Quiz (2020): The Game Show, the Cough and the Criminal Trial

Quiz tells the story of one of the more unlikely scandals of early 21st century Britain. It's a story of a phenomenally successful TV game show, a million pound prize, a court case, and a lot of coughing.

In the 1990s and early 2000s British television became good at creating reality TV formats that sold around the world. Before the likes of Pop Idol and The X Factor came the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Part of Millionaire's appeal is summed up by that title. Its top prize was a then unprecedented £1 million. Or, as Doctor Evil might say, One Million Pounds.

Unlike later reality TV shows, the programme's contestants weren't filtered by how photogenic they were or what heart-rending backstory they could produce. Almost anyone could phone the production company's hotline, answer a few questions, and theoretically have the chance of going on to compete for the million.

Once on the show, the cash prizes got bigger with each question successfully answered, from hundreds of pounds to thousands, and eventually to the million pound question. But the questions inevitably got harder as the amounts got bigger, and get one answer wrong and you were out. All of this was skilfully and slickly produced and aided by tense music and dramatic lighting.

Sian Clifford, Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen in Quiz
Who wants to be a millionaire? Diana (Sian Clifford) and Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen,
 centre) are presented with their cheque by host Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen)

The show's unprecedented top prize of £1 million inevitably captured the public's imagination and brought the rapt attention of Britain's quizzing fraternity. The first £1 million prize winner was Judith Keppel, who walked away with the top prize in November 2000, when the show had already been running for almost two years.

The third person to answer the show's final £1 million question correctly appeared in September 2001. His name was Charles Ingram, and he was a Major in the British Army. But there was something odd about the way he played and about his amazing winning streak. On the first day of filming, he struggled with the relatively easy, low level questions and looked set for an early exit. But when he returned on the second day, he managed to ride his luck all the way to the million pound prize.

To the programme makers there seemed to be something deeply suspicious about the way Ingram was playing. He repeatedly seemed set on choosing the wrong answer and then suddenly, and seemingly randomly, switched to the right answer at the last moment. And each time he would show almost as much conviction for his final answer as he had when he originally plumped for the wrong one.

The people behind the programme were convinced that he was cheating. When it was noticed that he sometimes switched to the right answer on hearing a cough from someone in the audience, it seemed that the producers had found out how he had done it and who had been helping him.

Charles Ingram was told that he wouldn't be collecting his prize after all. Instead, the police were called and Ingram, his wife Diana and their alleged accomplice, a teacher with the unlikely name of Tecwen Whittock, were put on trial for the attempted theft of a million pounds.

Mark Bonnar and Elliot Levey
TV executives Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) and David Briggs (Elliot Levey)

The TV drama Quiz dramatises this true story. The script was written by James Graham and based on his play of the same name, and on the non-fiction book Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major, by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett.

In Graham's stage play, the audience was asked to give its verdict on the Ingrams' guilt in the intermission and then again at the end of the play. The audience usually decided that the Ingrams were guilty after the end of the first part, but changed their minds at the end of the second. Although matinee audiences were apparently much less likely to change their minds than the evening ones.

The drama in the TV version of Quiz unfolds over three 45 minute episodes. Part one tells the parallel stories of the rise of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? TV show and the Ingrams' mounting fascination and desire to take part in it.

The programme shows production company Celador's early struggles to get the format right, and their attempts to sell the programme to the British commercial network ITV. Celador's Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) is shown awkwardly pitching the idea to ITV's director of programming, David Liddiment (Risteard Cooper), by asking him to stake some of his own money on his answers, in a low-tech dry run in the latter's office.

Despite the wobbly pitch meeting, Liddiment gives Celador the go-ahead to make a pilot show. It's hard to believe that the makers didn't think of including the words "million" or "millionaire" in the programme's name at this point, given that the top prize of a million pounds was the show's main selling point. But, surprisingly, at this stage the show laboured instead under the unpromising title of Cash Mountain, inspired by the fact that the potential winnings increased with each successfully answered question. In what may be a piece of artistic licence, Quiz shows the makers hitting on the title Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? after hearing a studio technician whistling the old Cole Porter song, from the musical High Society, during filming.

