The Sunday Times, 15 June 2003
Richard Madeley is an alien from the planet Znarg. His disguise is almost perfect. But the Znargians made two crucial mistakes. They failed to suppress the tendency of their species to blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads, however weird. And, more importantly, they omitted to reverse the time direction that prevails on their home planet. As a result, Richard grows progressively younger. In ten years’ time this will be something of an embarrassment as his earthling wife, Judy Finnigan, will then by 65 and he will be about 15. He currently claims to be 47, though he is obviously no more than 25. In 2013, therefore, the most famous marriage in Britain will be, illegal.
Aware that he might have kept Judy in ignorance, I do not bring up Richard’s Znargian origins. But, it turns out, she knows. ‘He’s extraterrestrial, he comes from another planet,’ she says after some typically surreal Madeleyan self-analysis is interrupted by his mobile phone. It emits an ear-bleedingly loud polyphonic version of the Nokia ring tone.
‘DA-DALA-DA, DADALA-DA, DADALA-DA, DA!’
‘Factory setting,’ he explains apologetically. ‘It came like that.’
But never mind about alien origins, Richard and Judy are as British as fish and chips and asylum seekers. A whimsically daft but also extravagantly normal married couple, they present daytime-TV shows in a style that defies analysis. He improvises madly, apparently concerned that the world is not quite weird enough; she rolls her eyes and tries to subdue with common sense both her husband and the passing parade of celebs, experts, dingbats and bozos that roll through their studio. They talk over each other, bicker mildly and, lovingly, touch and gaze at each other.
Sweet, you might think, and happy, but the wholesomeness is repeatedly subverted by Richard’s Znargian blurts. They were once asked what three things they would rescue if their house was on fire.
Judy: ‘Jack and Chloe [their children]. I don’t care about anything else.’
Richard: ‘I would think, ‘Let it burn. Let the fire cleanse me.’
See what I mean? Or, a dead giveaway this one: ‘Is it true,’ Richard asked Tom Courtenay, ‘that you were born looking like a Martian?’
But the rest of the time, they are camp but suburban, naughty but nice. Their current show on Channel 4 starts at 5pm with an elderly audience inherited from Countdown and ends at 6pm with a predominantly teenage demographic. They are all things to all men. If the world was about to end, Richard and Judy would be there telling us to look on the bright side and, because it was them, we would.
They are back at the top of the TV game, but only just. Two big things happened in 2001 – 9/11 and the shock departure of Richard and Judy from ITV’s This Morning show, which they had presented for 13 years. Discontented with Maureen Duffy, the show’s new boss at ITV, they had allowed themselves to be poached by Channel 4 to save the otherwise rather dead 5-6pm slot. This time is known as ‘shoulder peak’, as it is the moment when ratings should start to climb from daytime to peak levels, and it is notoriously tricky for schedulers to negotiate. Richard and Judy were a very expensive gamble – their deal was the biggest commission ever given to an independent production company.
It was so big that Cactus, the independent producers, built Richard and Judy their own studio complex. It is in central but seedy Kennington, a little enclave of media grooviness hidden in the bleak streets. Students in a big demonstration that once passed its gates spotted the man from Znarg peering out to see what was going on. The demo ground to a halt and the chant rose: ‘Who do we want? Judeee! When do we want her? Now!’ Judy put on a sensible coat and stepped out to acknowledge the mob.
Not surprisingly, in view of the neighbourhood, squarish men in black suits patrol the reception area. The staff all wear name tags round their necks, their first names printed big enough to see from 20ft away. It’s an attempt to put guests at their ease by relieving them of their need to remember names. There are lavish dressing rooms, offices, a big editorial floor and a phone room to take viewers’ calls. They get so many calls that, if you ring the Channel 4 number, the machine offers two choices: Richard & Judy or all other programmes. It takes about 100 people to produce the show every day.
