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Did an organised gang REALLY walk away with a fortune after targeting Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Paddy Spooner is just one of hundreds of contestants who have appeared on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? down the years.

You can see how he fared on a YouTube clip.

The date is March 30, 2000. Spooner, a quietly spoken 33-year-old from the New Forest in Hampshire, is on question No 13 — the one for £250,000 — when Chris Tarrant asks him this: ‘In which city was the doge once an important figure? A) Berlin; B) Geneva; C) Seville; D) Venice.’

‘Take your time,’ Tarrant urged him. He didn’t need to. ‘It’s “D” — Venice,’ Spooner, casually dressed in polo short and chinos, replies as quick as a flash.

It was the correct answer and he decided to quit while he was ahead, pocketing a quarter of a million pounds for less than an hour’s work.

Spooner, a university drop-out, was a serious player, making a full-time living from pub quiz machines.

So successful was he (‘I just couldn’t lose’) that he’d been banned from many venues in the same way as a gambler might be barred from a casino for consistently beating the house. The producers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? knew none of this, however.

‘I don’t think it’s unfair that I won with a professional attitude,’ Spooner insisted. ‘There is no rule that says only amateurs can appear on the show. I won using my skill. I deserved it.’

A new ITV series started last about Charles Ingram, played by Matthew Macfadyen (centre), who won the £1 million jackpot with the help of an accomplice in the audience who coughed when the right answer was read out. Sian Clifford (left) plays Diana Ingram and Michael Sheen plays game show host Chris Tarrant.

Mr Spooner, now 53, is the only person ever to have appeared on three versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? — in London and before that in Australia (where he scooped £100,000) and Ireland (£1,000). Now, 20 years on, he is back in the news again.

He has been identified — by the production company which makes Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? — as the mastermind behind a syndicate that arranged to have their ‘members’ on the show and provide them with answers by exploiting the ‘Phone A Friend’ option.

Waiting to take the call at the other end of the line was not a ‘friend,’ but Paddy Spooner and, on occasions, other dedicated quizzers who could answer just about any question that came up; in return, they took a cut of the prize money.

Spooner himself did not cheat when he appeared on the show, but the programme makers believe that afterwards (between 2002 and 2007) a small fortune, possibly millions, paid out in winnings went to Spooner and his associates.

Today, Paddy Spooner, a trained computer programmer, is married and lives in a £750,000 detached house just yards from the beach on the South coast. Parked outside this week was a black Jaguar saloon and a Volvo 4×4.

He did not wish to comment about his past. His syndicate — ‘The Consortium’ as he called it — was one of a number of highly organised groups operating in different parts of the country targeting Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? But it is only Paddy Spooner who is featured in the three-part ITV drama, Quiz, which started last night.

His organisation is the subplot to the main storyline about ‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram (played by Matthew Macfadyen) who won the £1 million jackpot with the help of an accomplice in the audience who coughed when the right answer was read out. At its peak, the show had 19.2 million viewers.

Ingram appeared in 2001 and, two years later, was given a suspended jail term for ‘procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception’, along with wife Diana (played by Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) and the ‘cougher’, university lecturer Tecwen Whittock.

At the time Chris Tarrant (Michael Sheen in the drama) never suspected that Ingram, a major in the Royal Engineers, was cheating and Ingram himself continues to maintain his innocence.

The writer, James Graham, who based the TV series on his acclaimed play of the same name — which premiered in the West End in 2018 — also has doubts about his guilt and suggests the coughing footage presented at his trial was edited in a way that made him look culpable.

Spooner came forward after going to see the play and gave a detailed account of his activities to the head of the production company, who devised the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? format, when they met last year. The timeline — and certain other details — has been changed in the forthcoming TV drama to incorporate the Paddy Spooner narrative. He is adamant he did nothing illegal.

The irony is that the money paid out to Spooner and his accomplices — who became known on obscure quiz forums and websites as ‘Spooner’s People’ — far exceeded the £1 million jackpot that would have gone to the ‘Coughing Major’ Charles Ingram had he not been caught. So how did he do it?

The process by which the show was penetrated was audacious and planned with military precision. In order to get on shows such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? wannabe contestants first had to call a premium-rate number.

Names were selected randomly by a computer and the individuals chosen would then receive a ‘call-back’ from a researcher. The more times you called, the more chance you had of being picked.

So Spooner recruited a small army of (mostly middle-class) quiz fanatics and paid them to keep making calls (which cost £1 at one time) when the phone lines opened.

Soon, they did begin to receive ‘call-backs’ — which was the next step to overcome. To progress further, the person hoping to make it into the ‘hot seat’ opposite Chris Tarrant had to answer what is known as a ‘closest-to’ question such as: What is the length of the Humber Bridge in metres? The answer is 2,220 metres — but 2,250 or 2,080 would have sufficed.

Spooner worked out that production company Celador was using the same questions, in rotation, from the Office For National Statistics (ONS) database.

He spent hour after hour studying information filed at the ONS to be able to give the correct answer to his ‘clients’ when they were contacted. It was vital, though, that whoever answered the phone when receiving a ‘call-back’ should say something like: ‘He/she is not here. Could you call back later?’

