Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden, James Plaskett

I came upon this book via an internet post by GM Plaskett which discussed the case of the infamous coughing Major on the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. He suggested, based on his own experience of the show and his watching of the video of the Major’s episodes, that Charles Ingram was innocent. It’s important to give the Major a name, since he has gone through that experience of being turned into a non-person partly by taking his name from him.

I was immediately hooked. As a bridge player I’d followed stories of cheating in bridge and done some investigation of my own, not only into the contemporary game of bridge, but also its predecessor whist, and earlier card and dice games. The story sounded very similar to ones I’d looked at, a person found guilty, but was the evidence enough? The authors kindly organised to send me a copy of the book and I devoured it.

That was a couple of years ago and I’ve been sitting on it since, because….I wasn’t sure what I really thought. Reading the book, it is clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice from a legal point of view. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that based on the arguments and evidence presented by investigative journalist Bob Woffinden and Plaskett. And yet, as I read, even though I felt that the case for innocence was compelling, I nonetheless wasn’t convinced that this constituted the facts of the matter.

I looked at video on Youtube which shows Ingram in action, and I felt more doubtful. Unfortunately there isn’t undoctored video available as I understand it, and I’m watching it as somebody who knows what they are supposed to see. Scarcely ideal.

Still, it made me think back to some of the old cheating scandals in bridge. Often the story would be similar to this games show one, involving accusations of coughing or sniffing, or foot tapping or some such signalling to illegally convey information.

A common argument by those accusing others of cheating was a sense of feeling at the table that something was wrong. My own opinion, in the absence of proper proof of a system of cheating, was that there needed to be bridge evidence, and that this was sorely missing. Often hands were interpreted as evidence of cheating when other interpretations of what took place, more innocent ones, were possible, but not considered. I was, as a consequence, entirely intolerant of the idea that a bad sniff combined with a surprising outcome in the cards, was sufficient to convict a person.

We do, after all, live under a system of innocent until proven guilty. And yet, reading this book makes me feel some sympathy for those who don’t want due process, even though I disagree with them.

This book is a fascinating account of the legal side of what happened, how Ingram was convicted in court and the obvious unfairness of the process. It is equally an eye-opener on how the TV quiz system works. It is anything but fair to the people trying to get onto it, making its profits from this process. One can see how it becomes a situation of ‘us vs them’, where depending on your point of view, ‘us’ is the TV show trying to stop people colluding to get onto it or it is the innocent public doing what they can to avoid the horrendous phone bills which mount up as they try to qualify for the show. The book indicates that the show even advertised that it was still possible to ring in to try to get spots when in fact the selection for the series in question must have closed. Not a good look from the show and no surprises that people felt that they were up against a powerful force which they had to beat.

I wonder how often straightforward cheating might start from such a relatively moral position? Beginning with a sense of conviction that one is only realigning the stars and gradually, believing in one’s own moral position, forgetting altogether what is right and wrong. And is it what happened in this case?

As I write, a play of the whole sorry affair is showing in London’s West End: Quiz. It’s closing in a week or so, unfortunately, as I would have gone to see it in July. The play involves the audience, they are given keypads to register how they feel at the half way point after watching the prosecution case, and then again at the end after the defence. Interestingly it is at least generally the case that the audience changes its mind from guilty to innocent. Isn’t this how justice should work?

It prompted Chris Tarrant to write a piece exhorting prospective show goers not to believe what is dished up to them – that Ingram’s innocence is in doubt. You may think that the arguments presented in the article are overwhelming, but please do read the book and see a balanced discussion by two men who know what they are talking about!


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