There wasn’t as much policing and surveilling. Sure, what they did sounds crazy now. But then, it seemed, at least to the couple, as nothing more than intense fandom. “There is a real naivety and essence to Charles and Diana,” Clifford says, referring to the infamous couple, not the royals. “There’s something extraordinarily ordinary about them.”
If you watched Clifford on Fleabag then you’re already keen to Clifford’s knack for drawing out nuance from women who are written off as a certain type. As a double feature of major opportunities, Quiz following Fleabag creates an enticing showcase for the versatility of a woman emerging as one of the industry’s most exciting actresses.
“It’s a very fickle industry I work in,” she tells me. “So I’m just gonna try and enjoy it while it lasts.”
“I look like a pencil!”
It was the funniest line in Fleabag, which was the funniest show of 2019 by any metric of how these things are measured: the amount of Best Comedy awards it won (every single one of them), the web-crashing number of fawning critical essays, or the ranting raves of your friends over brunch.
It was funny because she did; Claire looked like a pencil. The gag worked because of what it represented, too: a woman in the throes of desperation who caves to a fleeting desire to indulge herself, only to have it end in coiffure catastrophe. Bereft, she partners with her sister to avenge her hair and prove why these things, superficial as they seem, really do matter.
But it was also funny because of how Clifford delivers the line. It’s somewhat pouty and self-pitying, flecked with sparks of intense rage, tempered with crushing embarrassment, and, for all of that negativity, forceful in its indisputable confidence. You can’t even lie and say she doesn’t look like a pencil. Don’t even try to make her feel better.
It’s the perfect Claire moment in Fleabag.
Any indignities that befell her seemed all the more tragic because of the work she put in to construct a life of propriety and togetherness, one that was supposed to fortify and protect her against such things.
She’s forced to humiliate herself by presenting a Best Woman in Business award to her idol that is actually the bust of a naked woman. She must rely on the generosity of a sister she is in a massive fight with to cover up a miscarriage she suffers while at a family dinner. When she finally finds the kind of “throw it all away,” thrilling love in her life, it is with a man who has her same first name.
Fleabag is the show’s protagonist, this id bumbling through life as best as she can. When bad things happen to her you’re meant to feel empathy. Claire is her foil in every way, judging her mistakes even when trying to unearth compassion.
When a character like that suffers a misstep, we’re trained to delight in the schadenfreude of it all. That’s where Clifford’s genius surfaces, revealing the ways that buried emotions fester until their toxicity erodes someone’s carefully built—and impeccably adorned—walls. You ache for her.
She’s upended our instincts as audiences, and in doing so cemented the foundation that makes everything that happens in Fleabag work. Their sisterhood ties together the entire show. You feel safe in weathering the ride because, whatever happens to these two characters, there is an unwavering, unspoken support between them as a safety net.
When critics started to mount campaigns for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Clifford at last year’s Emmy Awards, she was startled to be considered at all. Sure, Fleabag was going to be a major awards presence and, fresh off her Oscar win, co-star Olivia Colman was a likely Supporting Actress contender. That Clifford might be a dark horse contender, too? It was almost too much kindness.
Humbled, she went on Twitter and thanked every writer she could find who dreamed such a nice dream for her. When she actually was nominated, she proclaimed, “I need to go and hug every individual hero who made that happen for me.” When she was at the Television Critics Association press tour in January promoting Quiz, she tried to again thank as many individual writers as she could for their support. Sometimes the “I’m so humbled” actor thing isn’t the act we suspect it to be.
Like all things star-crossed, the origin story of Clifford’s partnership with Phoebe Waller-Bridge is almost too fated, so on-the-nose it even seems orchestrated for profiles like these.
As the story goes, Clifford was in her first week of training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts about 16 years ago. When class was over, she headed to the train, caught the eye of a classmate and they began talking, gabbing for the entire 45 minutes it took to get to west London. Yes, duh, that classmate was Waller-Bridge.
They developed mutual talent crushes while at school. As Waller-Bridge once told The Los Angeles Times, “When the rest of us at drama school were throwing ourselves at walls and wearing ridiculous costumes to get attention, she was working on the detail, the depth and the integrity of the character. It took me a while to learn how to do that. It’s in her bones.”
Both would go to work in the theater, collaborating together frequently. Clifford’s first entrance into the world of Fleabag was more than a decade ago, before there was even a one-woman show that the series would one day be based on. Waller-Bridge wrote a sketch about two sisters at a feminist lecture who reflexively raise their hands when the speaker asks if they’d trade years of their lives for a great body, withdrawing them once they saw that no one else did. A version of the scene is in the first episode of Fleabag.
Waller-Bridge and Clifford made a pact with each other in 2003 that if either of them should get a big break, they’d take the other one along with them. So when Waller-Bridge got a deal for Fleabag, she wrote it with Clifford in mind for Claire. The producers, however, wanted a more established TV name.
That didn’t fly with Waller-Bridge, who fought to land Clifford an audition by tape. The two worked together to perfect it. Once the producers saw it, they got it. There was no other pairing of performers, famous as they may be, that was going to mimic their rapport.
We ask Clifford how she feels about the fact that she’s going to be asked about Fleabag forever. It’s a blessing and a curse, as many actors have said before, to be so closely identified with a phenomenon on this show’s level. Here we are, for example, going on and on about Fleabag when Clifford has another very good show to promote.
“I’m kind of fine with that,” she says, bursting out into laughter. “It’s so close to my heart. I mean, of all the things that have changed my life and my career… I’m very happy to live with that. But I’m also thrilled to be sitting amongst the Fleabag storm, but riding in on the wave of Quiz.”
The Year of Fleabag was one in which there were few things to complain about. “This isn’t a time or an experience I’m going to take for granted, so if people want to ask me about Fleabag forever I’m happy to answer questions on that.”
It goes without saying that getting cast as the female lead in a major limited series is an opportunity born out of the impact Fleabag has had on her career. She wasn’t being considered for parts like this before, turned away just like she originally was for Fleabag in lieu of famous names. Now she is one.
“It is impossible to articulate really, because a lot of it is an internal feeling,” she says about the ways in which her life has changed. “And a lot of it is also the way that I am now perceived in the world. So that changes, but you don't. And then things can feel at odds even though nothing has really changed. Yeah, so it's kind of a nothing and everything.”
The awards attention was an added surreal element to the ride. It’s not often that a series wraps its final episode and, instead of saying goodbye for good, the entire cast continually travels back and forth across the Atlantic for the better part of a year to pick up trophies at every American and European television award show.
“It’s been lovely to meet Brad Pitt,” Clifford says. “But the most memorable stuff is the intimate moments I’ve shared with my friends on a red carpet in front of the world.”
And, even if not supporting Fleabag, Clifford says, in the tease we all want to hear, that maybe one day she’ll be alongside Waller-Bridge on that red carpet again, too. “Phoebe and I are going to continue to collaborate. So it’s the last you've seen of Fleabag and Claire, but not the last you’ve seen of us together.”