The makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? last night admitted they were hoodwinked by a syndicate of quiz cheats who netted at least £5 million in prize money.
In a highly organised operation, the consortium secretly provided contestants with answers and played the system to plant their members on to the ITV show.
Applicants who paid a fee, thought to be around £500, would be slipped the answers to the questions that researchers used to pick who would be invited into the studio. And if they made it to the hot seat opposite host Chris Tarrant, the player could call on the syndicate to get help using the ‘Phone A Friend’ lifeline.
Producers believe the gang netted ‘at least’ ten per cent of the £50 million prize money paid out on the show from 2002 to 2007.
In a highly organised operation, the consortium secretly provided contestants with answers and played the system to plant their members on to the ITV show
Paul Smith, the boss of production company Celador, became aware of the scale of the operation as a new drama was being put together about the ‘coughing major’ scandal, in which Charles Ingram cheated his way to the £1 million jackpot.
While James Graham, the writer of Quiz, was working on that storyline, Smith met up with the kingpin of the operation, Paddy Spooner, a former contestant on three versions of the show in the UK, Ireland and Australia, who told him about their scheme
Smith, who devised the Millionaire format, admitted last night: ‘We were naive. We believed people would play the game in the spirit it was intended, but serious quizzers began to realise the massive potential. What they began to do was find ways of penetrating the system to get into the studio by completely, totally ignoring the rules.’
Graham said: ‘Paul became re-intrigued by the story and wanted to find out more about the syndicate. He was shocked to realise that one in every ten pounds he gave away went to this cheating operation. We are revealing this for the first time as Paul only uncovered the truth while we were preparing the series.’
Producers believe the gang netted ‘at least’ ten per cent of the £50 million prize money paid out on the show from 2002 to 2007
The three-part drama, which is to be screened on ITV from Easter Monday, shows Spooner telling Smith: ‘It is not illegal what we do. There were weaknesses. They were vulnerabilities that you left in your own system.’
It also shows how the syndicate worked out that producers used the Office for National Statistics database for the questions they asked would-be contestants over the phone.
Spooner spent two months studying that information so he could provide paid-up syndicate members with the correct answer on another phone line when they were contacted by the show’s researchers.
Dedicated quizzers would also be on hand for the ‘Phone A Friend’ lifeline during the recording of the shows. If the expert posing as the friend was sure of the answer, he would signal so by saying: ‘I am 90 per cent certain.’
It is believed that the participants also agreed to share their winnings with the consortium.
The activities of the syndicate are a key plotline in Quiz, which explores how Major Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen, and his wife Diana, portrayed by Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, cheated their way to the show’s top prize in 2001.
It later emerged that Ingram had been helped by an accomplice in the audience, Tecwen Whittock, who would cough when a correct answer was read out.
In 2003, all three were found guilty and were given suspended prison sentences.
The drama – which Spooner watched in a previous stage incarnation – shows the meeting between Smith and Spooner happening in a pub at the time of the Ingrams scandal, though it actually took place at the end of last year.