While Quiz’s main scam deals with the platonic ideal of a dweeb couple coughing their way to a £1 million “victory,” a parallel con — and, dare we say, a far more ingenious and refined one — also wove its way into the lore of Britain’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the early aughts. As teased in the first episode of the AMC miniseries, Adrian Pollock (Trystan Gravelle), driven to the brink of madness trying to get onto the quiz show, meets with a seedy chap named Paddy Spooner (Jerry Killick) to pick his brain about the “bespoke services” he offers to potential contestants. Who exactly is Spooner, and how can he make your dreams come true? “An underground community has sprung up. Fans of the show who have grown into an unlikely resistance in the quiet little villages of England. The perfect place to plan our attack,” he explains, “of breaking into the show.”
Spooner goes on to tell Pollock just what these services entail: He and his “syndicate, as we call ourselves” cracked the code for Millionaire’s audition process and is thus able to anticipate all of the difficult questions contestants must correctly answer before they’re cleared to play. His coalition also mobilizes during every show taping in a room where phone-a-friend calls can be diverted to. “In the world of quizzing, the man who has the questions is king,” he boasts. “But the man who has all the answers is God.” Pollock, while impressed by the breadth of the operation, passes on employing his services — the “modest 25 percent” fee of prize winnings is too much for him (and his debts) to handle. The couple at the center of Quiz, Charles and Diana Ingram, also didn’t work with Spooner.
At the beginning of the episode, Quiz teases that a few events have been changed for the almighty “dramatic purposes.” Amazingly, this underground game-show syndicate isn’t one of them.
The real Paddy Spooner was a prolific Millionaire contestant and the first person to appear on multiple versions of the show: He won $250,000 in Australia, £250,000 in the United Kingdom, and €1,000 in Ireland. A university dropout, he primarily made his living through pub quizzes and tournaments prior to his ascension as a game-show contestant in his early 30s. James Graham, the writer of the original Quiz stage play that the show is based on, told Bustle UK that Spooner met with him and his actors during the play’s rehearsal process. Spooner admitted that he was the mastermind behind the underground Millionaire scam for several years, which he referred to as “the Consortium.”
“They were a series of expert quizzers and talented individuals who both grew to understand ways in which you could manipulate the phone line system to be selected to go on the show, and then offered a service to clients who hired them to help them get both ‘chair-wise,’ as they called it — how to work out being in the chair and to play the game,” Graham told Bustle UK. “And also, infamously, the phone-a-friend being diverted to this special secret room which we depict in the show and did exist.” He added that Spooner believes “nearly 10 percent” of winnings in the show’s history came through that bespoke system, which is valued at around £5 million. Spooner kept a sizable percentage of those winnings for himself and his Consortium.
Paul Smith, the CEO of a British entertainment company that helped launch Millionaire (and who’s a prominent character in the series), told The Daily Mail in a recent interview that he sought out a meeting with Spooner last year to learn about the extent of his operation. Spooner accepted his invitation and outlined how he was able to easily exploit the show’s flawed vetting system. “We were naïve. We believed people would play the game in the spirit it was intended, but serious quizzers began to realize the massive potential,” Smith said. “What they began to do was find ways of penetrating the system to get into the studio by completely, totally ignoring the rules.” Smith agreed with Spooner’s assessment that about 10 percent of the show’s winnings were tied to his operation.
After two decades of silence, Spooner indulged The Daily Mail with a short interview last month, mostly to confirm Smith and Graham’s stories and assert that he did nothing illegal. He wasn’t willing to speak about how he ran his Consortium, as he “did not wish to comment” about the past. “I won using my skill,” he wrote. “I deserved it.”