This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
It's September 9, 2001. Major Charles Ingram—soon to be known forever, eternally, as the Coughing Major—is sitting on the edge of a stainless steel high-chair. He is in the middle of filming an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He is also in the middle of committing one of the clumsiest, most ineffectual, but brilliant crimes of the 21st century.
Question by question, guided along by an oblivious Chris Tarrant and a duo of shadowy accomplices hidden in the surrounding audience, the Coughing Major is stealing a million pounds.
The story of the Coughing Major is a tale as timeless in morality as it is peculiarly rooted to the moment in space and time within which it occurred. The army man's attempt to steal a million pounds on television, with little more for help than sheer dumb luck and a terrible fake cough, is a fascinating incident even today. Grotesque in its stupidity, tragic in its context, hilarious in its execution.§
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which first aired in 1998, was a phenomenon when it hit British screens. At its peak in 1999, one edition of the show was watched by 19 million viewers, one-third of the British population. A combination of the then-futurist set, the affable Tarrant, and the astronomical promise of a million pounds—a prize never before imagined on a television show—made it the perfect premise for the precipice of the millennium. It was a show that promised big thrills and even bigger rewards. Perhaps it was always going to attract some dubious attention at some stage.
Major Charles Ingram's appearance on the show was in 2001, but his wife, Diana, had also been on earlier that year and won £32,000 [$42,000]. Not only that, but her brother Adrian Pollock had also appeared on the show in December o2000. It was alleged after the scandal that the Ingrams were in excess of £50,000 [$66,000] worth of debt. Despite the blustery veneer, the clipped accent, and the military façade, the Major was masking a thinly veiled desperation.
Charles Ingram's appearance on the show started pretty badly. By the time he had stumbled his way to the £4,000 [$5,300] mark, he'd already used up two of his lifelines and was struggling to land on the name of Audrey's daughter in Coronation Street. By the time he finally sputtered "Gail," it was time for the recording to end for that day, meaning Ingram's run would continue onto the next episode. The production team at the time all doubted that he'd make it any further.
Then a miraculous thing happened. During the next day's filming, wearing the same strangely childlike patchwork polo shirt, Major Charles Ingram stomped his way ungracefully to a million.
We now know what had really happened: a plan had been devised to get him there. Diana Ingram had found a plant: Tecwen Whittock, a college lecturer from Cardiff who Diana knew from the gameshow circuit. They colluded as a three, creating a system to carry Ingram to the higher reaches of the game. The Major would read the four possible answers, and Whittock would cough after the correct one. On hearing the cough, the Major would know he had said the right one and proceed to offer this answer.
In some respects, it's not a totally terrible plan, but what's amazing watching it back is just how terribly they pulled it off. Take, for example, the Major's process when answering the question, "Who had a hit UK album with Born to Do It, released in 2000?" Ingram, for some unknown, baffling reason, decided to say, "I've never heard of Craig David," before he'd given Whittock or his wife a chance to cough. More than that, the Major even states he "thinks it's A1." When, finally, he gets the message that the correct answer is Craig David, he is forced to pull a completely unnatural U-turn. Despite having previously given A1 as his final answer, he suddenly says, "No, I'm going to go Craig David." When Tarrant asks him about his sudden turnaround, he says he's changed his mind because "most of my guesses are wrong."
This pattern continues. The Major admits to not knowing any answers, making the process even harder for himself. Bafflingly he continues to say, "I don't know what that is," "I'm sure it's not that," or "I've never heard of that" about answers that he is eventually forced to settle on. As he climbs higher and higher up the board, his behavior becomes more and more erratic. By the time he reaches the million pound question, he is clearly not feeling anywhere near the sort of pressure he should be. He flips between final answers, taking the money, A, B, C, and D, as though he can't decide what he wants for his tea. You can't help but feel that had anyone else been sitting in the hot seat—anyone but the Major—they'd have gotten away with it.
In a documentary made about the incident—A Major Fraud—it's revealed that after winning the million, the Ingrams were heard to have a screaming argument. Speculation is that the Major was supposed to stop earlier. He wasn't supposed to go all the way to a million. Had he stopped at £64,000 [$84,000], and many have observed this about the case, he would have cleared the Ingram family debt and most likely have gotten away with it all. So why didn't he?
It's impossible to say for sure, but it's as if a switch flipped inside of him. He got so far and thought, Fuck it—let's push this further. There's a mania that develops in his eyes, gradually, question by question. It's as though this hapless, mild-mannered man, who had spent his life pushed to and fro by his domineering military friends, had had enough of constantly being at the beck and call of others. He finally cracked, taking the descent into madness into his own hands.
Eventually, it comes down to the million pound question and one final answer. Five words win him the million: "I'm going to play Googol." When you look at the footage now, you see a man coming to terms with what he's just pulled off. He knew he had the right answer, but he also knew he'd just cheated his way there in front of an arsenal of television cameras and an audience of millions. He was in the throws of ecstasy and terror all at once. He wanted to throw up all over Chris Tarrant—cover his polyester suit in sticky vomit, let the acidic stench of the vomit heat and rise under the studio lights. The Major was ready to cry, laugh, and punch a wall. No lifelines now, just him—and he'd never felt more alive.
Without Major Charles Ingram, the scandal would likely have been forgotten by now. It's his character that makes the story eternally fascinating. Look at his face throughout the entire episode. It's impossible to call what he is smothered by more: panic or excitement. He seems to be a man enraptured by just how out of his depth he is getting. The further he goes, the more out of hand the con gets, and the more he weirdly loves it. Toward the end, it's hard to tell what's powering him more—getting away with it or getting caught.
Of course, he did get caught. The £1,000,000 [$1.3 million] payout was suspended, and following a four-week trial Diana Ingram, Tecwen Whittock, and Major Charles Ingram were convicted of procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception, given prison sentences suspended by two years (the Ingrams were sentenced to 18 months, and Whittock was sentenced to 12 months, also suspended), and fined £115,000 [$152,000] (including legal fees). Following this, the Major was stripped of his title by the Army Board, after 17 years of service.
To this day, the Ingrams maintain their innocence. Two journalists interested in miscarriages of justices, James Plaskett and Bob Woffinden, have since published a book protesting their innocence based on newly unearthed evidence, and writers such as Jon Ronson have also questioned the evidence in the case—but it all seems too little too late. Even if he was proved innocent now, he will forever be the Coughing Major in the hearts and minds of the public.
The years following Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? saw life for the Ingrams continue on its bizarre trajectory. Their appearance on shows like Wife Swap and Hell's Kitchen (Gordon Ramsey served them a cough sweet) suggest the Ingrams' taste for celebrity was only fueled by their infamy. For a particularly surreal watch, you can even see Charles Ingram's appearance on This Morning in 2003, during which he undergoes past life regression therapy—a process that reveals Ingram's belief that, in a past life, he was called David Huggott, an officer instrumental in Britain's victory during WWI.
Real life, however, was less fantastical. Ingram has been on record many times describing his life since as a "living hell."
The Coughing Major happened in the moment that reality television was about to enter its zenith. The world was increasingly being told that anyone could get on television if they were prepared to push themselves hard enough. Equally, the gargantuan scale of prizes that the likes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? had begun to inspire were similarly sending the message that anyone was entitled to riches—if they were prepared to play the game. The Major was the most maniacal spawn of this culture. An aristocrat, an upstanding military man, debased to cheating on a chintzy gameshow by the weight of the world. A man who looked into the eyes of Chris Tarrant and saw his own soul staring back.