The researcher always obliged, allowing Paddy Spooner — or one of his associates scattered around the country — time to drive to the contestant’s home and provide direct assistance with the ‘closest-to’ question. Those who successfully negotiated the ‘closest-to’ round were invited into the studio for the final eliminator: ‘Fastest Finger First.’ The rule was simple. The panel, made up of contestants who had made it this far, were asked one question. The first to press the buzzer with the correct answer went through to face quizmaster Chris Tarrant. Spooner’s clients even prepared for this round, practising with buzzers similar to the one on the show.

Fans will know that contestants on the big night were ‘15 questions away’ from picking up a cheque for £1 million and were given a number of lifelines if they got stuck including ‘Phone A Friend’.

In reality, phone numbers given to producers for the ‘friend’ of Consortium members would be diverted to Spooner’s home (or one of his accomplices) in London where Spooner and his band of quizzers had gathered.

‘They’d use a speakerphone so they could all hear it,’ explained a member of the quizzing community claiming knowledge of Spooner’s operation, ‘then press the mute button while they quickly conferred before unmuting the phone to give the answer as if just one person had come up with it. Reference books were also on hand [Google was still in its infancy].’

Paddy Spooner (pictured),from Ringwood, Hants, is the only person ever to have appeared on three versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Paddy Spooner (pictured),from Ringwood, Hants, is the only person ever to have appeared on three versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

The makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? admitted that they may have been hoodwinked by as much as £5 million in prize money

‘We were naïve,’ Paul Smith, the boss of Celador acknowledged. ‘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.’

He knew at the time, Smith said, who the key members were — and were aware of their activities — but struggled to combat the tactics.One of the ‘key members’ he referred to was Keith Burgess who, it now transpires, worked closely with Paddy Spooner. Burgess, 63, now living in Dungannon in Northern Ireland, was exposed by a Sunday newspaper in 2007. In a secretly taped conversation, Burgess boasted about even getting his wife on the show.

‘I got her on three times last year but she didn’t get past the fastest finger. I haven’t broken any rules. Who am I defrauding?’

How poor Charles Ingram must have wished he had been one of ‘Spooner’s People’. Had he been, you wouldn’t be reading about him now. Instead, he was discharged from the Army and became a national hate figure.

The Ingrams had to take their children out of school, were spat in the street and their dog was kicked to death.

Charles Ingram himself was spotted selling jewellery on a Christmas market stall last year just months after being declared bankrupt.

The Ingrams were involved in the creation of the TV drama which is partly based on former contestant James Plaskett’s book Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major.

Speaking from home in Murcia, Spain, Plaskett, 60, a British chess grandmaster, recalled how he had heard on the grapevine at the time about Paddy Spooner’s syndicate. ‘There were public posts on a quizzing website about “Spooner’s People”.

One of them said that Spooner was in a position to fill all ten of the seats (in the ‘Fastest Finger First’ round) of one show.’

One of the people who opened up to him for the book was another former contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, James Sorrie, a surveyor from Northampton.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host Christ Tarrant is played by Michael Sheen in the new ITV drama. Here he is asking the million-pound question to Judith Keppel, the first person to win the top prize on the British version of the show

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire host Christ Tarrant is played by Michael Sheen in the new ITV drama. Here he is asking the million-pound question to Judith Keppel, the first person to win the top prize on the British version of the show

‘During my pub-quizzing, I got talking to others about the show,’ Mr Sorrie told the Mail, ‘and someone said, “Would you like to meet my friend? He can give you some really good advice.” ’

Mr Sorrie did meet the ‘friend’ on numerous occasions. It was Paddy Spooner.

‘Once, he asked if I was still trying to get on the show,’ he recalled. ‘I told him which programme I was trying for. He said: “Forget that one. I’ve already got four people on it.” ’

By 2003, Spooner, he says, had helped at least 70 clients reach the hot seat and received 25 per cent of the winnings for his services, which was shared among his associates.

‘Sometimes they’d even phone me up while the programme was being recorded, saying they’d just got another one of their people into the chair and made lots of money. They’d be in a party mood because of the winnings they’d brought in.

‘They’d tell me the date of the transmission and I’d look out for it. I came to recognise one of their voices time and time again on the Phone A Friend question on different shows, using different names.’ Under his own steam, Sorrie wasted thousands of pounds over eight years trying unsuccessfully to make it on to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. ‘The problem,’ he said, ‘was that I was too honest.’

In real life Paddy Spooner and Paul Smith, the executive who devised Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, didn’t actually meet until last year when Smith went to his home and took him out to lunch as part of a fact-finding mission for the drama.

But in the actual drama itself, Smith tricks Spooner into meeting him at a pub after browsing an online fan forum which alluded to his syndicate of professional quizzers.

‘How many people did you get into my chair?’ Smith asks him.’ Spooner replies: ‘I’d say hundreds. If you really want to know how well we penetrated your fortress, I worked out how much prize money you’d given away throughout the run of the show and how much of that was won by our organisation. It’s at least 10 per cent. Sorry.’

So, fingers on buzzers, is the real Paddy Spooner a genius, a cheat, a welcome distraction or all three? It’s time to phone a friend.

Additional reporting: Tim Stewart