It’s the 25th anniversary of ITV Granada’s This Morning. This auspicious date has made me think of my time spent working in the bizarre continuum television refers to as Daytime.
I worked on This Morning for more than eighteen months and, for reasons that now elude me, allowed myself to be lured later to the BBC’s Good Morning with Anne and Nick.
Suddenly I found myself on the other side in a war of attrition that would not end until one of the opponents was completely destroyed. I needed all my wits about me to devise ever better Celebrity Flat Pack Challenges, build up “star guests” who frankly often surprised us by being still in the land of the living, and think of some kind of antiques that expert Eric Knowles hadn’t already explained and valued. Oh, and write captions that might keep students watching – over footage of our chef making soup, The Hand that Rocks the Ladle. For an item about looking after privets, Postcards from the Hedge. And for a piece about budget lingerie, Going for a Thong.
Most of what follows is true, though not all of it could have happened at the same time. It’s just that I prefer to think that it did, even though I could not have been in two places at once. There are also no doubt errors, omissions and embellishments because, even though Daytime occurs in waking hours, it can have the quality of a surreal dream, even nightmare, and it may well be that some of what I recall belongs to the twilit place where fantasy and reality overlap. For example, when I worked on This Morning I dreamt that I arrived early and dishevelled at the office to find Richard Madeley emerging immaculate from a giant trouser press, in much the same way as Christopher Lee would rise from his Hammer Horror coffin. I can guarantee that this was dream. Can’t I? Not so the moment when, after a successful This Morning and Richard, Judy and I exchanged light hearted banter in the office, a fax arrived from The British Medical Association pointing out that the soup that had just been made in front of two million people – from wild ingredients discovered in the hedgerows by gardener Monty Don – was, unfortunately, carcinogenic.
I digress. The story I wish to tell is but a chapter in the history of Daytime. But it conveys a vital message: that what I am about to describe must never be allowed to happen again.
For this is DAYTIME. And it’s darker than you think.
In 1996 a war ended. It was the brutal conflict between ITV’s “flagship daytime show”, This Morning, and the BBC’s “copycat rival”, Good Morning with Anne and Nick.
Like many wars it began with an invasion. Birmingham based Good Morning, the cloned brainchild of executive producer, Mike Hollingsworth, entered territory that This Morning had occupied and claimed as its own almost seven years before. Hollingsworth’s adoption of the format of This Morning in more or less the same time slot was both shameless plagiarism and shrewd tactics. All he had to do was fend off the accusation that his was some of the most unoriginal thinking in the history of television, and make a bigger, better This Morning without the inconvenience of commercial breaks.
Capable of deploying items about vegetable carving, anorexia and decoupage within 45 minutes, Good Morning was fighting for the hearts and minds of the morning audience and was committed to regime change – Nick Owen and Hollingsworth’s then wife, Anne Diamond, would become the new President and First Lady of Daytime.
In their bunker deep within Liverpool’s Albert Dock, Richard Madeley, Judy Finnigan and their lieutenants prepared to fight back. Coincidentally they were just a pancake toss from the underground labyrinth in which World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic was masterminded. Perhaps these echoes of great conflict inspired me to create this caption added to menu footage of a digging Monty Don: At 10.45 I Was Monty’s Shovel.
Anyway, the result of Hollingsworth’s shocking and unprecedented attack was a terrifying struggle that mixed all out war with black operations and espionage.
The poaching of celebrity guests became commonplace and the inducements they were offered increasingly exotic. It was rumoured that Hollingsworth’s celebrity consultant lured Cher to Pebble Mill by agreeing to her demand for ten thousand pounds worth of “new antiques”. There was also a story that in This Morning’s HQ was a transparent box that bore the words IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS. Inside the box was Jim Bowen’s telephone number. Its presence, above her head like the sword of Damocles, was designed to keep the show’s celebrity booker on her toes.
Both sides produced dodgy dossiers that exaggerated viewing figures. These were circulated to agents, publicists, record companies and publishers. PR agencies were put on substantial retainers to boost the profiles of both shows.
This Morning discovered sex and launched a major offensive – that some found offensive. Briefly the show made significant advances, helped by the fact that Anne Diamond had no desire to say the word “orgasm” on television; instead she preferred to use the term “physical fulfilment”.
