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When an unassuming army major managed to win the million-pound prize on the British version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” the show’s producers became convinced that he had cheated along with two coughing accomplices seated in the studio.
The true story, which rocked the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, is the premise behind AMC’s new drama “Quiz.” However, while the general public across the pond seemed certain that Major Charles Ingram cheated in the game show win, “Quiz” appears to question that narrative.
As depicted in the three-episode series, Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) is persuaded into becoming a contestant on the game show after both his quiz-obsessed wife Diana (Sian Clifford) and her somewhat sketchy brother Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle) appeared on the show but failed to take home the million-pound prize. Pollock had connected with a group, known in the show as "The Syndicate", which helped its members and their friends rig the selection process for the show and helped get his sister on the show. "The Syndicate" was also known for gathering in a room so that their chosen contestants could utilize their collective intelligence for the “phone a friend” element of the show.
In “Quiz,” the show’s producers immediately become suspicious when Charles comes to the set with both his wife and brother-in-law as all three had been present during the relatives' previous two appearances. Their suspicions grow after Charles manages to answer all the questions correctly on his way to the top prize. They notice that Charles seemingly changes his answers to the correct ones after hearing coughs from both Diana, who was seated in the audience, and Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson), another contestant seated in the studio.
In the series, all three are brought to court where they're found guilty, yet they are sentenced to no jail time. However, while the court and general community seem certain of their guilt, the makers of “Quiz” hint they may be innocent, pointing out that Whittock had an ailment that caused uncontrollable coughing. Their lawyer also claims that a tape of the coughing, presented to the court, had been altered.
The real-life events that the series is based on played out quite similarly. The real Charles even tweeted that “Quiz” was “terrifyingly accurate” and “horribly cringeworthy” when the show debuted in the United Kingdom in April.
He and Diana, along with Whittock, went to trial in 2003, close to two years after the September 2001 taping of his episodes (the Sept. 11 terror attacks greatly overshadowed the scandal in the America). The show never aired and the prize money was withheld.
After a four-week trial, a jury found all three guilty of procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception. The Ingrams were each sentenced to an 18-month suspended sentence and Whittock was sentenced to 12 months, also suspended, the BBC reported in 2003. The Ingrams were each fined £15,000 each and ordered to pay £10,000 costs while Whittock was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £7,500 costs.
Even though they served no jail time, their life was permanently altered. Everywhere the couple went, they were coughed at. Charles was donned "The Coughing Major,” VICE noted in 2016. They were routinely harassed and claimed their cat was even shot at with an air gun, the BBC reported in 2007.
The army ordered Ingram to resign that same year, the Daily Telegraph reported at the time. Whittock resigned from his lecturing job in Wales shortly after the guilty verdict, Chronicle Live reported in April. He also trademarked his name in order to thwart a company from naming a cough medicine after him, The Guardian reported in 2003. He has maintained his innocence and attributed his coughing a chronic condition brought on by hay fever and a dust allergy.
Years before “Quiz,” journalist and author Jon Ronson wrote a 2006 piece for the Guardian expressing doubts over the trio’s guilt, citing Whittock's lifelong coughing ailments and the "contagious" nature of coughs, similar to the phenomenon of one person yawning making people around them more likely to yawn themselves. Ronson even pointed out that at the trial, the mention of the word cough in the proceedings corresponded to subsequent coughing in the gallery. As depicted in "Quiz," the trial even had to be suspended at one point because the courtroom broke out into coughing fits.
In addition to their notoriety, the couple willingly went on additional television shows following the scandal. They were on “Wife Swap” in 2003, the BBC reported at the time. Three years later, the couple played on “The Weakest Link.” Since the ordeal, Charles has authored two thriller novels, “The Network” in 2006 and “Deep Siege” in 2007.
The couple has always maintained their innocence. Earlier this year, they made it clear that they wish to overturn their guilty verdicts, The Guardian reported in April. Their lawyer Rhona Friedman alleged that the audio evidence, which purportedly reveals audible coughing before changed answers, was altered before it was presented to the jury.
“Speaking to them and meeting them, I just know that they did not do it,” she said of the Ingrams.
She said a case will be filed this summer in hopes that a hearing can be scheduled sometime later in the year.
The first episode of "Quiz" premiered on Sunday. The second and third episodes will air on Sunday, June 7 and Sunday, June 14 respectively.
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