TV games shows come and go. They usually come from America and go down well with less demanding audiences. In recent years though, the first trend has been reversed. The UK has exported shows in the opposite direction. The most successful of these being ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ Switzerland too, has its own version.

The British version is presented by the game’s inventor, Chris Tarrant, a veteran TV presenter. The show’s success and its syndicated rights round the world have made him a millionaire without ever being in the show’s hot seat. It is a simple, but effective formula. There are 15 steps to the big prize, the contestants progress by doubling their winnings with each selection of the correct answer of four choices given. An incorrect answer loses them everything. Dramatic music and lighting as well as a cruel streak in the quizmaster help with the tension and drama.

Last September an edition of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ was recorded in England but was not shown to the British public until last week. The contestant, Major Charles Ingram, a serving officer in the British Army actually won the £1 million jackpot.

The Major gave an amazing performance. He stumbled and fluffed his way through simple and difficult questions alike. Making wild guesses and then changing his mind at the last minute. Such questions as “Where does Ementhal cheese come from? Italy, France, Netherlands or Switzerland?” completely stumped him at first, but as he read through the possible answers the correct one suddenly came to him. (It is Switzerland, by the way.)

At one point the major explained to the bemused quizmaster Tarrant what his method was: “80% of my answers are wrong, so I pick one - then change it!”

Even at the million-pound prize (fr2.20 mio) the Major’s frenetic performance
continued, eventually winning the prize by what appeared to be a roulette system of wild guessing and changing his mind right up to the last second.

The day after, the show’s producer phoned the Major, not to congratulate him, but to advise that having reviewed the recording of the show there were certain “irregularities”. The police were called and the million-pound cheque was stopped.

The police investigation resulted in a court case where the Major, his wife and another contestant were found guilty of fraudulent deception. They were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, suspended for two years. Fines and court costs totalled fr100,000. All three still protest their innocence and say they will appeal. Meanwhile, with the case over, the British public have been treated to both the original show and a documentary on the method of cheating, thus allowing the public the fascinating opportunity to play judge and jury for themselves.

One might expect that an elaborate cheating system was used, with say four mobile phones set to vibration alarm to indicate the correct answers. But no, the three had devised a system so daringly simple and one that did not arouse the suspicion of the quizmaster at all and was only discovered by close observation of the recording.

The reason that most contestants do not go on to be millionaires is that they are either not clever enough to answer the harder questions or too nervous to answer under pressure. The Ingram’s scheme which took the pressure of the Major, appears to have been thought up during an overnight break in recording the show.

Major Ingram had reached the £16,000 level before the recording ended for the day. That night his wife Diana, who was in the studio audience, and another contestant devised their plan: Major Ingram, who was the least bright of the bunch, would read out all four potential answers to each question and his accomplice, the other contestant waiting his turn to play for the million-pound prize, would cough when Ingram read out the correct one.

The Ingrams, had alleged debts of £50,000 and this was the motivation for wanting to win. However, it seems that the plan was to quit after winning £125,000. But our friend the Major had become greedy by then and despite risking losing all his winnings and going home with only £16,000 our Major soldiered on. He did not have a clue what the answers were and at one stage the Major forgot the system and was about to give the wrong answer and his accomplice had to cough and say “no” at the same time. It was only afterwards when the different sound tracks from some 16 microphones round the studio were analysed that this was clearly heard. At another stage his accomplice did not know the answer, but the Major’s wife was able to cough from the audience. For the final million-pound answer the accomplice again did not know the answer, so he asked another contestant sitting next to him and then coughed appropriately.

It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good in the world of television. The documentary about the show had a record audience, peaking at nearly 17 million – the highest in the UK for a non-entertainment programme since the funeral of Princess Diana. The “cheating millionaire” edition of the quiz show was watched by more viewers than the conventional “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” There is now even talk of making the whole story into a Hollywood movie and doubtless our Major will sell his story to the boulevard press.

The final question is “Does crime pay?” (Cough)