By Ash Percival
It’s almost unimaginable these days that a quiz show could be one of the highest-rated programmes on TV, but when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? debuted on ITV in 1998, it was unlike anything people had seen before.
Offering the biggest cash prize ever offered on UK television show, 19 million of us were hooked on the jeopardy, thrills and crushing disappointment that played out as everyday people attempted to win a million pounds and change their lives forever.
With huge sums of money being handed out, thousands were applying to take part. Two of those were Diana Ingram and her brother Adrian Pollock.
Between 2000 and 2001 both of them made it through to play for the £1m, but each walked away with a tidy £32,000.
While their appearances passed by with little to remark about, the same could not be said for Diana’s husband Charles’ subsequent stint on the show later in 2001.
From it came the story commonly known as “The Coughing Major” – one of the biggest scandals to ever rock British TV.
The Ingrams were accused of cheating their way to the £1m jackpot by using an elaborate coughing scheme, whereby Diana and an accomplice in the studio would cough to indicate the correct answers to Charles.
The story is just as fascinating and farcical as it was 19 years ago, and this week, it will be revisited on ITV in new real-life drama Quiz, starring former Spooks actor Matthew MacFayden and Fleabag‘s Sian Clifford as the couple at the centre of a national scandal.
“I am going to play ‘googol’.”
On 9 September 2001, Charles Ingram – a former army major – finally made it to the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? studio. He’d spent weeks practising on a specially constructed Fastest Finger First machine to ensure he was agile enough to make it past the selection round. After a question about Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile, he was in the hot seat.
The show’s host, Chris Tarrant, referred to his wife watching on in the studio audience, referencing her previous win. “We have both got big families so there are plenty of people to come,” Ingram joked.
But Charles’ game did not get off to a great start as he floundered over questions about Audrey Roberts’ daughter in Coronation Street and the River Foyle in Northern Ireland. By the time he’d answered the £4,000 question, he’d used two of his three lifelines – Ask The Audience and Phone A Friend.
As the show’s famous claxon then signalled the end of the recording, Ingram returned for the following day’s taping with a new attitude.
“I have a strategy,” he told Tarrant. “I was a bit defensive on the last show and I started to talk myself out of answers that I should know. This time I’m going on a counter-attack. I’m going to be a bit more positive. I’m going to show a bit more self-commitment.”
But as Ingram resumed his game, he flipped between the multiple choice answers erratically, settling on particular answers before swiftly changing his mind.
Becoming increasingly unbelievable to those behind the scenes, Ingram made it through to the final question – the one standing between him and a whopping £1m.
“A number one followed by 100 zeros is known by what name?” Tarrant asked. “A googol, a megatron, a gigabit or a nanomol?”
“I think it is nanomol but it could be a gigabit, but I am not sure,” Ingram mused. “I do not think I can do this one. I do not think it is a megatron. I do not think I have heard of a googol.” But remarkably – or as it would have appeared on TV – Ingram plumped for the answer he’d never heard.
“I am going to play ‘googol’,” he told Tarrant.
“Final answer?” the host replied, with his famous catchphrase.
After locking it in, Tarrant was stunned at Ingram’s seemingly amazing elimination process, before a classic TV pregnant pause followed.
The silence was then cut by Tarrant bellowing: “You’ve just won £1m!”
The audience cheered, confetti fell from the ceiling, and Ingram’s wife joined him on the set. “I have no idea how you got there, you went to hell and back out there,” Tarrant told him. “You are an amazing human being.” A grinning Diana added: “How the hell did you do it?”
The answer to that question has been hotly debated ever since.
Suspicions had arisen during filming after a sound engineer working on the show noticed coughing directly after a number of correct answers when they were read out. After they informed the show’s production company, Celador, execs and technicians reviewed the tapes, before concluding that Ingram must have won the show unscrupulously. Police were called and Ingram’s payout suspended.
It was alleged that the couple had been in collusion with Tecwen Whittock, a college lecturer from Cardiff. Diana had met him on the game show circuit and apparently recruited him to act as an advisor to her husband.
On Ingram’s second night in the hot seat, Whittock had made it into the studio as a Fastest Finger First contestant, who was sat just 10ft away from the Major.
Their supposed scheme saw Ingram read out the four possible answers with Whittock or Diana Ingram then coughing on the correct one to signal to how he should respond to the question.
After police pursued the case against them, it went to trial in March 2003, where the Ingrams – along with Whittock – faced charges of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception”.
With the case being so high profile, a media circus followed, with the tabloids and TV news reporters hungry for all the latest developments in the story to splash on their front pages and lead their bulletins.
During the four-week trial at Southwark Crown Court in London, a jury watched unedited footage of Ingram making his way to the top, with sounds of coughing amplified relative to other noise. The prosecution noted 19 “significant” coughs which they asserted were from Whittock, each falling any time the correct answer had been spoken. Maintaining his innocence, Ingram claimed the footage was “unrepresentative of what he heard” and had been “unfairly manipulated”.