When the show is broadcast it becomes a huge hit and one of ITV's biggest cash cows. Charles Ingram (played by Matthew Macfadyen) is not much interested, although like the rest of the country, he is amazed by the massive prize money on offer. But his wife, Diana (Sian Clifford), and her brother Adrian (Trystan Gravelle) are serious quizzers, and are becoming increasingly obsessed with the programme. Like much of the rest of the country, they are eager to get onto the show and chance their luck at winning a million.

Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant
Michael Sheen as "Millionaire" host Chris Tarrant

Diana's brother Adrian gets onto the show first, and even creates his own "fastest finger first" machine to help him practice, so that he can best the other potential contestants in the show's first round. Next, Diana herself gets onto Millionaire and wins £32,000. Looking for another potential candidate to take part, she encourages her reluctant husband Charles to try his luck.

By this stage, ITV and Celador were becoming worried about how middle class, middle aged, white and southern all the participants on Millionaire seemed to be. But the makers were reluctant to start screening contestants, and therefore give up on their original selling point that anyone could get onto the show.

In fact, Quiz suggests that there may have been a good reason for the similarity of the contestants, as a syndicate was working to get people onto the show and even help them when in the hot seat, in return for a share of their winnings. Hardened quizzers would be gathered together to answer the call during the programme's "phone a friend" lifeline and pretend to be an old acquaintance. Quiz's writer, James Graham, includes a scene in a later episode where Paul Smith meets Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick), the leader of the syndicate, although Smith in fact didn't even know of the syndicate's existence until several years later.

Part two of Quiz dramatises the central episode itself, with Charles Ingram doing badly in the hot seat and looking set for a swift exit from the show. But when he comes back the next day to continue filming, he manages to turn things around. Instead of crashing out in the early stages, he rides his luck all the way to the top prize, winning himself the million pound jackpot. But, suspicious that something is not right, Celador call in the police and tell Ingram that they are withholding the prize.

Quiz's third and final episode is based around the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and their supposed accomplice, phantom cougher Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson). Whittock, who had himself been on the show but crashed out with only £1000, was supposedly the brains of the conspiracy, helping Ingram to win by coughing at the right answers.

Quiz also deals with some of the harassment and ridicule faced by the Ingrams during and after the court case, ranging from the sinister to the absurd. This includes the shooting of their pet dog with an air rifle, the teasing of their children by their classmates, and the inevitable experience of being coughed at wherever they went.

Michael Jibson as Tecwen Whittock in Quiz
The Man with the Golden Cough: Michael Jibson as the Ingrams' alleged accomplice, Tecwen Whittock

was made by Left Bank Pictures (producers of the TV series The Crown and Outlander) for Britain's ITV network, but was also intended for broadcast by AMC in the US. For British viewers, the show is a fascinating piece of modern history, and one that asks them to reconsider some of their assumptions. Whether it will have quite the same appeal for American audiences is debatable, despite some top talent involved, including director Stephen Frears, and stars Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen.

But James Graham's script is involving and well structured. He finds not only plenty of drama, but also quite a bit of humour in the situations, and successfully illustrates the absurdity of the Ingrams' trial. This is almost inevitable given that it includes scenes like the one where the prosecuting counsel earnestly tells the court that they should be "paying particular attention now to cough number fourteen".

Most absurdly, and perhaps equally inevitably, the trial has to be suspended due to an outbreak of coughing. After the prosecution barrister begins to cough mid-way through questioning, the coughing quickly spreads to the jury and then to the Judge.

Quiz does briefly raise the question of whether alleged cheating on a TV quiz programme is actually a crime or not. One of the programme's producers argues that it's just as much a crime as stealing a million from a bank. The programme shows some initial hesitancy from some at ITV to call in the police, but ultimately this issue is not much explored.

The programme is often ambiguous in the earlier episodes about what exactly is going on, presenting the Ingrams sympathetically, while also including some apparently incriminating elements. These include Diana's brother Adrian repeatedly nipping out of the television studio during the recording to talk to someone unknown on his phone. Is he helping Charles Ingram to cheat somehow?

