Watched ITV drama Quiz? What really happened in the Millionaire 'Coughing Major' trial, by our reporter in court

It’s the only time I’ve every been told off by a judge. In court. During a trial. Well, not just me. The entire press bench.

It was as if we had been sitting there valiantly trying to suppress our gasps and sniggers, and we just couldn’t hold It in any more. It was very disrespectful of course. But this was quite the most astonishing trial that most of us would ever cover.

The moment that had me shamelessly laughing out loud was when the court was played the tape of Major Charles Ingram sitting before host Chris Tarrant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, being asked a question, and having confidently chosen his answer - Berlin, I recall - a cough is heard on the recording, which is closely followed by what sounded very much like a whispered 'No' coming from the studio.

We were all listening hard for the word that the prosecution said was clearly there, and at that 'No' - audacious, unbelievable, surely not - the whole court in fact burst out laughing.

Judge Geoffrey Rivlin threatened to clear the whole room. He didn’t. We got away with it. But the jury decided that Major Ingram, his wife Diana and their alleged accomplice Tecwen Whittock, could not.

It is little wonder that the story of the 'Coughing Major' has proved rich pickings for writers and producers. Quiz, the ITV series, comes from writer James Graham who first created it for the stage, playing to packed houses in Chichester and then the West End, and has now written it for TV.

Ingram and his wife are played by actors Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford, who met the real life couple when they visited the set towards the end of filming.

Both actors felt sympathy for the couple, they told me, particularly in the way they were treated by the media, hungry for every detail of this incredible story. The actors said they were just two ordinary people who, whatever they might have done, became victims themselves, ill prepared for what would happen during and after the trial.

  • Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford talk to Nina Nannar about meeting the Ingrams and whether they think the couple are innocent

The actual episode in which the deceit took place never aired on TV until a documentary about the case was broadcast after the end of the trial. But those of us in Court Number 4 were played the recording several times, as the prosecution and defence argued their cases, debating which of the 192 coughs that emanated from the direction of the audience during Major Ingram’s time in the hot seat were innocent and which were dodgy. In the end, 19 were deemed worthy of special attention.

As the coughs were endlessly analysed, and executives from Celador, the programme’s makers, were questioned, we would sit enthralled as Ingram occasionally looked over at the press benches, making eye contact, as if saying, "I know, this is ridiculous, right?"

His wife Diana remained focussed, barely any expression other than absolute concentration on her face. As the trial proceeded, during breaks, sometimes Ingram would speak to reporters as we waited to go back. I always got the impression he wanted to begin a dialogue about what we had heard in court. But he was always polite, even friendly, surprising considering the almighty scrum we formed each morning on the steps of Southwark Crown Court, that he and his wife has to push their way through.

I even recall a time when a member of the press pack went flying, such was the surge forward when they arrived walking up to the court, with the third defendant, college lecturer Tecwen Whitlock, arriving separately.

  • Watch Nina Nannar's ITV News report from the end of the trial in April 2003

Such were the “you couldn’t make it up” moments coming from the four week trial, ITV News’ bosses decided we should create our own Who Wants To Be A Millionaire studio. Our brilliant graphics team did just that in our news studio, so I could sit in what looked like the seat Ingram used and repeat his quotes from the day, or sit where Chris Tarrant usually did, to relay what the host told the court that day from the witness stand. Tarrant had initially not believed the claims that there had been cheating, he had said, but was then shown a pattern of coughing when studio staff showed him the recordings.

I think pretty much most of us who attended the trial were convinced of the defendants' guilt. In the end all three were convicted, found guilty in April 2003 of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception” - in other words, of conspiring to cheat the show, by a system of coughs designed to point Ingram towards the right answer.

And yet. Watch the TV series and make up your own mind at the end. There are revelations about the network of intensely fanatic wannabe contestants, questions about the way the couple were portrayed in the press as him being unintelligent, and a focus on just how much involuntary coughing there was in the studio on the day of the recording. I recall there being quite a few coughs from the courtroom during the trial - perhaps it was nerves, but I know I worked hard to stop my coughs escaping, lest I got in trouble again.

The Ingrams have always maintained their innocence. The actors who played them are not sure either way. And that is what the programme makers are hoping for. At the very least, that a drama series about questions and answers, generates even more questions afterwards.

  • Quiz is broadcast on ITV on Monday 13 April at 9pm and continues on Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 15 April. It will also be available to watch on the ITV Hub.