The Million Pound Cough

There are lots of genres of television shows out there — dramas, sitcoms, “reality TV,” etc. But there’s one genre that predates almost all of them and is still around today: the game show. In the 1930s, quiz shows got their start on the radio and quickly became a mainstay of television; in the decades since, we’ve seen an explosion of such programming, to the point where we have not one but two game show-centric TV stations in the United States. For lovers of trivia — and if you’re reading these words, you’re probably one of them! — there are multiple game shows where knowing fun facts can lead to a payday, maybe even netting you $1 million or more.

And if you’re not good at trivia? Well, if your wife has a cough, that can help, too. Just don’t get caught.

The “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” franchise has been around since 1998, when it debuted on the British television network ITV. If you’re not familiar with the original format, it’s simple enough — the host asks the contestant a question and gives them four answer choices, only one of which is correct. If the contestant gets the answer correct, they can cash out or continue to the next question, which is worth more than the previous one. If the contestant gets a question wrong, they’re out of the game and typically get a lesser amount (or zero) than they would have if they cashed out. In the original format, if they answered all fifteen questions correctly, they earned £1,000,000.

Contestants weren’t entirely on their own, though. Each contestant had three “lifelines” to help them along the way. They can poll the audience for one, eliminate two wrong answers for the second, and phone a friend as the third. After that, they’re not supposed to get any outside help, so most players hold off on using the lifelines unless absolutely needed. As the early questions are worth a lot less than the later questions, that’s a very good strategy nonetheless.

Charles Ingram, pictured above, wasn’t the typical contestant. He used is first lifeline on the sixth question, one worth only £2,000. And then he used another lifeline on the £4,000 asked immediately thereafter. With only one lifeline left and eight more questions to go, no one through Ingram had a chance to win the £2,000 prize. But he knew something most people didn’t: he had more lifelines than he’d ever need.

Ingram, a Major in the British Army, wasn’t particularly good at trivia. But his wife, Diana, was — in fact, she had previously appeared on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and had walked away with £32,000. Along the way, she met another trivia buff named Tecwen Whittock, who would appear in a future airing of the show. Both were in the audience the day Charles made his improbably run to a million pounds. And they gave him a helping hand — or, more accurately, a helping cough.

Throughout his run, Charles would laboriously say each of the four answers aloud. When he said what Tecwen or Diana thought were the correct answer, they would cough, signaling to the man in the contestant’s chair to select that answer. An annotated version of the entire episode is available on YouTube, here, if you want to check out it, but let’s focus on the last question, which starts about 37 minutes into the episode. That question, seen above, asks what a number followed by one hundred zeros is called. The right answer is “Googol” (yes, the search engine is named after it), but at first, Ingram states “I think it’s a Nanomole” or “it could be a Gigabit.” He vocally eliminates “Googol” as an option, saying something to the effect of “I don’t think I’ve heard of a Googol.” But just second after he said that, someone in the audience — Tecwen Whittock, as it would turn out — coughs. He then says, inexplicably, that “by process of elimination,” he thinks Googol is the correct answer — and more coughing ensues. He reiterates his confidence that “Googol” is correct and, again, you can hear someone cough. He could have, at that moment, walked away with £500,000, but instead, he decided to go for it — Charles settled on” “Googol,” entered it as his final answer, and won the £1,000,000 prize.

Others were already suspicious that something was amiss. If you watch the video, you’ll note that the contestant seated on the far right doesn’t stand up to clap and cheer Charles’ win. The show runners immediately told Ingram not to cash the check immediately, as it would take a few days to process it. After reviewing the game tape, the production company realized that the coughs were coming primarily from Whittock but also at least once from Diane Ingram, and they were almost universally correlated with the correct answers. The production company stopped the check, decided not to air the episode, and alerted authorities to what they believed was fraud.

The trio denied any allegations but a jury of their peers found otherwise (after, comically, interrupting the defense’s closing arguments by unintentionally coughing). In April of 2003, they were found guilty of deception. The Ingrams were both given an 18-month suspended prison sentence (so no, they weren’t incarcerated) and fined £25,000 each; Whittock was sentenced to six months suspended and had to pay £22,500. And they did not get to keep the £1,000,000 prize.

Bonus fact: A few months after the jury found the Ingrams and Whittock guilty of the coughing scam, a drug company decided to take advantage of the buzz around the controversy. They registered a trademark for a cough syrup, hoping to secure the name “Tecwen Relief” and the tagline “One answer, one cough,” for their future product. Tecwen Whittock had no role in the product (although he probably should have, given that he had a £22,500 fine to pay) and didn’t want it to hit stores, so as the Guardian reported, he trademarked his name to prevent such action.

From the Archives: Why the Runners’ Up Prizes Aren’t in Jeopardy: Once upon a time, a game show player played it so safe, Jeopardy! changed its rules.