AMC’s new three-part miniseries, Quiz, is a fictionalized account of a very real scandal from 2001, centering around the popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It follows Major Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen, Succession) and his wife Diana (Sian Clifford, Fleabag), both of whom were taken to court and accused of conspiring to steal £1 million during Charles’ time as a contestant on the show.
For anybody who wasn’t an avid viewer of British television in 2001, here’s the basic premise of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: Applicants secure a place on the show by placing four answers in the right order in the quickest time, such as putting A) Winter, B) Summer, C) Spring and D) Fall in chronological order. They key in the answers on a machine consisting of A,B, C and D buttons; this is called the “fastest finger first” round. For anyone who remembers the original Regis Philbin iteration of Millionaire here in the United States, this is essentially the same thing.
The fastest contestant then gets to participate in the show, where they are asked 15 increasingly difficult questions by host Chris Tarrant (played in Quiz by Michael Sheen). The prize money grows with each correct answer, culminating in £1 million for the 15th question. Contestants have three single-use lifelines that can help them: “50/50” takes away two of the four multiple choice answers, “ask the audience” polls the studio audience on what they think is the right answer, and “phone a friend” allows you to call a nominated person at home to ask for their input.
Army Major Charles Ingram took part in the show after his wife Diana and brother-in-law Adrian Pollock had both already been contestants and won £32,000 each. Learning from their experiences, Ingram maximized his chances of getting in the hot seat by practicing daily on a homemade “fastest finger first” machine.
A cough was the key to the scheme.
During Ingram’s initial appearance on the show, he used two of his lifelines and did not appear to be performing very well. However, on the second night (the show aired on consecutive weekdays), his approach had changed. Despite claiming to have no prior knowledge of the subject matter involved in the questions (such as the work of singer Craig David), he kept getting them right. In fact, he got all of the questions right, and won the £1 million jackpot.
But rumors soon began to circulate that something was amiss; Ingram’s sudden upswing, and the fact that he had drawn out his answers for as long as possible, reciting each possible option multiple times. It was then that producers looked back at the footage, and heard an audible cough from the audience whenever Ingram stated the correct answer to a question. Most of the coughs came from a college lecturer named Tecwen Whittock, another “fastest finger first” hopeful, while on one occasion, the cough which appeared to determine the right answer came from Ingram’s wife, Diana.
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The production company Celador immediately suspended payment of the £1 million prize, and both Charles and Diana Ingram, along with Whittock, were subsequently charged with “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception.” The story of the “coughing major” blew up in the press all over the world, and the trial was followed as closely as if the Ingrams had managed to pull off the heist of the century. It didn’t help matters that Diana and her brother, Adrian, had co-authored a book all about their experiences of playing the game, which some interpreted as a “cheat’s guide” to getting on the show.
All three were eventually found guilty and convicted, albeit with suspended sentences, and each ordered to pay fines of £15,000 and legal fees of £10,000. Ingram was also forced to resign his Army commission.
The Ingrams maintain their innocence to this day. For his part, Millionaire host Chris Tarrant also believed at the time that they were guilty of no wrongdoing. Nearly 20 years later, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know. Unlike the quiz show phenomenon that started it all, there is no final answer.
Quiz premieres on Sunday, May 31 at 10:00 E.S.T. on AMC.
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