On the afternoon of September 30th 2004 I got an e mail from Bob Woffinden saying that within the previous ten minutes the Daily Mail had told him that they would now definitely be running an article he had written for them arguing that Major Charles Ingram was not guilty of defrauding Celador out of the top prize on their Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show and drawing attention to my arguments in the defence of The Millionaire Three.
The Mail had taken Bob out to lunch earlier in the year, and by way of an apology for not having run an earlier piece he had written for them on another perceived miscarriage of justice, they had offered him almost carte blanche on a future piece.
He had notified me of that promise of theirs on May 26th 2004.
He also told me that at the lunch when he broached the Ingram case the incredulous Features Editor had responded
"You´re not going to tell me the Major´s innocent!?".
Bob said that indeed he was.
Incidentally, when I had made intial e mail contact with Bob, I ran his name through search engines and saw that he had been a musical journalist in the 1970s.
That prompted me to e mail Tony Tyler, who had also then been in that line of work to see if he knew of him.
He responded that he did and even gave a telephone number, which enabled me to talk to Bob.
The piece appeared in the Mail on October 9th 2004. It reads as follows -
And Now, for ONE MILLION Pounds - an Intriguing and Disturbing Question -Is The Coughing Major Innocent?
SPECIAL INVESTIGATION by Bob Woffinden
Today, former Army Major Charles Ingram sets off on a trek through Peru to raise 10,000 Pounds for the charity Children In Crisis. When he returns he must face his own crisis back in court, some 18 months after he was infamously convicted - along with his wife Diana and college lecturer Tecwen Whittock - of trying to swindle the 1 Million Pound prize on the TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The bufoon-like Ingram was given an 18 month suspended sentence, and he and Diana were each fined 15,000 Pounds. But he still has to pay 65,000 Pounds in fines and costs while his wife must pay 25,000 Pounds. Ingram has no means of settling his debt, claiming to be 400,000 Pounds in debt because of the scandal which saw him lose his job and his reputation. Non-payment of the money will mean that the disgraced former officer will go to prison. He has lost one appeal already and the only way the conviction could be overturned is if new evidence is found.
Now, help has suddenly arrived in the form of a British Chess Champion and author who has launched a campaign to prove that Ingram was wrongly convicted and is innocent of one of the most audacious public frauds of all time.
James Plaskett claims that Charles Ingram may be the victim of cynical television executives desperate to exploit every opportunity to publicise the show. The notoriety surrounding ex-Major Ingram is now so well-established that it is easy to forget what a cliff-hanger the trial in April 2003 actually was. Ingram was convicted - but only on a majority verdict, and only after the jurors had deliberated for three and a half days.
By then, one juror had been sent home because a police informer overheard him discussing the case out of the jury room something that is not allowed under court rules. Could the outcome have been different had that 12th juror been available for the final deliberations?
With that in mind, Plaskett, 44, who became a chess grandmaster in 1985 and British champion in 1990, and who has appeared twice on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? himself, set out to re-assess the evidence. He has now posted his analysis on an internet site which has already been visited by more than 10,000 people. So exactly how strong is his case for the defence and is there any chance at all that Ingram could get the verdict reversed?
Charles and Diana Ingram, and their accomplice Whittock, were convicted of conspiring in a ´coughing´ scam to win the quiz show´s ultimate prize in September 2001. A jury heard that Whittock had used his 19 coded coughs to alert Ingram to the right answer in a series of multiple-choice questions. The Army officer, who served his country with distinction in Bosnia, was held up to national and international ridicule. (Six months later, he faced a second trial on an insurance irregularity and had to resign his commission in disgrace.)
From the start, James Plaskett had followed the case with interest. "I´ve never met or corresponded with any of those involved, but Ingram has always insisted that he´s innocent", he says. "I´ve carefully studied all the evidence, and there are just too many things that don´t fit. That´s why I decided to try to help the guy."
First, let us remind ourselves of some of the facts. Initially, Ingram had struggled on, just about making it to the 4,000 Pound mark when the recording of that show came to an end. But when recording resumed for the next programme, he reached the 1 Million Pound question, although many found his demeanour unconvincing. The producers were baffled and suspicions were aroused about what might have happened to transform his performance.
IT WAS PURE MONTY PYTHON IN COURT
According to Plaskett: People thought Ingram had somehow used the internet or a mobile phone or a pager to help him, but there was no evidence of that.´ The mobile phone records of all 200 people in the studio were examined. Nothing. the Ingrams were also thoroughly frisked after the show. Nothing.´ The police later made dawn raids on the homes of the Ingrams and Whittock and seized their computers and other material. Again, they found nothing. ´At the trial, the prosecution argued that the Ingrams had tried to think of a high-tech ruse, but couldn´t. Instead, they decided to get someone in the audience to ´cough´ to indicate the right answer."
My initial doubts," says Plaskett " were raised by this, the basic prosecution premise. These were three intelligent people, and yet it´s suggested that they were involved in a conspiracy of such naivety." If you were going to have a signalling scam like this, surely you´d have coded coughing. For example, cough on B if the answer is A and so on. That way it would be almost impossible to spot." He says that parts of the prosecution case were´pure Monty Python´.
