The true story behind 'Quiz': What really happened with the Millionaire cheat the 'Coughing Major'?

Ben Arnold
·Contributor
·6-min read
Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana arrive at Bow Magistrates court in central London, where he was accused of dishonestly attempting to win  1 million on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.   * Ingram, 39, won the top prize on the TV programme hosted by Chris Tarrant last September. The couple and business lecturer Tecwen Whittock were all charged with deception and conspiracy, have been given conditional bail and ordered to return to Southwark Crown Court on August 28, by District Judge Nicholas Evans.
Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana arrive at Bow Magistrates court (Credit: PA)

As new three-part drama Quiz comes to ITV on Easter Monday, we take a look back at the TV scandal that shocked the nation.

Everyone remembers it. The moment when the seemingly hapless Major Charles Ingram, who heroically bumbled his way to the million pound jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in 2001, chose his final answer.

Asked 'A number one following by one hundred zeros is known by what name?' he blunders from answer to answer, the stakes as high as they could be - the difference between winning a million quid and not winning a million quid.

In hindsight, it seems stunningly obvious that someone in the audience coughs when he flounders over the answer 'googol', but after a period of what seems like interminable faffing, the Major chooses his final answer. The audience is aghast at this sudden decisiveness. Moments ago, he seemed clueless. The camera switches to his wife Diana. She has her head in her hands.

Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen, with Michael Sheen, in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)
Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen, with Michael Sheen, in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)

Host Chris Tarrant then theatrically tears up the cheque Ingram is holding for £500,000, waits for a beat or two (or three) to intensify the drama, and then informs him that he's now a millionaire. Cue thunderous applause and a big cuddle from Tarrant. Festooned in ticker tape, Ingram, in his casual rugby shirt, is punching the air. And everyone saw it on primetime TV.

Except we didn't. No one except those in the audience saw it. The fateful episode of the show was never aired. We may think that we saw it – ITV later produced an extended Tonight with Trevor McDonald show presented by Martin Bashir on the case – but we did not.

“I thought, along with pretty much everyone else on the production, that I'd seen it,” admits executive producer Dan Winch. “The cast thought they'd seen it, and even now, I still swear I saw it. It's a reflection of the power of the media. The seed of a few clips. It's fascinating.”

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY NOVEMBER 15 File photo dated 12/03/03 of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant arriving at Southwark Crown Court, central London, to give evidence at the trial of Army major Charles Ingram, who was convicted of cheating to win the show's top prize. It has been revealed that Michael Sheen will star as Chris Tarrant in the upcoming ITV drama series Quiz, which is based on the infamous Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant arriving at Southwark Crown Court (Credit: PA)

Like a lot of things that happened – the news coverage, the consequent Crown Court trial – we think we know an awful lot about the incident, principally that the Ingrams were guilty of cheating. Ingram was branded 'the coughing major'. Even that was wrong.

Tecwen Whittock, a lecturer and fellow contestant on the show, was the one doing the coughing, and was accused of signalling the correct answers to Ingram. The whole thing – a disgraced, presumably well-to-do Major in the British Army, his seemingly po-faced wife, a court case involving the biggest, most dramatic British quiz show ever and its incorrigible showman of a host – it was tabloid catnip. The Ingrams are even called Charles and Diana.

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But three-part drama Quiz, directed by Stephen Frears and adapted from James Graham's West End play, shows that perhaps it's not all as black and white as we think. In it, Succession star Matthew Macfadyen plays Ingram, with Fleabag's Sian Clifford as Diana and Michael Sheen transformed into Tarrant.

Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)
Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)

“Certainly, I absolutely feel, having gone into the project thinking like the majority of people that they are this guilty couple, to coming out the other side thinking 'actually I'm not sure if they're guilty at all,'” adds Winch.

Celador, the company behind the show, suspended the £1 million winnings soon after the show was recorded, and the case went to court, with the Ingrams and Whittock facing serious fraud charges. On 7 April, 2003, after four weeks of evidence and several days of deliberation, a jury found all three guilty of procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception.

The Ingrams were given 18-month suspended sentences, Whittock was given a 12-month suspended sentence, and each were fined £15,000 and £10,000 towards the court's costs. Two months later, this was increased, leaving the Ingrams with a bill of £115,000, and that summer the Army Board demanded Ingram's resignation after 17 years of service.

But the Ingrams have long protested their innocence, something that seems absurd considering the evidence of what became known during the trial as 'Tape G'. Tape G, provided by the production company, isolated the audio of 192 coughs recorded from the audience during the show, 19 of which the prosecution deemed 'significant'. One comes from Whittock during a question on Parisian city planning, where he appears to cough then audibly shout 'no!' shortly after Ingram begins mulling the wrong answer (the court reportedly burst out laughing listening to this particular evidence, with the judge threatening to clear the public gallery). Diana Ingram even appears to join in, coughing as Charles wavers over the right answer to a question about R&B star Craig David.

Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)
Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen in Quiz (Credit: ITV/Matt Frost)

“It was a very unique performance that Charles Ingram gave that made it so suspicious,” says Winch. “He'd begin giving the wrong answer, then list all the other possible answers, and then come back round to a different answer by the end. And he did that on every question.”

But there remained doubts. The case for the defence pointed out that Whittock, who Ingram said he'd only met for the first time at Southwark Crown Court, had suffered a chronic cough throughout his life. It was claimed these were unconscious reflex coughs at the right answers.

Footage of fellow Millionaire winner Judith Keppel recorded similar audible coughing from the audience at the right answers. As for Whittock’s alleged mumbling of ‘no’ at the opportune moment, whispers of ‘no’ at the wrong answers had been known to be heard among the show’s audiences when a wrong answer was read out. Tarrant also said while on the stand that he had noticed no coughing at all while filming the episode.

Tecwen Whittock leaves Southwark Crown Court in London, following an appearance relating to charges of fraud. Mr Whittock, along with Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana, are charged with cheating on the television programme, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.   (Photo by Johnny Green - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Tecwen Whittock leaves Southwark Crown Court in London, following an appearance relating to charges of fraud. Mr Whittock, along with Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana, are charged with cheating on the television programme, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. (Photo by Johnny Green - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

“There were doubts enough,” adds Winch. “Doubts that it's not a clear cut as the court concluded. I'm torn. I can't actually decide what I think happened. All I know is that I'm in two minds. It felt there was enough inconsistency to be a level of doubt to have fallen, I think, unfairly against the Ingrams. There was reasonable doubt. And it's ludicrous to think there wasn't.”

Quiz airs on three consecutive nights at 9pm on ITV from 13 April.