Like most flacks I have always lived by the old adage: never be part of the story. But what happens when the story becomes a West End play and then a primetime ITV drama, with your bit part suddenly very much part of the narrative? That is the improbably position I found myself in when playwright du jour James Graham decided to retell the extraordinary tale of Major Charles Ingram – better known as the Coughing Major – and his controversial jackpot win on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
At the time I was the head of press for Celador, the production company behind the hit show. For today’s PR professionals it’s hard to imagine a time when news deadlines were daily not hourly, social media didn’t exist and with reality TV in its absolute infancy, the soaps and ‘event tv’ shows like Millionaire dominated the headlines daily and were a huge sales driver for the red tops. If ever there was a job to build up your contacts in the national media this was it – we were never out of the press. But nothing quite topped the scale of the media interest that kicked in around this particular contestant.
Let’s not forget the show in question was recorded on 10 September 2001 and still made the papers in the coming days despite arguably the biggest international news event of our lifetimes taking place the following morning.
Not only did it hone my crisis management skills and give me a fantastic after dinner story, the exposure to ITV and its comms operation headed by the amazing Nicola Howson landed me my next role at the network where I stayed for a career defining ten years. So for once, I will enjoy being part of the story, a story that is now a defining chapter in UK television’s history, and will happily dine out on it for years to come.