I am shown round by Amanda Ross, who runs Cactus with her husband, Simon. She engineered the move from ITV. ‘I knew they were unhappy and I offered to look around – no obligation. If anybody found out, they could just say it was nothing to do with them, it was just Amanda Ross being stupid and entrepreneurial.’With Simon sceptical – ‘You’ll look really stupid’ – she pitched Richard & Judy at Channel 4 and, to everybody’s amazement, they went for it. Key editorial decisions were made at once. Their names were to be the show’s title. They toyed with the idea of Judy & Richard, but fell back on Richard & Judy since that was what the nation had informally christened This Morning. They’re so utterly familiar that any show they did would automatically become Richard & Judy. Cactus also stripped out the This Morning lifestyle stuff – fashion and cooking – to give a harder tabloid/ news edge and in deference to the shift from daytime to semi-peak time.’Anyway,’ says Amanda, ‘there’s too much of that lifestyle stuff already.’
It all made perfect sense and, at once, it all went horribly wrong. The early shows were stuffed with an excess of material – one ran to 17 items – and the viewers turned over. The audience of the first show started at 2.1m and slumped to 1.2m in the course of the hour. The vultures circled. The press said the move had been a disaster. Richard and Judy couldn’t hack it in the evenings, they were strictly daytime. Attempts by both of them to break into prime time in the past had repeatedly failed. Daytime owns them and they own daytime.
But this time it worked. They turned the network’s ‘shoulder peak’ into their very own daytime. The show was slowed down, R & J were given room to breathe. The audiences climbed. They’re now around 2.5m and they’ve done serious damage to BBC2’s quiz show The Weakest Link. Then, when they broke for the summer last year, the unthinkable happened.
Cactus took Richard aside and made him have a haircut. They had always planned to do this. ‘He needed updating,’ explains Amanda. Richard’s floppy quiff had remained unchanged for years. But the Rosses didn’t want to move at once, it would have looked too much like a Channel 4 attempt to groove him up. But in the summer he got his new boy-band, shorter, spikier style. This was appropriate, of course, because he was now at least two decades younger than when his floppy style first appeared. Viewers phoned in to complain – not about the style, but about the fact that in the credit sequence he was still floppy.
Judy, meanwhile, has now adopted a downright bizarre helmet effect, at the base of which wispy flick-ups project almost at right angles. It looks completely daft in a mumsy kind of way.
Now Cactus is buzzing in Kennington. The studios shimmer with success. Silver S-Class Mercedes appear with the guests, and grinning young people constantly check on your wellbeing. In every office I enter, they stop working to say: ‘Hi!’ At the centre of all this are, of course, R & J. They arrive at 11.30am. They decline chauffeurs, preferring to drive themselves in from Hampstead in a modest S-Type Jaguar. I later explain to Richard that this is an unusually horrible car to own. But he bought the Jaguar marketing line. He thinks it looks like the old Mark II that Inspector Morse drives. It does not.
There’s a meeting, then lunch, then R & J take away the scripts to ‘Richard-and-Judyise them’, as Amanda puts it. ‘They have a very peculiar way of writing things and I don’t think they want anyone else to do it.’
Richard’s blurts are entirely unscripted. ‘I’m always wondering what he’s going to say,’ says Amanda. ‘That’s why we all love him, isn’t it?’
The show aims for a higher calibre of guests. If stars have appeared elsewhere – except Parkinson and, sometimes, Jonathan Ross – they’re turned down. This puts pressure on the R & J brand to lure the big names. With Americans, who have never heard of them, it’s a case of explaining why they are ‘British icons’. But they’ve preserved the naughtiness of This Morning. Richard has said he thinks there should be more sex on TV and he’s done his bit. This Morning pioneered the first ‘back, crack and sac’ depilation job on a man, as well as the first on-screen test of Viagra. The C4 show has delved into OAP sex, with two old actors in tracksuits demonstrating positions. ‘The amount of complaints was phenomenal,’ says Amanda, ‘but it was a serious item and a lot of people rang to say thank you.’
The show runs five nights a week and they do 187 a year. Time off is fixed to fit in with school holidays – R & J’s children Chloe and Jack are 15 and 17. Judy also has grown-up twins, Dan and Tom, from her first marriage. Richard and Judy stay on for an hour for drinks and canapes – the second best I have ever tasted – with the guests in the green room, getting back to Hampstead and the children around 7.30pm.
