In 2001, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s coughing scandal made villains out of British couple Charles and Diana Ingram. A new three part drama on SoHo (and Lightbox) suggest they may be innocent after all.
There are few creative works that can be considered genuinely seminal; few that changed the game so entirely that the genre is divided into before and after its release. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is one of those works. When it debuted in 1998, it wasn’t just the prize money that made it unique, even though it was far more than had ever been given away on British TV before. It was the realisation – obvious in retrospect – that a quiz show appearance is one of the most consequential, and stressful, days of any contestant’s life. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s genius idea was to make the experience even worse for them.
A Gestapo officer couldn’t have designed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with more rigorous sadism. Contestants faced host Chris Tarrant across a stark, comfortless stage, the audience surrounding them like Romans at the Colosseum. They answered questions under a spotlight’s glare, the camera pulled in tight to capture every bead of sweat and flash of self-doubt on their face. Meanwhile the soundtrack, designed to mimic the sound of a beating heart, turned the screws on viewers at home; for each question answered correctly, the music’s pitch reputedly increased by a semitone, ratcheting up the tension to near-unbearable levels as the million-pound question approached.
The result of all these psychological tricks was a massive television hit as depicted in the early scenes of Quiz, a three-part series telling the story of the infamous “coughing major” scandal three years into the show’s run. By then, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was an international sensation (New Zealand even had our own Mike Hosking-hosted version, albeit long after the original’s heyday) and an object of obsession for trivia junkies across Britain. But despite WWTBAM’s then cutting-edge technical bells and whistles, there were flaws in the mechanics of the quiz itself that were quickly and effectively exploited by its most passionate fans.
For Charles Ingram, the military man who would one day be known as the coughing major (fun fact: he never actually coughed on the show), the quest to beat WWTBAM was a family affair. His brother-in-law was the first to make it into the Millionaire hot seat, followed by his wife Diana; each departed £32,000 (NZ$64,000) richer. And then it was Charles’ turn.
One of the great joys of Quiz is the extreme unremarkability of Charles and Diana Ingram (those names!), two Middle England dweebs who found themselves thrust into one of the biggest scandals in UK TV history. They’re played by Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford, and their performances have echoes of each actor’s most loved recent roles – for Macfadyen, the dithering dimness of Tom Wambsgans in Succession, and for Clifford, the brittle melancholy of Fleabag’s sister Claire. Diana was clearly the smarter of the two (although a twist near the end of Quiz calls that assumption into question) and with her long dark hair and deadpan demeanour it was easy to see her as a Lady Macbeth character – one who pressured her husband to appear on the game show she was obsessed with, then masterminded a scheme to cheat his way to £1 million.
The method by which this alleged scam was carried out had two parts. The first, to make it into the hot seat itself, involved a shadowy syndicate of quizzers who called themselves The Consortium (yes, really) and intense daily practices on a homemade “Fastest Finger First” machine. The second was simplicity itself: when Tarrant read out the multiple-choice answers, someone in the audience – either Diana Ingram or a fellow contestant named Tecwen Whittock – would cough after the right answer. With their help, over two nights, nice but dim Charles made his implausible, utterly gripping run at the million-pound cheque.
I was living in the UK when the scandal broke, and there are two things I still remember about it: how huge the public uproar was, and how obvious it was that the Ingrams and “co-conspirator” Whittock were guilty. A recording of Ingram’s questions over those two nights, along with the clear sound of coughing after the correct answers, was played incessantly on news programmes. It was fun to imagine how this apparently boring couple could have come up with such an audacious con, and impossible to imagine how they ever thought they could get away with it.
But, asks Quiz, could it be that Charles and Diana didn’t actually do it? The couple has always protested their innocence, and the final episode of the series presents a pretty good case for the defence. What if Whittock really did have a chronic, incessant cough due to allergies? What if, as Diana plaintively protests post-arrest, they were just two people who “really, really liked quizzes”? Well, then the story looks quite different. Instead of a greedy duo brought down by a few eagle-eared TV producers, they’re a couple who fought hard to win a show that promised to make their dreams come true only to find themselves living in a nightmare, and well over a million pounds poorer for it.
Quiz premieres on Sky SoHo at 8.30pm tonight and then will be available on demand on Lightbox.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.