The skulduggery is so preposterous that you could be forgiven for thinking it a work of fiction. In 2001, an army major named Charles Ingram won a million pounds by acing his way through the original British edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But all was not, apparently, as it seemed. Before Ingram even left the set, the show’s producers had begun unraveling a plot that they contended showed that Ingram had cheated: He’d enlisted his wife, Diana, and a second contestant named Tecwen Whittock to selectively cough to indicate the right answers.
Fortunately for us all, this really did happen—or, at least, Ingram really did win a million pounds, and his wife and Whittock really did cough along the way. As to whether the two are related—well, wouldn’t you like to find out while watching Tom Wambsgans sit in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire hot seat?
Thanks to ITV and AMC, Sunday brings the final installment of Quiz, a three-part retelling of the caper, with the Ingrams played, delightfully, by Matthew Macfadyen (who here is decidedly more Wambsgans-in-Succession than he is, er, Mr. Darcy) and Sian Clifford of Fleabag. As the series progresses, a flustered Macfadyen finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into the quiz-show depths by Clifford. But Lady Macbeth she is not, and, well, this is not exactly regicide, either.
On game shows, there’s always a tension between the inherent silliness of the contest—whether it’s Jeopardy! or a pies-in-the-pants showdown, it’s still a game—and the purity of the competition. In the United States, that purity is enshrined in the Federal Communications Act, which since 1960 has dictated that any contestant in “a purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill” must play fair and square. (OK, the pies-in-the-pants competition might not totally qualify for protection.)
That stipulation did not come lightly. It was the result of a rash of cheating scandals in uber-popular 1950s quiz shows—most notably that of Charles Van Doren, who became a national sensation when he spent five months in 1956 and 1957 mopping the floor on Twenty-One, winning a then-historic $129,000. Van Doren may have had smarts—he taught at Columbia University at the time—but he also had help from Twenty-One’s producers, who briefed him on the material and in some cases instructed his opponents to bow out.
The revelation of the duplicity was a scandal, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower declaring the episode “a terrible thing to do to the American people” and signing the revised Federal Communications Act—itself the result of congressional hearings that saw Van Doren and the other quiz-show beneficiaries confess—into law. Ever since, cheating on American game shows has been a matter of federal law, and today’s programs continue to act accordingly. During every game of Jeopardy!, for example, an independent lawyer looks on from the judges’ table. Contestants will spend the rest of their earthly lives trying and failing to answer what Alex Trebek is really like: Because the host reviews the clues before taping (the better to perfect his genres), he is prohibited from interacting with players outside their games.
No such law, however, exists in the U.K. As a result, some amount of suspicion remains over particularly cinematic feats. When Judith Keppel became the first person to win Millionaire’s million-pound prize in 2000, for example, The Guardian wondered outright whether the show had managed to “rig the questions to get a jackpot winner.”
“No,” Paul Smith, the head of Millionaire’s production company, said at the time, “our producers don’t cheat. No reason to. Truly, may I be struck down dead. Coincidence does take place.”
In Quiz, Smith is played by Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar, who spends most of the series in a J.K. Simmons–in–Burn After Reading state of befuddled horror about just what the Ingrams have gotten up to.
Here, Millionaire’s producers exhibit a distrust bordering on outright dislike of the show’s most hardcore fans. As in the U.S., where Regis Philbin’s version dominated airwaves during the summer of 1999, the original Millionaire had been a sensation when it first debuted. In time, loyal viewers figured out ways to improve their odds of getting on the show and of winning once they did so. Led by a trivia obsessive who managed to exploit the show’s less-than-ironclad policies to make it on to three different Millionaire versions, a loose network of quiz diehards passed around strategies to beat the system. Those ranged from sharing the source of the deliberately obscure factoids used to narrow the pool invited to play to creating central phone banks of almanac-equipped masterminds, so that the “friend” you phoned from the stage would be awfully well equipped to help out.
If that sounds a little extreme, well, you’ve probably not spent a lot of time around game show fans. That obsessive really did, and does, exist. The real Paddy Spooner appeared on three different versions of Millionaire—in the U.K., Australia, and Ireland—and went to extreme lengths to earn his not-quite-above-board international berths (in 1999, he used a friend’s cell phone to call the show 215 times).
Even now, aspiring contestants go to extreme lengths to prepare for game shows. Many Jeopardy! contestants, for example, spend months—even years—preparing for their shot on the show, giving up caffeine or alcohol and training for athletic endurance events (the better to spend all day standing behind a podium) before they’ve even been invited to compete. On Quiz, Millionaire’s producers are particularly aghast at the inelegant button contraption that the whisper network of game show–hacking obsessives—called the “the Syndicate” on Quiz; in real life, they were “the Consortium”—built to practice the Fastest Finger mechanism that Millionaire uses to determine which of the day’s crowd members will get the chance to play onstage. Jeopardy! fans do much the same thing, fashioning practice buzzers out of pens, toys, and toilet paper holsters. Some have gone so far as to design simulators that allow players—who ring in on homemade buzzers fashioned from PVC pipe and other materials—to face off in hyper-realistic versions of the real game. In the weeks before taping, some contestants have gone so far as to fly cross-country to drill themselves on the off-brand devices. Many a Jeopardy! champ, in fact, has appeared on Millionaire; not a few have turned up in the audience to serve as a particularly savvy lifeline for onstage contestants who might otherwise have brought a friend or parent.
(Jeopardy!’s producers, for what it’s worth, are decidedly less antagonistic toward those hoping to practice their way to an edge. At auditions, would-be contestants are given a Jeopardy!-branded pen, which contestant coordinators insist bears a resemblance to the actual signaling device. It’s not lost on me that in Quiz, Millionaire’s producers become especially suspicious—and litigious—when they learn that Diana Ingram is writing a book about best Millionaire practices. Buy my Jeopardy! book, out in November!)
In the end, the Ingrams seem baffled by just how serious things get—there is, for one, a criminal case filed against them, once the producers can sort out exactly what law they might have violated.
But that’s the thing about games; sometimes they are very serious indeed.