Why are we in thrall to conmen?
Alexander Larman looks forward to new drama Quiz on ITV
Our society has a strange relationship with conmen, or conwomen. (It has become something of an equal opportunity crime in our new, egalitarian age.) On the one hand, we are the first to denounce them as scoundrels and villains and wish for their damning exposure and punishment if their nefarious ways have inconvenienced us in some way. Yet on the other, we delight in their ingenuity and daring, especially if their antics can be presented through the safe prism of fiction, rather than the less cosy context of the criminal court.
Tonight, the first episode of James Graham and Stephen Frears’ new drama Quiz airs on ITV. It centres on what was purportedly one of the biggest cons of them all, the saga of the so-called ‘coughing major’, Charles Ingram, and his wife Diana. It stars Frears’ chameleonic regular collaborator Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, Matthew MacFadyen – fresh from playing another morally dubious character in Succession – as Ingram and Fleabag’s Sian Clifford as Diana. Given its enormous captive audience, it should attain the same gargantuan viewing figures as the programme on which it is based, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which regularly attracted nearly 20 million people in its heyday a couple of decades ago.
It is based on Graham’s play of the same name about the saga, which first appeared in Chichester in 2017 and the West End in 2018. Graham described himself as ‘fixated’ by the events he depicts, which he also calls ‘the most British crime in the history of the world’. Virtually anyone over 30 will remember what happened in September 2001, when Charles and Diana – even their names are serendipitous – conspired to win a million pounds on the gameshow, aided by the so-called ‘coughing Welshman’ Tecwen Whittock. Ingram initially seemed like a no-hoper, using up two of his three ‘lifelines’ while only at the £4000 mark, but thereafter racked up a remarkable number of correct answers, winning a million pounds by correctly answering that a number one followed by a hundred zeroes was known as a ‘googol’.
If there is an abiding tradition to tales of conmen, it is usually that there are ‘good’ con artists and ‘wicked’ con artists
Ingram was not the first contestant to win a million: that honour went to Judith Keppel, who parlayed her subsequent fame into a regular appearance on the BBC’s Eggheads. Yet he quickly became the most notorious, when the production company Celador, suspecting foul play, cancelled his cheque, and reported him, his wife and Whittock to the police. They were charged with ‘procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception’, and convicted at Southwark Crown Court in April 2003, fined heavily and given suspended prison sentences. Ingram was also ordered to resign his commission from the army, after seventeen years’ service.
Once, this would have led to nothing more than an ignominious descent into the gutter for the Ingrams, but they had appeared on television and so now were celebrities. And the whole bizarre story had captured the imagination of reality television producers, and so they found themselves appearing on the likes of The Weakest Link and Wife Swap, during which Ingram was briefly ‘married’ to none other than Jade Goody. So, until Graham’s play, they scraped by, with unsympathetic members of the public ridiculing them by coughing in their faces at every opportunity, and Ingram combined the unlikely roles of computer repairman and novelist. But now Quiz has thrown them back into the limelight, and they have been loudly proclaiming their innocence to any socially distanced and sympathetic journalist who will run a story.
The strangest thing is that they might even be telling the truth.
If there is an abiding tradition to tales of conmen, it is usually that there are ‘good’ con artists and ‘wicked’ con artists. The ‘good’ ones are those who traditionally commit essentially victimless crimes, in which the only people who suffer are large faceless corporations, or act with some originality and ingenuity that one cannot help but marvel at the sheer chutzpah that they display. The example of the 19th century ‘Tichborne claimant’, in which a butcher’s son named Arthur Orton announced that he was heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, is a fine example of the first camp. Orton became one of the most famous men in the country before being declared an impostor, found guilty of perjury and imprisoned. His trial was so chaotic that his barrister Edward Kenealy was subsequently debarred; Kenealy’s attitude towards the prosecution witnesses was to reveal irrelevant but scandalous details of their personal lives in order to destroy their credibility. The story was subsequently filmed by future Harry Potter director David Yates, and the picture preserved an element of ambiguity as to whether the Tichborne claimant had been genuine, after all.
The ‘wicked’ con artists, meanwhile, are, in the words of Flanders and Swann, ‘no stranger to vice…base, bad and mean’. These characters prey on the honest but unworldly, ruthlessly exploiting them for financial or sexual gain, or both. They were probably best immortalised by Terry-Thomas in 1960’s School for Scoundrels as the drawling and dishonest Delaunay, prone to saying ‘Hard cheese’ while he obtains yet another advantage over the naïve protagonist. (Of course, he cheats at tennis.) Playing the rogue was what Terry-Thomas did best throughout his career, with his ineffable air of caddishness only accentuated by his gap-toothed grin. He would undoubtedly have been pleased to hear of a 2007 court case in which a Brighton fraudster obtained money and goods by using false names, one of which was, naturally, Terry Thomas.
There is a marked cultural divide between American con artists and British conmen. The successful ones in the United States end up being played by Leonardo DiCaprio in such films as The Wolf of Wall Street and Catch Me If You Can, where the prison sentences that the dishonest protagonists eventually receive seem a fair price to pay for the lives of dissolute glamour that have been lovingly depicted on screen for the previous two hours. It is no coincidence that the real-life figures, Jordan Belfort and Frank Abagnale, have gone on to even more lucrative careers trading off their infamy, disproving Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. The British ones, meanwhile, have less lofty ideals; they might wish to defraud the post office, for instance, or cheat in a quiz show. The ideal director for their stories might be Mike Leigh, rather than Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. And they may well star Essex’s answer to DiCaprio in the winking, insinuating form of Danny Dyer.
But the thing that unites them is that they all committed dishonest acts to make money in the full knowledge that they were doing wrong, whereas James Graham suggests in Quiz is that the Ingrams might have been innocent victims of a witch-hunt conducted by embarrassed TV executives, rather than hardened fraudsters. They were part of a quiz-show syndicate who ruthlessly exploited holes in the application process, and may have cumulatively made as much as £5 million in prize money. Diana Ingram had already appeared on the show, and won £32,000. It was sharp practice, undoubtedly, but not illegal.
Graham based the play and TV series on the 2015 book Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, which posited the idea that the Ingrams were guiltless of all charges. This in itself was not wildly original. Jon Ronson, who had attended the trial, had suggested the same in a Guardian article in 2006, which concluded by asking ‘Is [Ingram] guilty, and was afraid that if I started digging I would find further evidence of his guilt? Or is he an innocent, stubborn fool, refusing to see a possible opportunity to clear his name because he has been driven half crazy by bankruptcy and by being one of the most laughed-at men in Britain?’
Now, the Ingrams finally have their second day in the court of public opinion. The TV drama hedges its bets by suggesting both that they are guilty and innocent, just as the play ended both its halves by inviting the audience to vote with buzzers, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire-style, as to whether they did it or not. The first half invariably returned a verdict of culpability and the second half a verdict of innocence. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that their convictions will be quashed, and even more unlikely that their million pounds will be refunded, along with two decades’ worth of interest.
But whatever happens, it has already marked out the Ingrams as distinctly small fry in the world of conmen and conwomen. The true swindler, when the chips are finally down and the police are at the door, does not continue to loudly proclaim their innocence. Instead, they pour themselves a glass of vintage champagne, don their best attire and prepare to meet the inevitable call of justice with the suavity and aplomb that they demonstrated while ripping off their marks. It is these rogues who make the whole concept of scam more attractive to us, not some Nigerian fraudster offering untold riches via email; they are not known as a con ‘artist’ for nothing. And, when they languish in jail, their sins punished at last, they can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they remain the most curiously attractive of all criminals.
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