Efforts were made on both sides to piece together rival running orders. The thousands of phone calls made every week to largely the same people were a form of intelligence gathering that mirrored the efforts of World War 2 listening stations operated by the Top Secret Y Service. If you were too late to secure Patrick Lichfield discussing his new book of photographs at least you knew where he was, what you were up against, and if he was worth luring simply because your own guest was so piss poor.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. To mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, Mike Hollingsworth despatched a team and outside broadcast unit to Germany and, for one memorable day only, re-branded the show as Guten Morgen mit Anne und Nick. This coincided with a British fad for women’s clothes with a military bent – and the sight of models in greatcoats and long leather boots strutting through a Berlin shopping mall still makes former Good Morning staff shudder.
Guerrilla Victor Lewis Smith attacked both sides, getting through to Anne and Nick on the phone by posing as a Major Finnigan and talking gobbledegook of unimaginable opacity. During a This Morning phone-in entitled “Does Size Matter?” he posed as a Harley Street specialist and told Richard, Judy and shocked agony aunt, Denise Robertson that, for good sex, a typical erect penis should be at least nine inches long. Rumbled as a hoax caller, Victor was faded out swiftly, but as his voice receded into the telephonic distance he was still heard to cry, “But I haven’t talked about the biggest dick on the programme yet!”
At times like these the This Morning offices had the air of an unsafe nuclear plant; you knew there’d been a leak, but weren’t sure yet if you’d been fatally contaminated.
It was a war of attrition that took its toll on both sides. Morale drained away as working hours grew longer and losses were endured. At BBC Pebble Mill, new recruits to Good Morning were greeted with, “Welcome to Down the Pan with Nick and Anne, otherwise known as Let’s Be Sick with Anne and Nick.” And the recruits got younger and younger. I remember imagining out loud in a late night office a scene from a make-believe war movie.
“What’s your name, son?”
“How many hours in television have you got, Jenkins?”
“Well stick close to me, Jenkins. No need for any fancy heroics.”
“But, sir! I can’t wait to get at ‘em!”
“Look, Jenkins, it’s my job to keep us all alive. And you can help me.”
“How, sir!? How?!
“The life model for tomorrow’s amateur artists item has just cancelled. Find another one. And for God’s sake, do it quickly.”
“You can count on me, sir!”
But inevitably, just a month later, I am sliding his Filofax and a coffee stained copy of Celebrity Bulletin into a manila envelope addressed to his parents together with a short note of regret and sympathy.
The Good Morning amateur artists item was real, though. Horribly real. We opened the show with it to reveal Anne, Nick, amateur painters and a life model on a chaise longue adorned in a silk sheet. As the show began amid the usual chit chat of what was coming up and who’d written or phoned in, the sheet began to slip from the model with agonising slowness. Nobody attempted to stop it. Presumably because no one expected the model beneath it – a mature lady – to be completely naked. And as the sheet fell to the floor, so did silence, profound. In the panic a button was pressed in a control room and viewers at home were treated to bars and tone – vertical bands of colour accompanied by a piercing whistle. A minute later we cut back to the set where the sheet had been repositioned. And went on with the programme. As if absolutely nothing had happened.
But something was happening. Against all odds and a great deal of logic Good Morning’s viewing figures were improving. At the Albert Dock in Liverpool, in the glass walled Editor’s office, Richard and Judy sat in on increasingly tense and critical programme post mortems. The office became known to the troops as “the cube of shame”.
As the war intensified casualty rates increased. In Liverpool a new This Morning researcher announced that he had booked Sting for the chat segment called Coffee Time. He hadn’t – he was simply seeking to impress and hoping that he could book Sting. He couldn’t. When he reported that the ex-Police warbler had “pulled out” it was soon discovered that the Rain Forest’s best friend had never said “yes”. The researcher cleared his desk and was never seen again.
Meanwhile, in Birmingham, Mike Hollingsworth called a meeting of all Good Morning staff. It was to be a gathering in which anyone could say anything, a brainstorm that would suggest improvements to the show. A young member of staff raised his hand. “I think perhaps Anne’s skirts are a bit too short.”
“That’s interesting,” opined Hollingsworth, “a bit too young looking given the demographic of our audience?”
“No,” said the doomed foot soldier, “it’s just that they make it look as if her legs were stuck on the wrong way round.”
The meeting ended faster than you could say, “physical fulfilment”.
The possible irony of all this is that Good Morning began to equal and on some occasions beat This Morning in the ratings. But the story went that Mike Hollingsworth had made himself so unpopular with BBC brass they were prepared to let the show die.
Which it duly did, leaving This Morning and Richard and Judy and their lieutenants to celebrate a victory that was perhaps not as decisive as they believed.
Today ITV’s This Morning is still going strong. The BBC prefers a schedule of pre-recorded programmes. The dirty war that was fought is already ancient history, but this should not allow us to forget the fallen.
At the going down of the sun and on This Morning and Good Morning,
We will remember them.