The court also heard of an investigation into the Ingrams’ personal finances, which revealed the couple had debts of over £50,000 “at or about” the time he participated on Millionaire. A similar investigation into Whittock’s finances also showed he was over £37,000 in debt.
In his testimony, Whittock denied deliberately coughing on the correct answers, claiming he’d had a persistent cough all his life caused by a combination of hay fever and a dust allergy, and any coughs that coincided with a correct answer were completely coincidental.
However, when the prosecution presented footage of Whittock making it into the hot seat to play for £1m having won the Fastest Finger First round following Ingram’s win, they noted an absence of coughing as he spoke to Tarrant. He testified this was because he’d drank several glasses of water beforehand. The defence called Whittock’s doctor and friends as witnesses, who confirmed his throat problems.
As well as recorded evidence, the court also heard testimonies from a Fastest Finger First contestant who claimed to have picked up the pattern of coughs while in the studio. Millionaire’s floor manager said he had noticed the coughing and had investigated where it was coming from, identifying Whittock. He revealed that producers also took the unusual step of searching Ingram after the show, suspicious he was cheating using hidden pagers.
Chris Tarrant also took to the stand, stating he was shocked by the accusations against the Ingrams, having drunk champagne in their dressing room with them after Ingram’s big win. “They seemed as normal as people who have just won a million pounds would be in the situation,” Tarrant said, adding that he “certainly would not have signed” the £1m cheque “if I thought there was anything wrong”.
On 7 April 2003, after a three-and-a-half day deliberation, the jury found the trio guilty.
Both the Ingrams and Whittock were each fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £10,000 towards prosecution costs. They each received prison sentences suspended for two years – the Ingrams were sentenced to 18 months, and Whittock 12 months. The judge later ordered the Ingrams to pay additional defence costs: Charles £40,000 and Diana £25,000, pushing their total costs as a couple up to £115,000. They later had to file for bankruptcy and the Major was also stripped of his title by the Army Board, after 17 years of service.
Despite the outcome of the trial convincing the majority of their guilt, the Ingrams have always maintained their innocence.
In 2006, it was reported Ingram had spent £300,000 in legal costs fighting in the law courts to clear his name, but to little result. “I had the cheque in my hands – I won it fair and square. I have been robbed, and completely refute all the allegations,” he said. “Clearing my name is more important than any money. I do not regret going on the show, but feel the subsequent court case was a farce.”
Some journalists have also supported the idea the couple are not guilty, with Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett publishing a book, Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, in 2015 claiming there was unseen evidence that proved they were innocent.
In the immediate years after the case, the Ingrams became minor celebrities, appearing on reality shows like The Games, The Weakest Link and Wife Swap, where Charles and Diana swapped partners with late Big Brother star Jade Goody and her then-boyfriend Jeff Brazier. However, Ingram told the Guardian that he only suffered the publicity “through gritted teeth” because he needed the money. “I have only my notoriety to market – what can I do?” he said.
In the same interview, he also revealed he had contemplated suicide at one point over his mounting debts and lack of savings. He said the period after losing the £1m was “a deeply depressing time of despair”.
Since then, the Ingrams have faded back into obscurity, now leading a quiet life away from the public eye. So perhaps then, some will be surprised to hear that the couple agreed to be involved in the TV dramatisation of the scandal.
Writer James Graham had previously turned the story into a West End stage play in 2017, and approached the Ingrams after he signed up to adapt it into a TV drama for ITV.
Revealing he met people on “both sides of the debate” including ITV and Celador execs, James says of the Ingrams: “They both came to see the stage play and talked to me then. And we’ve been in contact ever since all the way through developing and producing the TV drama, including them visiting the actors on set one day when we were filming. So that has been a constant journey.
“The Ingrams were understandably maybe a little bit wary at first and not hugely enthusiastic about dredging up, essentially, a 15 year old story just as they try to maintain as normal a life as is possible.
“However… because they understood we would be asking the question that possibly it didn’t play out exactly as people think, they were happy to give their point of view.”
Having met the couple briefly on set, actor Matthew MacFayden, who plays Charles, remains “in two minds as to the guilt or their innocence”.
“I haven’t come to a conclusion about whether they are guilty or not. I don’t know how you can,” he says.
However, one thing he and co-star Sian Clifford, who plays Diana, agree on is that the consequences the couple faced appear disproportionate to their supposed crime.
“I can only imagine what it’s like having your lives thrown into the press like that, the negative psychological impact and how damaging and frightening it would have been,” Sian says.
“Their pets were attacked, people spat at Charles, they had to move house and he lost his job in the Army. It was pretty hard going for them,” Matthew adds. “It feels like they have suffered disproportionately. It’s a game show. Nobody died.”
Quiz begins on Easter Monday at 9pm on ITV.