Who Wants to Be A Millionaire remains one of the most popular game shows on TV around the globe and has had a prime spot on ITV’s Friday night schedule for more than 20 years. The game show was recently relaunched with Jeremy Clarkson as the host, but it is the retelling of the “Coughing Major” scandal in the new ITV drama Quiz that has the nation buzzing.
In 1998, the launch of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a revelation. Previous UK game shows had prizes from cars to cuddly bears, but a million pound jackpot amped up the tensions to another level. And with Chris Tarrant at the helm and a glitzy set, the show became a mainstay of our Friday nights for more than a decade and the format was sold around the world.
The premise is simple. Contestants need to answer a series of increasingly difficult questions, the original 15 questions were reduced to 12 in 2007, to win a million pound prize. Each question essentially doubles the prize pot, and the tension escalates as the contestant answers questions as the prize pot grows and the chance of losing hundreds of thousands of pounds becomes a real possibility. And for some added entertainment, each contestant is allowed a handful of “lifelines” to help them answer difficult questions, such as phoning a trusted (and knowledgeable) friend or asking the audience to crowd-source the answer.
The simple premise and dramatic tension of the show has made the format popular worldwide and resulted in numerous spin-offs and merchandising opportunities. There have been three different board games and six different video games inspired by the UK Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with many more inspired by the US spin-off adaptation, and there’s even a popular slot based on the show at the online casino NetBet.
In the UK, the programme’s impact on popular culture was demonstrated when the British Film Institute (BFI) ranked the show 23rd in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000. Every episode had nail-biting moments and elements of elation, but it was an episode in September 2001 that made headlines for another reason – did the contestant cheat?
Now dramatised in the ITV show Quiz, the episode featured Charles Ingram, a British Army Major, in the hot seat. He was accused of cheating with the help of his wife Diana and college lecturer Tecweb Whittock, who surreptitiously coughed to denote the correct answers throughout his route to the jackpot. After sound technicians raised concerns that the Major was receiving help from people in the audience, ITV swiftly launched an investigation and eventually de-authorised the winning cheque and called in the police.
As a result of their escapades, the pair each received a suspended sentence, fined £15,000, and ordered to pay £10,000 towards prosecution costs, which was later increased to £65,000. Charles has since been declared bankrupt four times – the crime did not pay.