Matthew Macfadyen is very good in what is quite a difficult part as Charles Ingram, a role he has to play for much of the time with a degree of ambiguity. Was he really the affable middle class clot of popular myth? Or was he actually an intelligent man, who did well on the show because he wasn't as dim as he seemed and knew the right answers?

Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford as Charles and Diana Ingram
Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford as Charles and Diana Ingram outside court

Diana Ingram is less ambiguously presented, but James Graham obviously wants to reject the popular tabloid depiction of her as a scheming Lady Macbeth figure, the real brains in the couple's marriage. Instead, Diana Ingram is portrayed by Sian Clifford as rather sad and long-suffering.

The showiest performance is from Michael Sheen, who adds Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? presenter Chris Tarrant to his already impressive gallery of portraits of real people. These include Tony Blair (in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship), Kenneth Williams (in Fantabulosa!), David Frost (Frost/Nixon) and football manager Brian Clough (The Damned United).

Sheen is physically absolutely nothing like the bluff and hearty Chris Tarrant, but he still gives a very good impression of him, capturing his voice and mannerisms. This is mostly Tarrant the TV personality though, and not any kind of a character study, so it's less of a nuanced portrait than Sheen's other performances, and more of a star turn. Incidentally, Michael Sheen was understandably miffed when ITV's announcer accidentally called him Martin Sheen when introducing one episode of the drama.

Chris Tarrant has since declared that he believes that the Ingrams were definitely guilty, although you wouldn't guess that from his portrayal in Quiz. Here he is sympathetic to the Ingrams and declares, as he did at the actual trial, that he didn't see or hear anything untoward during the programme's recording and never suspected that Ingram might be cheating.

Quiz does expose some of the problems with the prosecution case. In particular, the Ingrams' alleged accomplice, Tecwen Whittock, had a medical condition that could cause him to cough uncontrollably, raising the question of how his coughing at the right moment could ever be relied upon.

Particularly problematic was the fact that the recording of the TV programme used in the court case had been enhanced by the programme makers, to isolate particular instances of coughing. This meant that the Judge and jury had no idea how many coughs there actually were, when they occurred, or which ones might have been audible to Charles Ingram while on the show. According to the programme, there were over a hundred coughs during the recording, but Celador isolated the relatively small number that happened to coincide with the right answers, and it was this version of the show that was played to the jury.

Quiz suggests that Celador were expecting someone to try and cheat on the show, and so were looking for any activity that seemed suspicious. And when they found that some coughs coincided with the right answers on Ingrams' episode, they created their own pattern, ignoring those coughs that occurred at different times, at random, or even on the wrong answers. Did the programme makers simply see what they expected or wanted to see?

Questions of perceptions, assumptions and the creation of narratives are among James Graham's particular interests in Quiz. Not just the narrative that the programme makers may (or may not) have developed about the pattern of coughing, but the narrative that the media then developed of Charles Ingram as a bit of a clueless twit, who was manipulated by his scheming wife.

The script also suggests, although doesn't explore, the possibility that Ingram appeared to either change his mind and take his time over questions because he believed that would be seen by the producers and viewers as more entertaining, and so encourage him to be given easier questions to keep his run on the show going.

Helen McCrory as Sonia Woodley QC
Helen McCrory as the Ingrams' counsel, Sonia Woodley

It does delve into the other strange theories that the semi-professional quiz addicts had about the show, although sadly not the fact that Diana Ingram's brother believed that it was necessary to adopt a fake, computerised speaking voice when called by the show, to avoid what he believed was a ban on regional accents.

Quiz refers to the issue of trial by media, but also to another contemporary story in 2003, of the Iraq War and the search for Saddam Hussein's supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction. As Ingram says to his commanding officer (Geoff McGivern) "Say something loud enough, long enough, maybe it becomes de facto truth." When Ingram then compares this situation to the claims of the Blair government about WMDs in Iraq, he incurs the displeasure of his C.O., but signals to most of the audience that he's on the "right" side in this particular debate.

