AN ARMY major and his wife may have considered a vibrating pager ploy before deciding a system of coded coughing offered a better chance of winning the top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, a court was told yesterday.
The possible original scheme came to light after they and a college lecturer were arrested following Charles Ingram’s success on the television game show.
Police discovered that for months before Ingram was handed his seven-figure cheque by Chris Tarrant, the popular programme’s host, an avalanche of numeric messages had been sent to pagers from the couple’s phones.
Nicholas Hilliard, prosecuting, told Southwark Crown Court, London, it might have been possible for an accomplice to signal the correct answer using four pagers hidden in the contestant’s clothing.
He said: "If each of four pagers represented a different letter of the alphabet - one as answer A, the other answer B, the third answer C, the fourth answer D - then you could signal a correct answer to a helper in the audience or to somebody actually in the hot seat who had the four pagers on them in different places by causing one particular pager to vibrate rather than any of the others."
The barrister suggested the scheme may have been abandoned as too risky and the "coughing" method used instead.
In the dock with Ingram, 39, is his wife, Diana, 38, a nursery nurse, both of Easterton, Wiltshire, and Tecwen Whittock, of Whitchurch, Cardiff, the head of business studies at Pontypridd College, south Wales.
They each deny a single charge alleging they "procured a valuable security by deception" by dishonestly getting Mr Tarrant to sign the 1 million cheque on 10 September, 2001.
The Crown has claimed the coughs came from Whittock while he was one of the show’s "Fastest Finger First" contestants sitting just 10ft away from the major.
Mr Hilliard maintained that after Tarrant had asked a question, the Royal Engineers officer would repeat the options and, as he did so, was allegedly led in most cases to the correct answers by coughing signals.
However, the court was told, the college lecturer’s throat problem disappeared after the cheque was handed over and he then won the Fastest Finger round for his own chance in the hot seat.
During the second day of his opening address - delayed for several hours after a juror was taken ill - the barrister said the numeric messages sent to the pagers took the form of "1111" on some occasions while on others, different, similarly repeated numbers were used.
Evidence from the Ingrams’ home and mobile phone bills showed this first occurred in July 2001.
However, it rapidly escalated on 8 September that year, the day before the major won 4,000 on the show and became a "rollover contestant" for the next episode, in which he correctly answered the 1 million question.
Mr Hilliard said: "Were the Ingrams practising a scheme on 9 September to cheat, even if they discarded it in the event as too risky to use or discarded [it] for some other reason, and then simply used the coughing method on the 10th, on the show Mr Whittock was going to be on in the studio? ... There’s no evidence that such a scheme was actually used on either occasion when Mr Ingram was in the hot seat."
The barrister said that when questioned by police, Diana Ingram maintained she had used numeric messages to contact her brothers, Marcus Powell and Adrian Pollock.
However, he told the court, Mr Pollock was in the studio on the night of 9 September and would not have needed to be contacted in that way.
He reminded the jury that there would be evidence during the four-week trial that Mr Powell had asked to be in a VIP area of the studio and had been seen on several occasions with a mobile phone.
He said: "Investigations show that if you have an open mobile telephone [line] in the overspill area where, for some reason, Marcus Powell had chosen to sit rather than in the amphitheatre … the studio sound of the question being asked could be transmitted to someone at the other end of the telephone.
"So if you were planning this, you would need to sit in the overspill area with your mobile telephone."
Mr Hilliard also told the court that when interviewed by police, Whittock, like his co-defendants, denied any wrongdoing.
The college lecturer had insisted he had had a genuine cough caused by a combination of hay fever and a dust allergy. It was nothing more than "coincidence" if his throat problem had coincided with the right answer.
He also insisted that he had not known the answers to three of the questions he allegedly helped with.
Police, however, found the answer to one of them - that the painting The Ambassadors in the National Gallery was by Holbein - in a hand-written general knowledge book at his home. Equally, the answer to another question he said he had not known but was not said to have helped with - the fact that Craig David had the hit UK album Born To Do It - was in the book.
The trial continues today.