But the show is about to start and I am taken to the production gallery. Richard is there, dictating his script for a last-minute item they have decided to include – Clare Short’s resignation speech. They are to use a five-minute interview with Jon Snow in the C4 newsroom, but R & J wisely cut this to three minutes. There are some nerves in the gallery about this piece, as Richard and Judy have been invited to Chequers for the weekend. These days they move in these circles. I am warned we are on ‘open talkback’, so if I shout anything in the gallery, they’ll hear it through their earpieces.
I find myself struggling with the temptation to yell Richard a question about life on Znarg.In the gallery, the show, like all live TV, seems to emerge as a kind of smooth miracle from the chaos of desperate, split-second decision-making. For the second half I move down to the studio floor. In a commercial break, Richard waves to me. ‘Bryan, it’s been a couple of years, hasn’t it?’ It goes without saying that I’ve never met the man.
The highlight of the show is an interview with the cast of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago – Matthew Perry from Friends, Hank Azaria from The Simpsons, Minnie Driver and Kelly Reilly. It starts badly, with Perry incommunicative, apparently puzzled. But Azaria, a brilliantly witty man, gets the format and starts to lift the conversation. Driver and Reilly, being British, understand anyway. Finally, Perry gets up to speed. But the point is, none of them can get away with the standard chat-show thing. It’s the R & J thing or nothing.But I’m beginning to worry that I’m not going to get a good blurt. Then Colin Firth comes into the conversation. Richard says how good-looking he is, then adds: ‘It’s important for a man to see sexiness in another man.’ There is a combined gasp, giggle and ‘Ah, there he goes again’ noise from the crew. That came out of nowhere, I say to Richard later.
‘No, it didn’t,’ he says and tries to explain his thought processes. But it’s pointless because it’s not the thought that’s odd, it’s the generalisation. Why is it important? That’s the point about his blurts: they appear to have cosmic significance to him but just seem weird to everybody else.
Then there’s wine – glass of red for Judy, bottle of white for me and Richard – and canapes, and I’m left with them both in Judy’s dressing room. She hasn’t changed out of her on-screen excessive-cleavage outfit, but he’s now in jeans. They’re all eager and ready, there’s wine and more canapes. But where do I start?
Well, the background is almost too familiar to bother with, and anyway it’s all covered in their joint autobiography. It’s just about to come out in paperback, Richard points out, ‘but I’m not plugging it’. But the basics are: she’s a working-class girl who went to Bristol University to study English and drama; he’s a lower-middle-class boy who left school to go straight to local newspapers. They both ended up in television and they met at the Granada Studios in Manchester. They were both married; he to Lynda, to whom he had already been unfaithful, and she to David, with whom she had the twins. She wanted more children, David didn’t and his job meant he was away from home much of the time and Judy was lonely. They fell in love, as we all know and can see daily. In 1988, broke and professionally desperate, they started This Morning. The rest is history.
But it’s a history marked by strangely appropriate comedy. Appropriate because just as they seem at one with their audience on screen, they also seem to blunder through life like ordinary folk off screen. Two examples. Richard was prosecuted for stealing wine from Tesco. He was acquitted because it was obviously an innocent mistake and, as a psychiatrist pointed out, he is in the habit of losing track of what he is doing because his impatience leads him to move prematurely onto the next thing. Wine, Tesco, shoplifting, absent-mindedness – it’s all so banal. Richard is not Angus Deayton nor even Frank Bough. He doesn’t shop at Tesco any more: ‘Not because I bear a grudge, it just feels wrong.’
Then there was Judy’s bra. At a TV awards ceremony both of them failed to notice that the front of her dress had dropped, exposing her bra to the world. John Leslie rushed in to save her.
Again it’s so banal, the kind of blushing moment people talk about over PG Tips and digestives.
Anyway, there they are on the sofa, Richard looking as bright as only a Znargian can and Judy distinctly frazzled. What follows are samples from a very long conversation. They may lack narrative sense – usually because Richard is not big on narrative sense – but they are chosen to illustrate the significant themes of this odd relationship.
At times I felt I was talking to one person with two contrasting personalities; at other times they seemed to be two people so different that their method of communication was a mystery. All the time it was clear that R & J off screen seem to be pretty much the same as R & J on screen.
‘I need to wind down a bit. The adrenaline carries you forward for a while,’ says Judy.