Perhaps the most ridiculous part, claims Plaskett, concerned Question 14 : Baron Haussmann is best known for the planning of which city?Íngram initially toyed with the answer " Berlin" ( the correct answer was "Paris" ). But, according to the prosecution, he stopped when Tecwen Whittock, who was sitting in the audience, coughed and, under his breath, apparently said "No". This "No" became a key piece of evidence, but it was described in court as " a partial whisper that sounded like a "No". " And some experts who´d analysed the tapes of the show said that it didn´t sound as though it came from Whittock at all.´ Then Whittock blew his nose. The Crown suggested that this was a desparate prearranged "all-stop" signal to Ingram to prevent him from pursuing a certain answer. And if that is the case, then why wasn´t it used in the first place rather than having someone sitting in the audience whispering " No "?, says Plaskett.
Plaskett, who is married to the poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley, the author of The Literary Companion To Sex, has twice made it on to the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? programme, but failed to win the ´fastest finger first´ round to get into the hot seat. He believes he is ideally placed to take up Ingram´s case because he knows what it is like to be in the studio."
It bothered me that normal patterns of behaviour that I understood from being on the show were presented at trial as suspect. " For example, another indication of guilt´, according to the prosecution, was that Whittock discussed a question with the person sitting next to him because he didn´t know the answer. But, from experience, Plaskett knows that discreet audience chatter and coughing are the unremarkable and inevitable results of filming for a long time in what some people find to be increasingly testing conditions.
Plaskett also points out that production staff supposedly became suspicious because the Major used up his lifelines ( ´phone a friend´, ásk the audience´ and´´50/50 ) early on in the show. But in reality there was nothing unusual about this.
Chris Tarrant, who presents the quiz show, said in his book Millionaire Moments: ´ The really bright contestants tend to find the questions easier as the money goes up. They are probably more likely to get stuck on an early question about a boy band or Coronation Street.´ In fact Ingram, who was a member of Mensa, DID have to use lifelines on questions of precisely that kind.
There is more, says Plaskett.´ During the trial, the prosecution suggested that Ingram´s wife, Diana, had signalled the answer to him. But there is always a camera trained on every contestant´s invited studio guest.´
Plaskett believes that he can explain the seemingly suspicious studio coughing too.´People cough all the time, involuntarily. It wasn´t signalling - just what I call " responsive coughing."
THE PUBLICITY ITSELF WAS WORTH MILLIONS.
A person may cough when the person in the hot seat gives answers he or she thinks are correct - it´s just a nervous tic.´ Indeed, it is this " responsive coughing " theory that could provide the new evidence to overturn Ingram´s conviction, says Plaskett.
He tested his theory by analysing the performance of the first 1 Million Pound winner, Judith Keppel.´ Coughs came from members of the audience, just after she gives the correct answer, can be heard at the 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, 16,000, 500,000 and 1 Million Pound points. No one has ever suggested that Judith Keppel was cheating.
Tecwen Whittock had asthma, hay fever and a dust allergy, which meant he was prone to coughing anyway. He coughed more as the programme went on - not surprisingly as it was getting hot in the studio, and he had no water.
However, the most glaring weakness in the prosecution case according to Plaskett was that, even after an 18 month inquiry, there was no evidence that Ingram and Whittock had ever met or spoken to each other. There had been telephone calls between Whittock and Ingram´s wife Diana, who had appeared previously on Who wants To Be A Millionaire? and was writing a book about the programme.´ There was nothing remarkable about Whittock having contacted Diana,´says Plaskett. ´Knowing she had already been a contestant, she would have been an obvious source of help - to show him the ropes.´ I get young chess players contacting me all the time. Quiz show enthusiasts will often contact each other.´ When I was trying to get on the show, I contacted the first half-million-pound winner after the production company Celador put me in touch with him.´
In court, the prosecution implied that it was strange that Ingram and Whittock didn´t speak to each other beforehand. Of course it wasn´t strange - they didn´t know each other. Until his wife told him later, Ingram didn´t know that she had ever spoken to Whittock.´
And there is another element of the case that concerns Plaskett. A production assistant testified that she was surprised when, having just won 1 million Pounds, the Major said he was going back to work in the morning.´ This wasn´t surprising at all,´ says Plaskett. ´Just 20 weeks earlier, the previous winner of the 1 Million Pound prize -a science teacher from Staffordshire - had done precisely that´.
The worldwide publicity generated by the ´coughing scam´ was, says Plaskett, heaven sent for the production company Celador. The show had originally been a huge success, and was transmitted most nights of a week. But by autumn 2001 its appeal was fading and it was being broadcast only once a week. The Ingram controversy revived a programme which was in danger of stagnating. The publicity could not have been purchased for millions.
After the court case, Celador rushed out a documentary and sold it worldwide. Now they are planning to make even more money and have commissioned a screenplay about the case. ´
So while the lives of two families have been ruined, the beneficiaries of this whole affair have been Celador. Was this justice or business? Plaskett is determined to find out.
Ten minutes after seeing Bob´s e mail I found myself looking at a different e mail box to our customary one and so glimpsed for the first time something which had come in for my wife on September 24th, and which she had not previously mentioned.
I saw this -
From: Vanessa Coode To: jamesplaskett Sent: Friday, September 24, 2004 7:51 PM Subject: reprint
Dear Ms Pitt-Kethley
W. W. Norton has asked for permission to reprint your poem Shylock in their The Merchant of Venice: Norton Critical Edition to be edited by Leah Marcus and due to be published in November 2005.
The LRB would have no objection to this but we would not want to grant formal permission without your approval.
Can you let me know what you think?
The poem is in Fiona´s collection Dogs. She responded in the affirmative.
In her poem the despised character of Shylock is seen in a more sympathetic light.
Ms Coode´s e mail was to an address with my name heading it, and not that of my wife.