If it hadn’t been for Craig David, the “Coughing Major” might have got away with it. On the morning of 11 September 2001, as the world tried to make sense of the terror attacks on New York and Washington, executives at ITV and Celador, the production company responsible for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, were dealing with a rather less horrifying kind of attack. Over the nights of 9 and 10 September, an army major called Charles Ingram had become only the third contestant to win the top prize on the show.
During the later stages, however, as he got closer to the £1m prize, the major had started behaving oddly. At the last minute, he would change his mind about answers. When asked who had released an album called Born to Do It, he initially claimed not to have heard of Craig David, but in the end settled on it, correctly. An investigation found a pattern of suspicious coughs from the audience whenever the right answers were read out. Ingram, his wife Diana, and another contestant, Tecwen Whittock, were arrested and convicted of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception”.
The Coughing Major scandal was one of the great British tabloid stories of the century. The major and his wife were the perfect culprits, easy to portray as grasping middle-class morons. The case seemed cut and dry. That was until James Graham, the playwright, got his hands on a book by two journalists, James Plaskett and Bob Woffinden, which examined weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. Graham turned the story into a a hit play, Quiz, which showed both sides of the case. He has now expanded it into a brilliant three-part ITV drama, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Matthew Macfadyen as the major, and Sian Clifford, best known as Fleabag’s sister, as Diana.
Graham thrives on this kind of ambiguity. His last piece for TV was his excellent Channel 4 Brexit drama, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings and caused the right amount of gnashing of teeth on both sides. He and Frears present a remarkably uncynical version of events around the Coughing Major, which shows several points of view with clarity and empathy. The Ingrams paid a heavy price for their crime, aside from their conviction. Their pets were attacked, and they were coughed at everywhere they went. The major lost his commission. They have been bankrupted four times. Whether they did it or not, theirs has been a fate you would not wish on anyone.
Quiz is an entertaining, well-constructed and big-hearted romp through a story most will think they know well, with sympathetic performances by both leads, an amusing turn by Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, and an entertaining supporting cast of quiz fanatics. Macfadyen skilfully walks the fine line between hapless Hooray Henry and scheming villain. Clifford gives Diana, who was painted as Lady Macbeth by a bloodthirsty press, poise under terrible stress. As with a jewellery heist, it was hard to feel too much sympathy for the TV producers who were robbed. But the game-show spirit was extended to the hounding of the Ingrams. Through it all, they remain touchingly devoted to each other.
The first episode introduces the story, then the second and third present the cases for the prosecution and defence. It is surprisingly meta for ITV, being an ITV programme about an ITV programme, which allows space for some entertaining early Noughties TV detail, as well as forensic analysis of what made Millionaire so exciting: the lighting, the sound, the format, all were calibrated to accentuate the tension in the studio. Twenty years after the scandal, viewing is atomised across laptops and streaming services, so it’s amazing to be reminded that at its peak, Millionaire had 19 million viewers.
Pitching the concept to ITV, the Celador head Paul Smith (Mark Bonnar) says the British love pub quizzes because they combine two of our favourite hobbies: “drinking and being right”. Millionaire, which put no time limit on responses, allowed us to do this at home, screaming at the TV as the contestants squirmed. Quiz ought to have a similar effect. The stage play gave audience members response pads which they could use to say whether they thought the accused were guilty. In every performance – weirdly except for matinees – the audience changed their mind by the end of the play. Quiz will get viewers rethinking things, too, and with the threat of coronavirus keeping us all indoors, it might get nearly as many viewers as the original game show.