‘I try very hard not to say weird things,’ says Richard when I bring up the blurts.
‘I try too,’ chips in Judy.
‘Maybe it’s a licence that I shouldn’t grant myself, but I honestly think that as a presenter and broadcaster I do a better job. I’m more myself if I let myself off the leash. If I were to sit on it all the time and worry, I’d be constantly self-editing. But I’m not sure it’s that extreme,’ says Richard.
Judy tells me of her working-class upbringing. ‘We ended up living in a three-bedroom semi in Fallowfield, but we didn’t start off like that. My parents didn’t own a house until I was 11.’
‘Did you have a privy outside?’ asks Richard.
‘The whole lot. Outside toilet.’
The same background question to Richard elicits a predictably cosmic response. ‘I try and analyse what I am and I can’t, really. It’s weird.’
But one thing isn’t weird. His father died suddenly of a heart attack at 49 and, the day after the interview, Richard is 47. So he gave up smoking some years ago, bought a bike and lost what few ounces of excess weight he thought he was carrying. And in the event, he’s okay. He’s just had some alien – well, American – technology scan and his arteries were ‘clean as a whistle’.
The doctor said he must have inherited his mother’s good genes as opposed to his father’s bad ones. ‘It was a load off my shoulders. After years and years of worrying it was sweet relief. That monkey is off my back.’
After some business about how she got into television, Judy talks about the loneliness of her first marriage. ‘There was one Easter. I had these two little baby boys. Everybody I knew was away.
I just got really fed up. I thought I was going mad. The one person I saw was the milkman.’
‘So what was going on between you and the milkman?’ He can’t stop himself.
I mention the way they’re frequently portrayed – he madly ambitious, she reluctantly being dragged along. ‘I’m very stubborn,’ she says, ‘I’m not ambitious. I’m astonished I’ve ended up doing what I am, absolutely astonished. I’ve always wanted a family. One of the factors in the breakdown of my first marriage was my husband not wanting any more children. I’ve always wanted a family and I’ve put that first in my life. And I suppose meeting Richard…’ She looks at him. ‘I’m not sure I’d have done any of this if it hadn’t been for you. A lot of the time I’d have thought it was too much hassle, especially with the press.’
Richard looks a little uneasy with this. ‘Yeah, but I think what Bryan is getting at is this myth that basically I’m charging forward dragging this reluctant… You are incredibly stubborn.”I’m not nearly so confident as he is. I probably need an injection of confidence from him.’Later this theme re-emerges when I ask about how long they are going to carry on doing what they’re doing. For both of them, their house in Cornwall – they have another in Key Largo, Florida – plays a large part in the answer.
‘I have this dream,’ says Judy. ‘I’d like to live mostly in Cornwall. Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know. And I’d like to write novels. I have no idea whether I’d be any good at it. We love working in telly, but there will come a time when I’ll want to be free, free to travel. I don’t want to go on like this for ever. As a woman I thought I’d be out of TV by the time I was 50. It didn’t happen. But I can see myself not doing it.’ She turns to Richard. ‘I think you’d find it harder.’
‘You couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t know why. Everything you’ve just said is what I’d say. Maybe in two years. With Chloe and Jack at the moment we have to be in London. But I want to write novels as well. I’ve got one in my head.’
Don’t they have further ambitions in TV? Breaking into America, for example?
Richard writhes. ‘Oh, f—ing hell, no. Honestly, we are so unlike that.’
‘Puhhhleeese,’ says Judy, ‘it was bad enough breaking into Channel 4.’
Much of the hardship for Judy seems to come from the press. Hacks are constantly seeking chinks in their super-normal, super-happy armour. They find a few: Richard’s first marriage, Judy’s periodic depressions and illness. But these, again, are normal. And so wilder stories emerge. They are said to have been known as Bitchy and Broody, she’s been accused of alcoholism and he of excessive vanity. ‘If he was a chocolate, he’d eat himself,’ said one disgruntled former employee. Wildest of all was the story that they had a sadomasochistic dungeon in their basement.
