Watching Quiz? The True Story Is Even More Wild Than the Miniseries
Quiz is a different kind of true-crime show. The miniseries traces an infamous game-show scam from 2001, in which a trio of seemingly ordinary people were convicted of rigging the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? through a system of — wait for it — coughing. If you're into the particular niche that is movies, docs, and miniseries about scams — see Fyre, McMillions, The Inventor, and more — this three-part series is for you. If you're already wondering how much of the story is true, keep reading for the real and equally wild story.
Charles Ingram's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Run
On the Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, 2001, episodes of the UK's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the contestant in the "hot seat" was Charles Ingram, then a major in the English army. He wasn't the first member of his family to be on the show: his wife, Diana, and his brother-in-law, Adrian Pollock, had both previously competed, each winning £32,000. Diana reportedly helped her husband practice for the show, particularly drilling him on the "Fastest Finger First" segment that determined which person from the contestant pool got to actually compete for more money. Despite this prep work, Ingram's first day on the show was largely unsuccessful: he landed at the £4,000 mark but only had one lifeline left when time ran out for the episode.
On the second day, however, his fortunes seemed to change drastically. As clips from the episode show, he chatted a lot and debated his answers out loud before answering, changing his answers frequently before he locked in a final answer — but it seemed to work, as he kept getting them right. He ultimately won the £1,000,000 prize by correctly identifying a "googol" as the correct name for a number one followed by 100 zeros. At first, all seemed well, but behind the scenes, trouble was already brewing, even minutes after Ingram's apparent victory.
The BBC reported that the first alarm was raised by Eve Winstanley, a researcher for the show who overheard the Ingrams arguing backstage after his win. Around the same time, a sound tech also alerted the higher-ups when he noticed what seemed to be a connection between Ingram locking in the right answers and the sound of a cough.
How the Scandal Worked
The developing scandal was, of course, overshadowed by the fact that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred the day after Ingram's win, so headlines were largely occupied with that news instead. Still, the investigation at the studio continued, and, according to the BBC, the prize money was halted while they looked into it. Eventually, the investigation turned up a new theory that suggested the Ingrams had put together an elaborate cheating scheme.
Diana Ingram was loosely acquainted with Tecwen Whittock, a college lecturer and another contestant in the pool at the time (he would eventually become the next contestant on the show after Ingram's win). The Ingrams and Whittock put together a plan where Charles, while on the show, would read the answers aloud in the guise of talking through them, and Whittock (or, possibly at some points, Diana) would cough after the right answer. And it apparently worked — until they got caught.
The Trial and Aftermath
The Ingrams and Whittock were arrested and charged with procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception. The trial took place in March and April 2003. Charles Ingram tried to defend himself, as Vulture quotes: "I was not aware of any coughing while sitting in the hot seat from any part of the audience or contestants or otherwise." His wife and Whittock also denied any wrongdoing and insisted their acquaintance was friendly and coincidental, not conspiratorial. The trial took four weeks, during which the BBC reported that prosecutors were also suggesting the Ingrams had tried a different system previously, with the help of her brother, Pollock: putting four numbered pagers on him and paging the corresponding one for each answer.
All three were convicted, and Vice reported in 2016 that they were all given suspended prison sentences and fines. In August 2003, the British Army ordered Ingram to resign his commission. Ingram continued to appeal the conviction, although it failed, and insisted he was innocent.
How Charles Ingram's Scam Became a TV Show
In the years following, the story of the Ingrams' scam continued to fascinate writers, including playwright James Graham, who wrote the play Quiz in 2017.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Graham based his play partly on Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett's 2015 book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major and partly on his own interviews with the Ingrams. The result: a two-part play offering evidence for the Ingrams' guilt and for their innocence. Graham adapted his own play into the current, three-part AMC miniseries.
"You want the viewer to make a decision and then reverse it," director Stephen Frears told the LA Times. "That was where the pleasure lay . . . It was trying to hold that line. It was about whether [the Ingrams] did or didn't do it, and how fair could you be to everybody." The series presents information on both sides: noting evidence that supports the Ingrams' convictions, but also evidence that has come out in the years since that complicates things, such as Whittock's health condition that makes it difficult for him to control his coughing, as well as evidence that a much larger syndicate existed trying to game the game shows. While the show doesn't necessarily provide "answers," it's an intriguing look at a TV scandal that's certainly unforgettable in its strange details.