Phone-A-Friend numbers re-routed
The amazing plot that took £4.2million of prize money from hit TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via a so-called ‘syndicate’ started operating in Lurgan, it has emerged.
Dungannon man Keith Burgess and his quiz expert pal Paddy Spooner have for the first time revealed their box of tricks, which included fake Phone-A-Friend panels for contestants to call on Chris Tarrant’s show. Their first winner scooped £125,000.
“This cemented our confidence, and its proceeds set us up with the funds to continue to greater triumphs,” said Keith, who insists he did nothing wrong and just exposed weaknesses in the system.
The duo helped a string of people get onto the show and took a slice of the millions in prize money.
Their tricks included a “data room” to get punters placed on telly and using a control centre base packed with a panel of between five and eight people to answer the Phone-A-Friend question.
Before moving the set-up to England, their safe house was based in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
Keith and Paddy had a hand in winning 26 percent of all the winnings in a five-year spell between 2002 and 2007.
They have now revealed in a new book how they would regularly have two clients on Millionaire at a time and even once had all four contestants and the reserve on one show through their syndicate.
They had Phone-A-Friend numbers re-routed to the safe house, quiz experts mixed with genuine friends, a woman on a computer using Google and a phone that wouldn’t click with the mute button as the group discussed the answers.
To help contestants get on the show —sometimes costing thousands of pounds in calls — they used dictaphones with the real punters’ voices on them while they bashed the phone application number.
In their new book, Quiz: The Consortium, The Truth, to be released later this month, the pair say they met in the RTE green room while competing on the Irish version of the show, hosted by Gay Byrne.
Keith told Paddy how he had “made over £40,000 from it over the last few weeks helping people to get on the show”.
Paddy was expecting to make it at least to the €125,000 question and was stunned to bomb out with €1,000.
He had spent thousands of euros in telephone call costs just to win a place on the show.
The 64-year-old said: “At the time, I considered this a waste, although in hindsight, it obviously wasn’t — I would never have met Keith and shared the fantastic highs and a few lows that followed.”
After going for a few pints, they decided to join forces.
Paddy, from Bournemouth, said: “Our dedication to the cause was so great that Keith flew over the Irish Sea well over 100 times. He bought a car that he stored at his sister Jane’s to enable him to travel the length and breadth of Britain, helping wannabe Millionaire contestants to realise their hopes.”
Keith got in the chair in the UK show at the second attempt. His first bid failed when he couldn’t win the opening ‘fastest finger first’ round, but he applied again and left host Chris Tarrant stunned when he got in the hot seat.
Keith said: “Chris began his monologue, ‘This is extraordinary. The odds against this must be astronomical. Keith has appeared on Millionaire once before. He didn’t get into the hot seat, so he kept on calling and calling. Now he is back, and he has finally made it into the hot seat’.”
He had targeted a £125,000 prize but bowed out just before that with a guaranteed £64,000 after not wanting to risk it.
Keith admitted: “Returning home £64,000 richer certainly helps with the simple things like clearing the overdraft and paying off the credit cards.
“The burning question was how I could use my knowledge regarding the show to make money. Obviously, funds to pay for the calls wouldn’t be a problem.
“Over a pint or two, I agreed with a couple of my friends that I would finance their calls for a healthy 25 percent cut of any winnings.
“They were both busy men with good jobs and calling the show in the numbers required was very time-consuming. Therefore, we decided that I would make a proportion of the entry calls for them.
“At least that way, I would know that the calls were made.”
Keith and Paddy agreed their own 50-50 deal over a lunchtime pint with a handshake.
Keith revealed: “Over the next five years, this joint enterprise would successfully negotiate the call-back question more than 200 times. Furthermore, 55 of those fortunate quizzers would find themselves seated opposite Chris Tarrant in the programme’s hot seat.”
Before the RTE show was axed, the plan was that Keith operate the syndicate on this side of the Irish Sea, with Paddy controlling things across the water. But when the RTE show was cancelled, it enabled the pair concentrate solely on Britain.
“As it happened, our first winner on Tarrant’s Millionaire was from my stable,” said Keith.
“This win of £125,000 cemented our confidence, and its proceeds set us up with the funds to continue to greater triumphs.
“These were the early days of our production line, and the Phone-A-Friend team were only three strong that night.
“Indeed, it was one of the very few occasions that we had less than five in the room.
“That evening the team, situated in my rented apartment in Lurgan, consisted of Paddy, myself and the contestant’s friend acting as ‘the voice’.
“Fortunately, all three of us knew the correct answer.”
Paddy added: “Over the next month or two, I flew in and out of Belfast several times. Keith had moved up in the world and purchased an expensively furnished four-bedroom property.
“In addition, he could afford batteries for the TV remote, which was somewhat of an improvement on my Lurgan experience.
“In the first few months, our Phone-A-Friend operation was still very amateurish. On one occasion, one of our people elected to phone one of his other designated friends rather than us. This was the first and only time that this happened.
“After we realised that Irish Millionaire wasn’t going to return, we decided to move our Phone-A-Friend enterprise to the Midlands. It would be ideal as it was equidistant from Keith’s north-west hub and my southern base.
“On occasions, when we occupied two or more places on the show, the voices would be transported to this room having diverted their home phones.
“Ranked at the top of my quizzing stable was a gentleman called John Forster (previously a £125,000 winner on the show).
“For the next three years, his apartment was to be our Phone-A-Friend base in the Midlands.”
When they were schooling their clients they would tell them a “cardinal rule” when using the Ask The Audience lifeline was “just to shut your mouth”.
When it came to Phone-A-Friend, they were instructed not even to say hello, so that it would buy them a potentially priceless extra two seconds.
Such was the success of the operation that Keith and Paddy enjoyed a lavish holiday in the States, knocking back Black Russians during marathon casino sessions in Las Vegas before sight-seeing in Hollywood in LA and San Diego.
So dedicated was Keith to the operation that he once made three return flights on the same day from Belfast to Liverpool to aid their clients.
By this stage, the core team in the syndicate for the Phone-A-Friend room was Paddy, John, Google girl Poppy, their popular culture expert Craig the brickie and Keith.
He added: “In addition, there would be a voice for each of the wannabes. Usually, that job would be taken by the contestant friends transported to the Midlands for just that purpose.”
Paddy featured in hit ITV drama Quiz last year, which starred Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, and centred on the infamous Major Charles Ingram, who cheated his way to winning a million with the aid of plants in the audience coughing to tell him the answers.
Two years ago, Belfast-based Celador supremo Paul Smith contacted him and asked to meet him in a pub before the hit drama — based on a West End play — was being made.
Paddy added: “He appeared relieved when I confirmed that Keith and I didn’t have anybody on the inside feeding us the questions.
“That the effort that we were prepared to go to could not have been foreseen by Celador, indeed by anybody.
“He was especially interested in photos of my data room, a name that he conjured up for the space that I occupied whilst helping prospective contestants onto the show.
“Whereas I wanted our operation to be more accurately portrayed on TV than it was on stage, Paul wished to show that he could not have reasonably expected the extent to which we were prepared to go.”
÷ Quiz: The Consortium, The Truth by Keith Burgess & Paddy Spooner goes on sale later this month