ITV has dramatised the infamous coughing scandal that rocked its own flagship quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? during the early Noughties.
Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen plays the so-called ‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram, Sian Clifford plays his wife Diana Ingram, and Michael Sheen plays quiz show host Chris Tarrant.
But what was the real-life story behind the scandal? Read on for everything you need to know about the history behind Quiz (starts on Sunday May 31 on AMC).
Who were Charles and Diana Ingram? Who was Adrian Pollock?
The real-life Charles and Diana Ingram, pictured in 2003 (Getty)
Charles Ingram and his wife, Diana Ingram, are a married couple with three children, and both were convicted of attempting steal a million pounds by deception on the ITV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, alongside ‘accomplice’ Tecwen Whittock. Back then, the quiz show was an audience sensation; at its height in 1999 it was watched by a third of the British population.
At the time he competed on the show in September in 2001, Charles was a Major in the British Army. His wife Diana and her brother, Adrian Pollock, were both huge fans of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, presented by Chris Tarrant, and both had in fact already appeared on the show – each sibling winning £32,000 after appearing separately in the chair.
Adrian had been so determined to compete that he’d even even built a replica “fastest finger” machine to practise on, and Diana started collating a book with tips on how to get onto the show. Now it was Charles’s turn.
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What was ‘The Syndicate’ – and who was Paddy Spooner?
In the show, we see Adrian Pollock and Diana Ingram getting involved with ‘The Syndicate’ – a network of quiz obsessives working together to get their members onto the show. They also team up to help contestants with their ‘Phone A Friend’.
“In real life they were called ‘The Consortium’ and we call them ‘The Syndicate’,” writer James Graham said on the official Quiz podcast Final Answer. “And they were run by a guy called Paddy Spooner, who we feature in a character and the show. And I just think it’s I think it’s remarkable both because it’s really exciting to watch essentially a kind of resistance movement… born out of incredibly polite, quite professional middle class people in these quiet English villages trying to put on a hack into a game show.”
He added: “They started to realise that, we talk about this on the program, that the show would publicise when the quieter moments were to call on their website. They soon realised that if you start calling in blocks rather than individual random calls, that would improve your chances. And of course, the biggest thing they discovered was that the ‘closest to’ questions, the questions that the show call you back on and ask you to test whether or not you’re going to be one of the 10 fastest finger first contestants. They realised those questions were constantly being rotated. So all you need is several dozen people around the country constantly ringing and constantly getting that call-back. And you start to gather a database of all the questions that you’re likely to be asked.”
Things got more complicated for Paddy Spooner when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? introduced a seven-second limit for potential contestants to answer questions over the phone. But he was able to salvage things when he realised the show was using a particular national statistics database to source their questions, and he soon had a solution to help his ‘clients’ at top speed. “Paddy had to sort of pause his operation and he went into his house and locked the door, and he really didn’t leave the house for three months while he built this question room,” Graham said.
And as we see on screen, Celador exec Paul Smith did indeed meet with Paddy Spooner – but in real life their meeting took place 15 years later, rather than around the time of the trial.
What gave Charles Ingram away? How was he “caught”?
Major Charles Ingram appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on the 9th and 10th September 2001 (just before 9/11 in the US), and he went on to win the grand prize. But ITV accused him of cheating, and his episode was not actually aired.
The questions we see Charles battling his way through on-screen are exactly the exact same questions he was asked in real life, though James Graham has said that Chris Tarrant’s dialogue is more of a “mixture of fiction and fact.”
Charles’s performance was surprising in many ways, not least because he appeared to keep changing his mind to the correct answer at the very last minute. For one question where the correct answer was the singer Craig David, Charles initially said that he had never heard of him – before switching to Craig David. He also had a strategy of listing each answer aloud.
The executives at ITV and production company Celador became suspicious, and after watching and listening back to Charles’s performance they came up with a theory: someone with the audience was coughing to indicate the correct answer. They identified that person as Tecwen Whittock, a Welsh college lecturer who was sitting in one of the the “fastest finger” seats on 10th September waiting for his own chance to compete. Diana Ingram, who was her husband’s guest in the audience, was also accused.
Soon the police were involved, and the trio were taken to court.
Did a coughing fit break out in court?
As James Graham revealed on the official Quiz podcast Final Answer, “One of the most astonishing facts about the court case in particular in episode three, that I just assume an audience watching it will think we are absolutely taking the mickey and that there’s no way that could’ve happened in real life, is the moment when a coughing fit breaks out and spreads across the courtroom from the jury through to the press gallery and including the judge. And it meant that the judge had to suspend the session and send everybody home.
