Giant Brit audience tunes in TV's new hit: a morality play

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Martin Bashir achieved some fame in the U.S. as the British journalist who interviewed Princess Diana and Michael Jackson. This week he hosted the highest-rated commercial TV documentary in U.K. history: an investigation into the British army major who cheated his way to $1.5 million on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

The story is a parable for our times. True, it took place in England, with some issues of class, status and honor unique to that society. But there are also universal issues of greed, morality and celebrity-so much so that discussions have begun about turning the saga into a Hollywood movie. This invites further questions about the morality of profiting from personal tragedy. And this is tragedy in the true sense of the word.

The story: "Millionaire" remains a big show in the U.K. Major Charles Ingram's wife, Diana (yes, Charles and Diana!), had already won $48,000 on the show before he appeared in 2001. Ingram then enlisted the help of a "friend": university lecturer Tecwen Whittock, an acquaintance of Diana's and a fellow quiz-show fanatic. As the hot seat co-contestant, Whittock's elaborately devised series of coughs enabled the major to cheat his way to the $1.5 million grand prize.

A subsequent investigation by the suspicious production company, Celador, led to criminal prosecution of the three for fraud. Earlier this month, they were found guilty, fined and given suspended prison sentences. They never got the $1.5 million, of course. The major, a veteran of the Bosnian conflict, will be discharged from the Royal Engineers and will lose his house. Whittock's 29-year academic career is equally at risk.

It's a compelling tale but even the ITV network was staggered when 17 million viewers watched Bashir's documentary, a record for an ITV factual show. That was a 55% audience share, and an advertiser bonanza-especially in factual programming.

The program showed the trio in action for the first time publicly since the original airing. It looked bad: Diana looking at Whittock quizzically, and the lecturer delivering 19 theatrical coughs as the show progressed.

Major Ingram, who had debts of $75,000 before Bashir's show, is now complaining that he was not allowed to get his side of the story into the documentary. The TV program, he says, was worse than his trial ordeal. He accuses "Millionaire" producer Celador, in turn, of being "greedy." He said on breakfast TV-on ITV rival BBC, of course!-that the whole affair had been "cataclysmic" for his family, especially his young daughters.

Now the original quiz show has aired again. It won't go away. Apparently Hugh Grant and Catherine Zeta-Jones are being mooted as the movie leads. Is Celador being greedy and cynical now? Has the major suffered too much? Or got what he deserved? Is a culture-particularly the TV medium-that encourages such brazen pursuit of riches for the voyeuristic entertainment of the masses really to blame?

I'm just telling the story. You be the judge. Whatever the answer, whatever the morality of what has been and what's to come, I'm absolutely sure the movie will be a hit.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity

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