THE flamboyant host of ITV’s hit quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? told a jury of his amazement when told that an army major who scooped the top prize of £1 million could have cheated.
"Certainly, I couldn’t believe it," Chris Tarrant said.
"You don’t expect anyone to come on a show like that to cheat."
The ebullient quizmaster, who swapped his usual chair for the witness box at Southwark Crown Court yesterday, said that the erratic behaviour of Major Charles Ingram on the show as he chopped and changed his answers was "extraordinary and very hard to fathom". He added that, despite the unique performance from the man he described on the set as "the most amazing contestant we have ever had", he heard no coughing signals from the audience allegedly used by the major to cheat.
He told the packed court room that he was too engrossed in the drama of the show to notice anything untoward.
Nicholas Hilliard, prosecuting, asked him if he had noticed any coughing during Major Ingram’s appearance on the show on 10 September, 2001.
Tarrant answered: "Not specifically, because there is just so much going on at the time - wild applause, the major himself, extraordinary behaviour, excited behaviour and very hard-to-fathom behaviour.
"I am so focused, particularly at that level because you are talking about 1 million, unless there was somebody in the audience with Morse code," he said.
The major’s mindset, said Tarrant, as he took his time to answer questions, was "very hard to follow".
It was only two days later, when he saw the video tapes of the show - and heard the coughing - that he became aware something may have been amiss.
"A lot of coughing and a particular pattern of coughing emerged," he said.
Earlier, the court heard that the coughs, believed to have been coded to signal the correct answers, came from the direction of another contestant, Tecwen Whittock, as Ingram pondered his answers out loud.
The Crown has claimed that Whittock used a total of 19 strategically placed coughs to steer the army officer to the correct answer. Ingram, 39, of the Royal Engineers, is charged along with his 38-year-old wife, Diana, both from Easterton, Wiltshire, and Whittock, 53, of Whitchurch, Cardiff, with conspiracy and "procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception", in other words the 1 million cheque. All three deny the charges.
Tarrant revealed some of the show’s secrets as he told the judge how he made the contestants "sweat a bit" by personally choosing the show’s most dramatic moments for the commercial breaks. He also revealed that - in order to maintain the tension - he was not allowed access to the answers until the contestant had revealed their final answer.
To laughter in court, he demonstrated the "strange" face he used to show no emotion as a contestant was going through the possible answers. "It is like this," he said, before putting on the famous, impassive mask known to millions of viewers who watch the show.
Tarrant, who drank champagne with the Ingrams in their dressing room, said he was convinced the major was genuine when he signed the 1 million cheque.
"If I thought there was anything wrong, I certainly would not have signed it."
Mr Tarrant told of his "elation" after Major Ingram correctly answered the final 1 million question after an "exciting, extraordinary programme, two programmes".
Cross-examining Mr Tarrant, Sonia Woodley, defending Ingram, asked him, "You hugged Mr Ingram?"
To further laughter in court, he replied: "Yes, but in a manly way."
When asked whether the atmosphere in the dressing room was tense after the show, Tarrant replied: "No, not at all. "They seemed as normal as people who have just won a million pounds would be in the situation."
However, Tarrant said that on his way to the dressing room, "I had been told there had been quite an unpleasant exchange".
The court has heard that Ingram allegedly ordered Celador researcher Eve Winstanley to get out of the couple’s dressing room.
The jury heard that on the question that won Ingram the million pounds - the correct name for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros - coughs were heard when Ingram mentioned the correct answer, a googol.
The trial is expected to last another three weeks.