TV UK, 24 April

Coughs, sneezes and Major Fraud.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

There is an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, probably the one about giving blood (‘A pint?!’), in which Hancock becomes greatly enamoured of the slogan on a poster in the doctor’s waiting room: ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.’

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. They certainly do. The trailer for Channel 4’s Sars: Killer Bug documentary (next Monday night) pins the whole outbreak on somebody sneezing in a Hong Kong lift in February. Sars is coming out from under the shadow of Gulf War II, and no doubt we can look forward to more programmes from now on. It is to everybody’s credit, perhaps, that no link has been made with the War on Terror.

I mean, how hard could it be to come up with some sort of North Korea/al-Qaeda connection? As Phil Ochs sarcastically sang in the 1960s: ‘I can see them a-comin/They’re a-trainin in the mountains/And they talk Chinese/And they spread disease….’ Instead, the current approach is to tap into more primal fears. In this context, the not-knowing adds to the drama. At the time of writing, the Channel 4 programme is not finished, but we’ll come back to this once the story has taken shape.

With brilliant tact, Channel 5 is screening the film Outbreak on Monday night. This is a bit like Sars meets the hunt for Osama bin Laden: ‘Dammit! We’ve got to find that monkey!’ If only life were that simple.

Earlier this week it was coughing that caused all the fuss in Major Fraud, ITV’s special programme about the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? scandal. We were treated to footage of the unbroadcast episode in which Major Charles Ingram won £1million with the help of a coughing chum, the comically named Tecwen Whittock, in the audience. The episode was filmed on 10 September 2001.

To give the story truly historic proportions, it was presented by Martin Bashir, messenger of the Gods, who also provided a running commentary to point out how the scam worked. The coughing track was amplified to make it more obvious, which also made it seem more brazen.

According to a series of wise-after-the-event interviews, everybody in the studio knew the major was at it all along, but they were all too polite to say so. Certainly, his technique was odd: he would often settle on one of the four answers, and then read out each of the others waiting for a cough, finally choosing a completely different answer. But the tone of moral outrage was a little over the top. You can hardly call a programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and then be shocked when somebody says, ‘Me! Me! (cough) Me!’


Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today