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!



Killing Time by Paul Feyerabend

Much has been written about Feyerabend. My two cents’ worth.

A striking aspect of this book is that philosophers and scientists, even (or perhaps specially?) the greatest of them walked hand in hand. They listened to each other. Am I incorrect to say that now there is a complete schism? It’s all very well to blame the philosophers who generally avoid science because it’s too hard.

But an equally fair generalisation is that scientists now are culturally ignorant. They don’t read, they don’t go to theatre or engage in philosophical argument. They don’t even do science. They have tiny fragmented parts to play in something which might or might not have a big picture. They refuse to be engaged on some other tiny bit even if it sits right next to theirs, or to the small big picture. That, at any rate, is my overall impression and needless to say there are obvious exceptions, at least on the goodreads site. Clearly if they believe that they can do a good job of being a scientist with nothing even remotely approaching a world view, they are scarcely going to see any advantage in an interdisciplinary education or way of engaging with the world.

Feyerabend is enormously well-read and seems to read anything. I suspect if he seems like an odd thinker it is partly because he takes from so many places. Not much, I’d say, from feminism. I note that he mentions many lays in this book, none of them are attributed with a surname. Why? If it were to protect their anonymity, he could at least have given his wives surnames since they are no chance to remain unknown.

Feyerabend was a lost soul, a person with no purpose, who drifted into everything he did in life. His only love appears to have been for opera and theatre, but that is probably only because he didn’t make it in these areas, though he might have fought to do so at various times. It is clear that he only wants what he can’t have, once he gets it, whether it be a woman or a job, very shortly he is planning where else to be. Added to that, he is easily led to ambiguity.

One can readily imagine how this happened, a difficult childhood followed by army service for the Nazis during which he was seriously and permanently wounded. He seems to have disassociated from it as it happened. The journey back, his gift for his last wife, must have been cathartic and painful. With very few words indeed, he once or twice manages to show his shame at his own behaviour. He never feels sorry for himself, though many would in his shoes. It is not easy for any non-Jewish German to write about their attitudes in the Nazi period. I can’t say I am convinced by his arguments.

From all this, however, towards the end of his life, he came to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was love. It’s really terribly moving to see him trying to explain this. What a pity he could not read Romulus, My Father, which does it so very well.

The account is matter of fact, but eloquent, regrets contained by humour. Anybody who wants an idiosyncratic, thoughtful, renegade view of Austria from the twenties through to after the war, academia around the world up to the early nineties, and the theatre and opera during all of this period is warmly recommended to this book. Bring some tissues for the denouement.

Doktor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

Having trashed Camilla yesterday, I’m going to try to redress the balance. I haven’t yet read Doktor Glas yet, but went to see the Swedish production which is part of the UK demand for Scandanavian at the moment. It is true that I have a predeliction for one man shows, but despite that, I think it is fair to pour accolades on this one. Krister Henriksson is superb as the tormented Glas and the book is right up the top of my ‘gotta read’ list. Published in 1905, one cannot help wondering what its relationship is to the existential literature of later in the twentieth century, like The Outsider and The Fall. I guess I’ll find out when I read it.

Every time I walk into a Swedish restaurant, as is a commonplace in London these days, with Scandanavian being all the rage there, I am disappointed by how limited and dull the food looks – sort of like the sentence construction of Camilla. But I keep thinking some time I’ll find the gem, the food equivalent of Doktor Glas. If I do, it’ll be reported on my food blog…I will let you know.

Meanwhile, should you happen to live in Melbourne and you are dubious about the idea of turning novels into plays, especially one man shows, please visit The Stork Theatre. It specialises in rendering novels into theatre and does a stunning job. There is a lot of theatre I miss now that I’m over this side of the world, but The Stork especially, because it is unique.