“That is 100 percent true. It’s 100 percent true that in a trial about coughing, a coughing fit broke out and then everyone had to go home.”
Was Charles Ingram actually innocent?
The Ingrams and alleged accomplice Whittock were found guilty on 7th April 2003, following a trial at Southwark Crown Court where they were defended by Sonia Woodley QC.
To this day, the Ingrams have publicly maintained their innocence. And in recent years there has been doubt cast on their guilt, with journalists Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett publishing a book called Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major’ in 2015.
Discussing Charles Ingram’s performance on the show, Quiz writer James Graham exclusively told RadioTimes.com: “He behaved quite strangely in that chair, he played the game like no one has ever played that game before, and I still watch it and go, ‘What are you doing? Why are you convinced that it’s one thing, and then you change your mind to another answer?’
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Ingram in ITV’s QuizITV
“He [Charles Ingram] would argue it’s one of the tactics that Diana wrote about in her book, that it’s very useful strategy to be really entertaining, because they [the Ingrams] believed that the producers would give you easier questions if you were a really big, good character.
“And another strategy was that you had to control the pace, so Chris Tarrant is trying to get you to answer at a certain pace, and that what Charles was doing was to try to take control of that and use it to create some thinking time. That may be true, that may not be true, but I accept that everybody at the time thought that he was behaving really strangely.”
Today, many people have seen clips of the performance on YouTube, or while watching Martin Bashir’s 2003 documentary Major Fraud – during which you can hear Tecwen Whittock coughing and allegedly alerting Charles to the right answers.
Graham, who has met the real-life Ingrams, said: “I really loved meeting them, because they were so iconic in my head, having watched that YouTube clip of the Major’s performance so many times, and then you meet them and they suddenly become three dimensional.”
Fleabag actress Sian Clifford, who plays Diana Ingram in ITV’s Quiz, said during a press event that she believed that the Ingram trial in the early Noughties was an “open and shut case”.
Sian Clifford, Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen star in ITV’s Quiz
Graham told RadioTimes.com, “I remember seeing that trial unfold when I was a student up at Hull university when I was 18,19, and watching the documentary the Martin Bashir documentary Major Fraud after they were found guilty, and was just completely captivated by just the idea of basically a robbery but of a game show, a million pounds in front of a live studio audience and TV cameras, and just the audacity of that I thought was so incredible.
“And I thought, probably like the rest of the country still does that… they were completely guilty.”
However, Graham told us that he has “doubts” about the jury’s findings, pointing, for example, to ITV’s “manipulat[ion]” of the episode recording in order to isolate the coughs for the jury. That same version (with the very loud, isolated coughs) is the one that the population has also watched and heard in various documentaries and series.
Michael Jibson (far right) as Tecwen Whittock in ITV’s Quiz
“There were so many things that I found extraordinary about the case that don’t make sense,” Graham said. “The fact that the three of them had never met, the Ingrams and Tecwen Whittock, [they] had never spent any time in a room with each other, and only had one phone call that lasted eight minutes, as fans of the show who discovered they were gonna be on the same programme together.
“The fact that he [Whittock] has a diagnosed cough, he has an asthmatic condition that he can’t control. Would you pick someone who has an uncontrollable cough to cough at specific moments, during a really tense game show? Maybe you wouldn’t.”
What happened to Charles and Diana Ingram after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Discussing the aftermath of the TV appearance and trial, Graham said that “the impact on their [the Ingrams’] life and their family was extraordinary”.
He continued, “They lost their reputation, the Major was kicked out of the army, they went bankrupt I think – I think now they’ve been made bankrupt four times. You might argue that the scale of that, given that essentiality it is a game show, nobody died, there are no murderers in this story, I question the scale of the impact on their lives, compared to the crime.”
Sian Clifford told members of the press that “it wasn’t hard to empathise” with the real-life Charles and Diana Ingram.
“You don’t need to dig very deep to find out what happened to them,” she said. “I mean, they were persecuted and harassed by the press but also by the public, their pet animals were all attacked… I mean it’s pretty gruesome. Their children were bullied so much they had take them out of school. It’s quite extreme, and so it wasn’t hard to empathise, honestly.”
On-screen, we see that someone has shot and killed the family dog, Buffy. But here’s an extra piece of trivia: in reality, it was the family cat which was shot, but Matthew Macfadyen has such a severe cat allergy that the production had to sub in a dog.
Quiz starts on Sunday May 31 at 10/9c on AMC
This article was originally published on 13 April 2020