ITV has a history of landing big-name, big-bucks stars to add substance to its early morning breakfast offering. Who can forget the ill-starred Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley – both poached from the BBC – who sank without trace in 2011?
So when Piers Morgan joined the other BBC defector Susanna Reid on the Good Morning Britain sofa a year ago, there were some cynics who believed he might not go the distance.
Could their breezy, sometimes flirty, on-screen demeanour win over viewers from the rival BBC show, where the boyishly enthusiastic Dan Walker has filled the shoes of Mr Dependable, Bill Turnbull?
So far, so as you were. ITV says its audience is steady at around 600,000, where it was when Morgan arrived, whereas BBC Breakfast is still getting a daily average of 1.5 million viewers.
Morgan and Reid reflect on the past 12 months in our special RT “bedroom” – though we should make clear that even the twin beds were a bit too close for Reid’s comfort!
Piers Morgan: Susanna, what’s the secret of our magical on-screen chemistry?
Susanna Reid: I knew you’d start with that. I think it’s because you’re a very opinionated, dynamic, disruptive, divisive figure, and left to your own devices you would probably career out of control. You’re a mini-tornado, and I play the role of…
Piers: Compliant wife?
Susanna: Interested observer. Also timekeeper, hurricane watcher, ruffled-feathers smoother and legal adviser. So I’m the belt and braces, with a dash of humour and – I hope – my own contribution journalistically.
Piers: I’d describe it as alpha male meets queen bee – although I don’t need a legal adviser, by the way, I’ve never been successfully sued. What I like is we have journalistic rigour. And I knew we’d get on when in my first week, moments before we went on air, you said, “God, I’ve got legs like a pit pony.’’
Susanna: I really do, sadly. What do you find irritating about me, though?
Piers: Actually not much. I am definitely more annoying, and if anything I’m impressed by how unannoyed you are by me. That said, your politeness can be a slight fault. Sometimes I’m tempted to get straight in and say to a guest, “Forget it, you’re a waste of time, get off our airways.’’
But I also think you’re very calm and unruffled, and you’re incredibly well briefed. I think you’re the rock of the show – a slightly tarnished rock in many ways, but the rock nonetheless.
Susanna: What do you think I find annoying about you?
Piers: The fact that I talk over you and I can be too domineering – although of course I see those as qualities as well.
Susanna: You have the skin of a rhino, a steely backbone and enormous chutzpah, which is essential not just in television, but also in the social media world in which you’re completely immersed. Sometimes you’re still on your phone seconds before we go on air. Do you think you’re addicted?
Piers: Well, I do have 5.1 million followers on Twitter. Feeding a beast of that size is not something you would be familiar with, but I feel that my public do need me and actually that I interact with them in a way that I believe helps the show. It’s not like I’m texting my mates. If I am, it’s normally Bradley Walsh. He’s our number one fan and he loves us going after people who deserve it.
Susanna: You get a lot of online abuse – does that bother you?
Piers: Remember I had 25 years on national newspapers coping with mockery and abuse. And I couldn’t give a hoot what some spotty little teen makes of me – the way to bite back is to do something like correct their spelling, which they hate. I know it bothers you more, although I think I’ve toughened you up.
Susanna: I’ve definitely become more comfortable about using the block button. But generally I’m more reticent about putting myself “out there”.
Piers: Actually I would say that, of the two of us, in real life I’m far more similar to my television personality. You have a very distinct TV persona. You’re far more opinionated in the morning briefing than you ever are on air. I think you’re more an object of mystery. People say to me, ‘“What is Susanna really like?’’ Whereas people say to you, “He’s like that, isn’t he?’’
Susanna: I’m definitely very private about my private life, so there’s a lot that I won’t share, although of course that doesn’t stop you from trying to drag it into the open. As well, of course, as suggesting that I am secretly in love with you.
Piers: It is the great unrequited love story of the airwaves – even if it’s only happening in my head.
Susanna: What on earth does your wife think?
Piers: Celia [Walden] just looks at it with total bafflement that any other woman would even consider being interested in my romantic entreaties. Although of course we all know that, despite your protestations, you secretly harbour deep-seated feelings for me.
Susanna: I will thank you for one thing: as a result of you campaigning about our start times we’ve all got a half-hour lie-in. My alarm used to go off at 3.30am, now it’s 4am.
Piers: Ten to four for me. That’s the first alarm, second alarm at 4am, in the car by 4.10am, in the studio 4.30am. I normally lie there for about eight minutes. I do nothing for two, then I’ll spend six minutes checking Twitter, then I look at the news.
Susanna: Who has been our best guest?
Piers: Sir David Attenborough. To me he is probably the greatest broadcaster this country has ever produced. He’s got such fierce intelligence and I think he’s a real force for good. He has an edge to him, too – he doesn’t tolerate fools.
The Dalai Lama was also a highlight. Here’s a celibate monk who has never had a drink, never had sex, doesn’t listen to music. It’s a life of utter purity in every way. I thought he was fascinating because he had such a serenity to him.
Susanna: I’ve interviewed stars who are in films that my kids love, and sometimes you’re not as impressed by them as you’d hoped. So for me it’s the human stories that exert more of a grip. Recently I interviewed Charles Nunn, the detective at Aberfan whose task it was to help parents identify their children.
He’s been a murder squad detective for decades and yet, when I went back to Aberfan with him, he was in tears remembering a three-month-old baby who died in that disaster 50 years ago. It’s those interviews that often have the most resonance.
Piers: Of course, one of your more charming daily tasks is working out the history between me and the famous people that come across our sofa. Like when Carol Vorderman said to me, “I can’t remember if we’re talking again or not.’’
Oh and Nick Clegg, who we had on recently. The last time I’d interviewed him he famously said he’d slept with up to 30 women, and he hadn’t really had a civil word to say to me since, so he got slightly glacial.
Susanna: I rather enjoyed that.
Piers: What’s your dream sofa line-up?
Susanna: Barack and Michelle Obama, no doubt about it.
Piers: I’ve already met the Obamas. I guess if we’re talking Hollywood stars, then Brad Pitt. I’d love to hear Brad’s story. I kind of think I know what Angelina’s is. I’d like Arsène Wenger sitting there, too, because he’s brought me as much joy as he’s brought me despair in the past 20 years.
Susanna: Joy and despair. Sounds like our show.
Piers: Here we are, heading towards our one-year anniversary – the anniversary they never thought would happen. And if we’re still enjoying each other’s company, then there’s hope for the future.