Breakfast Television has a lot to answer for. Before TV-am and BBC Breakfast woke up British screens at day break in the early 1980s, presenter pairing was a chaste affair, there was no coupling. On the BBC 1’s teatime news magazine Nationwide, craggy Michael Barrett and frisky games captain Sue Lawley were kept safely in different studios, each doing their own thing. Then along came Anne and Nick and Frank and Selina apparently cosying up on beige sofas.
Forty years on, matey co-presentation still dominates today’s daytime schedules – at breakfast time on BBC and ITV, on BBC 1’s 7pm The One Show and, of course, on ITV’s long running This Morning, which is currently not a happy place for Holly and Phil, the star couple on the soft furnishing.
The faces on screen may have changed but some of the same senior figures are still behind the scenes. Martin Frizell, the reportedly glum editor of This Morning, was a cheery colleague of mine back in the TV-am days.
According to Mail Online, the Debrett’s on these matters, Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield “are reportedly set to take a week-long break… amid rumours of their ongoing feud”. The strain of keeping alive what is now an outdated retro format, barely credible in today’s social climate, must be enormous.
At its heart sofa-coupling is nudge-nudge, designed to encourage viewers to speculate about the personal relationship between two presenters who have been elevated to stardom by chatting to celebrities in a studio.
In the unenlightened 1980s there was open discussion of the “sexual chemistry” between presenters. If the tingle factor was absent, partnerships tended to be short lived. We now know from Selina Scott’s bitter reminiscences of BBC Breakfast that absent sexual chemistry morphed into outright sexism from her onscreen partner Frank Bough.
In the 1960s and 70s, presenters on Nationwide or the seemingly innocent nerds fronting Blue Peter took charge of their segments individually, only mingling on the screen for socially awkward gatherings at the end of the show, or, more cringe-worthy still, for the Christmas Special.
The new British breakfast franchises imported a concept from American TV which demanded constant interaction between presenters. In the US, local “Eyewitness News” programmes had long combined a seasoned senior partner, male or female, with a younger anchor of the other sex, kvetching with a comedy weatherperson. Network breakfast shows, such as ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today added spice by pairing couples of a similar age. They competed with each other and, at best, there was a hint for flirtation, regardless of the private personal circumstances of the presenters themselves. The audience was titillated because any real relationships, love or hate, remained unknown, a matter for speculation.
The BBC had a long-standing rule forbidding married couples from working together. In spite of the contrived intimacy of daytime studio sets, network bosses frown on actual adultery. Cheating co-hosts TJ Holmes and Amy Robach lost their perch on Good Morning America after getting together. Mail Online “suggests” that Tim Willcox and Sophie Long were banned from appearing together after their affair became public.
Some producers have enough imagination to try to subvert the singles dating combination. Piers Morgan talked cheekily of his TV wife on Good Morning Britain, the formidable Susannah Reed left no doubt that it was never going to happen with him or any of his subsequent stand ins.
Ant and Dec, who met as boy actors on Byker Grove, are ITV’s most successful presenting partnership. This durable double act have just announced they are taking a breather from Saturday Night Takeaway.
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TV married couples have been allowed on some channels. Richard and Judy and Eamonn and Ruth made memorable presenting duos and left no mystery behind about their relationships.
Broadcast bosses are becoming bolder, experimenting with same sex partnerships. Harking back to the odd couple of John Timpson and Brian Redhead, Radio 4’s Today Programme has been fronted by Nick and Justin or Amol, and Martha and Mishal. Fi and Jane have a popular afternoon show and podcast on Times Radio. Channel 4 News is also progressive in the two it selects nighty from its talent pool.
These business-like pairings involve mature presenters of substance in their own right. They have no need or contractual requirement to stir up light entertainment gossip. The same goes for Phil and Kirstie on Location, Location and co-presentation teams on other straight news programmes. Given the choice I prefer to co-present. Team work adds variety, pace and texture and wards against holding forth pompously. I enjoyed working with some of the best on Sky News including Sarah Hewson, Sarah Jane Mee, Jayne Secker and Dharsini David. My current partner on Times Radio, the formidable Kate McCann, is of a similar age to my daughters. We back each other up on air and we are not required to put our arms around each other on celebrity red carpets.
Holly and Phil are expected to go out and get publicity together. They have had a long professional relationship. Both began their TV careers separately as children’s presenters. They first partnered each other in 2006 on Dancing on Ice, joining up again three years later for This Morning.
Things seem to have soured after all this time because it looks increasingly improbable to viewers that they still like each other. Their age gap of nineteen years was standard for a new mentor/ingenue combo. Phil’s “seniority” must grate now as Holly heads into her forties. Neither Phil’s decision to come out as gay nor his brother’s conviction for child sex offences, sit comfortably with Holly’s public image.
Then there was Queuejumpgate. Whatever the facts of the matter, the public perception remains that Holly & Phil exploited their status to gain instant access to the Queen’s lying in state, while the general public, including mega celebrity David Beckham, dutifully stood in line for hours to pay their respects.
The problem for TV sofa jockeys is that they hover uneasily between being admired as stars and being expected to be ordinary people like the rest of us. This split is difficult to pull off gracefully.
TV-am was plunging to disaster largely because the inaugural “Famous Five” on its roster were too distinguished to present breakfast TV. Greg Dyke was brought in with a back to basics manifesto to steady the station, including appointing two unknowns as the main presentation team. “Anne and Nick really are the boy and girl next door like we say in the publicity!”, a toady trilled during a production meeting.” “They won’t be in six months”, Dyke growled in reply.
Longevity presenting popular shows brings fame and fortune. It can also turn the head of those who become stars. Matt Lauer, formerly of NBC’s Today show, seems to have expected an informal droit du seigneur. At least his downfall inspired Apple TV’s drama series The Morning Show.
This Morning is still a successful show. In recent years, political leaders have preferred its gentler chats to interviews on news and current affairs programmes, even after Phil cut up unexpectedly rough with David Cameron. But TV viewing is dropping year on year as people turn to digital devices for information and entertainment. These days, This Morning has an audience of around 900,000. Last week, it fell by over one hundred thousand as cracks in Holly and Phil’s relationship became public.
If the This Morning gets a comprehensive revamp I doubt that ITV will stick with the threadbare format and pretence of a cosy couple on the sofa. It has had its day time.
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