Although ambiguity is maintained for much of Quiz, by the final episode it's clear where James Graham's (and presumably Stephen Frears') real sympathies lie. It's remarkable that the programme was made for ITV, because the network and Celador don't come out of it all that well. They not only kept their million pounds, but also broadcast the "Coughing Major" episodes as part of a special documentary, to show everyone what a rotten cheat Ingram was.

So Celador ultimately benefited from the affair and went on to even greater heights, producing successful films, including Dirty Pretty Things in 2002, The Descent in 2005 and Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. The latter, appropriately enough, was about a young man taking part in a Millionaire type TV quiz. 

The Ingrams, meanwhile, paid a heavy price for their brush with TV fame, with Charles losing his army career and pension, and the couple repeatedly going bankrupt. James Graham has indicated an interest in following up on the Ingrams' story, as Quiz doesn't explore that much of the aftermath of the case.

It does portray the ridicule faced by the Ingrams, and the general assumption of their guilt following the trial. It also depicts the shooting of their dog, with Diana seen returning home to a bloodstained hallway, before finding Charles cradling the dying animal in his arms. He then buries the dog outside, charitably telling his wife and daughter that it must have been shot by accident. *

The Ingrams in fact could hardly have asked for a more sympathetic portrayal than the one they received in Quiz. The drama pointedly contrasts the ITV executives popping champagne corks and celebrating the ratings triumph of their documentary about the case with the Ingrams stoically refusing to accept a six figure sum from a newspaper in return for admitting their guilt. Unsurprisingly, the Ingrams seem to have been delighted with Quiz, while Chris Tarrant has criticised their sympathetic portrayal, and reaffirmed his conviction that they were guilty.

Quiz doesn't - and can't - answer the question of the Ingrams' guilt definitively. But it does make for an entertaining and involving drama, and it raises questions that are awkward for the Ingrams' many critics to answer. If anything, the portrait of Charles and Diana Ingram here is almost too good to be true. But that doesn't mean that they were guilty, and Quiz is sympathetic enough to them that it will challenge many assumptions and probably change some minds.


Year: 2020
Genre: Drama / TV Mini-series
Country: UK
Episodes: 3 x 45 mins

Cast Matthew Macfadyen (Charles Ingram), Sian Clifford (Diana Ingram), Mark Bonnar (Paul Smith), Aisling Bea (Claudia Rosencrantz), Elliot Levey (David Briggs), Risteard Cooper (David Liddiment), Trystan Gravelle (Adrian Pollock), Michael Jibson (Tecwen Whittock), Helen McCrory (Sonia Woodley, QC), Michael Sheen (Chris Tarrant), Andrew Leung (Kevin Duff), Jasmyn Banks (Nicola Howson), Seraphina Beh (Ruth Settle), Matt Butcher (Contestant), Paul Bazely (Lionel from Legal), Keir Charles (Steve Knight), Beau Gadsdon (Polly Ingram), Scott Handy (Larry Whitehurst), Billie Gadsdon (Darcey Ingram), Dolly Gadsdon (Pippa Ingram), Jerry Killick (Paddy Spooner), Maggie Service (Kerry, the Floor Manager), Geoffrey McGivern (Lieutenant Colonel Village), Martin Trenaman (DS Ferguson), Nicholas Woodeson (Nicholas Hilliard, QC)

Screenplay James Graham, inspired by his play Quiz, and based on the book Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett  Director Stephen Frears  Producer Alice Pearse  Cinematography Hubert Taczanowski  Production designer Stephen Campbell  Editor Pia Di Ciaula  Music Murray Gold  Costume designer Suzanne Cave

Production company Left Bank Pictures, AMC Networks (for ITV)  Original network ITV (UK), AMC (US)

* According to Charles Ingram, it was actually his cat that was attacked and it survived, although James Graham may not have known that. In Quiz, the animal was changed to a dog, apparently because Matthew Macfadyen is allergic to cats.


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