‘It’s the serpent-in-paradise syndrome,’ says Judy. ‘You can’t see two people and believe that what you see is what you get. There’s always a feeling that people are trying to project an image that isn’t real, and in our case it’s simply not true. We’re pretty normal. We’re not very goody-two-shoes, we just like being with each other, we are just simply a very happy and very fortunately married couple. We don’t even have a basement.’
‘I think that’s dying away,’ says Richard. ‘We’ve worn them down simply by sticking around.’I tell them a line I’d written in my notes while reading their cuttings. ‘Perhaps the awful truth is that there is no awful truth.’ Judy likes this.
‘That’s right, there is no awful truth. I mean, Christ, we’d be psychotic by now if we’d been maintaining some dark secret.’
‘Making the show is just nuts and bolts for us all the time. We only think like this when we talk to people like you. These large, floating questions about who we are are not in our minds. We do the job, we have our mates, we get in the car and we go home to the kids.”DADALA-DA, DADALA-DA, DADALA-DA, DA!’ His phone again. He apologises.
‘It was my niece.’ ‘She’s not your niece, she’s your cousin’s daughter.’
They then get into a mild argument about a remark Richard made on air about the rhythm method of contraception not working for them because Judy was so irregular.’You do say things like that.’
Richard bristles theatrically. ‘Oh, thank you for your support, hon. I defy anyone to produce the tape. But you’ve gone over to the other side. Fine.’
‘I don’t think it’s cynical or deliberate. If it was cynical I would be cross. But I’m not cross, you just do these things.’
‘You do it as well but it never gets picked up.’
‘No I don’t. Well, I do say some odd things, but it’s never as personal as it is with you.’
God is a theme. They believe in Him. ‘Yes,’ they say simultaneously when I ask. They renewed their marriage vows in church and they had their children christened. It all happened in Cornwall.
‘It’s not a fierce belief, not a passionate belief,’ says Richard, ‘and there are those moments when you wake up and think, ‘I’m an Englishman in the 21st century and it’s all boll—s, this can’t be true.’ But on the whole, yes. I’d say we have a patchy faith, but on the whole it’s more on than off.’
‘It’s not born again or anything,’ says Judy, ‘it’s just an awareness of connections, spiritual connections. We feel that very strongly when we are in Cornwall. There’s something about the landscape, a great sense of peace we both feel.’
Richard tells a long story about a series of coincidences surrounding the recent death of his stepfather. ‘In a really cosmic, mystical way we were saying a proper goodbye to him.”We did go into church and say a prayer and that was very comforting,’ says Judy.
Towards the end I try to get Richard to acknowledge his extraterrestrial origins. So how come you keep looking younger?
‘That’s absolutely a no-win f—ing question.
I read occasionally that I can’t pass a reflective surface without looking at it. He’s so vain, they say. I’m sorry, I just don’t know.’
‘It’s because you were so worried about your heart. You were very careful about what you ate and you took exercise. He was terrified of dying at the age of 49, no – that’s suddenly been lifted.’
‘Not terrified, but my grandad had a heart attack at 60, my uncle had four, and my dad keeled over at 49. It did play on my mind a bit.’
‘Life’s too short,’ says Judy, ‘or maybe it’s too long, I don’t know.’
I was right. The awful truth is that there is no awful truth – at least none I could find. Richard and Judy have simply Richard-and-Judyised their bit of TV. They’ve outflanked the tabloids by being just as naughty but without the fake moralism – ‘We don’t judge people,’ they say. And they’ve outflanked every other attempt at man-woman on-screen chemistry simply by having chemistry to spare. I can’t really fathom their relationship beyond saying that Richard is an attention-seeker and Judy is an attention-giver; but I have no doubt that it is a relationship, that their fleeting rows are as genuine as their little signs of affection.What it all means sub-specie aeternitatis, God knows. Perhaps it is just that, for one hour a day, we need the freak show of mass entertainment to be mediated by a couple of super-normals like Richard and Judy, a pair of harmless Brits afloat on the globalised sea. Like the students, we want Judy now and we want Richard at her side.
But it’s weird, this TV business, especially during the day, and, in their super-normal way they’re weird too, hypnotically so. I guess it’s all a Znarg thing with Richard. But Judy is human. It must be alien implants and those flick-ups – aerials, I’d say.
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