When Susanna Reid left BBC Breakfast to launch ITV’s new early-morning show four years ago, she took the kind of gamble from which some careers never recover. Seasoned stars from Adrian Chiles to Aled Jones had already tried and failed to rescue the channel’s breakfast show from a ratings death spiral, and its latest rebrand as Good Morning Britain might have looked a very bad bet to Reid, had she not just competed in Strictly.
“After going out live on TV every Saturday to dance a paso I’d only learnt on Monday, my riskometer was set high,” she grins. “I was so non- risk-averse at that point, I was happy to take risks left, right and centre.”
It’s a good job she was, because for a long time it looked unlikely to pay off. Within months a Sun headline was predicting of GMB: “It will all be over by Christmas”, and more than a year later ratings remained stubbornly stagnant. Piers Morgan’s appointment as co-host in late 2015 did not fill Reid with hope.
“I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, that’s lovely! Aww, what a lovely safe choice. Oh, my life’s going to be easy from now on. Brilliant.’ I was like,” and she adopts a trembly falsetto, “Arghhh!” Sharing the sofa with Morgan felt like “sitting next to a hedgehog”, and Reid revealed early last year that she sometimes came off air in tears.
There may be a personal vindication for her gamble. Although BBC Breakfast regularly pulls in around 1.5 million viewers – often double the ratings of GMB – the ITV show has seen a boost in the past two years. After a small gain last month, Morgan wasted no time in mocking Breakfast’s presenter Dan Walker on Twitter – “Thanks, Dan!!!!!!!!!!” So when I meet Reid in her dressing room at ITV Studios, I ask if she shares his triumphalism. “No,” she says firmly. “He’s very different to me. I, I…” and she breaks off to sigh. “That shouldn’t be the first thing we talk about it, should it?”
Only, of course, it is. In person Reid is exactly as she is on screen, the consummate daytime TV blend of glamour and girl-next-door, at once authoritative and relatable. What electrifies GMB, however, is the co-hosts’ chemistry – their rows about feminism, her exasperated eye-rolls, his relentless teasing. As one viewer told Reid recently, “I tune in every day just to see you two argue”, and audiences love to speculate about their relationship.
Does she secretly hate him? Does he secretly fancy her? Are they really friends off air? A more temperamentally incompatible pair would be hard to imagine, so it’s no surprise to learn that Reid, unlike Morgan, doesn’t like to gloat.
“I’m obviously thrilled that more and more people want to watch our programme. But I’m not as competitive. For me it’s not all about ‘We’ve got to beat them’. I’m quite nervous of conflict, I don’t like it. He loves it, he relishes it. He’s actually very good friends with Dan Walker, which I think a lot of people don’t realise – because you see, for Piers, conflict is never personal.
“But I’m not looking at beating the BBC. There are people who want its presenting style in the morning. There’s something very reassuring, and very likeable about it; no one’s ever going to be offended by Dan and Louise [Minchin, his co-presenter]. I know them personally, and they’re blinking lovely. You couldn’t describe Piers as lovable. And I don’t think everybody necessarily wants a double espresso shot straight into their veins in the morning. Some people want a nice cup of tea. And there is absolutely a role for both.”
So, the ratings aren’t a zero sum game for Reid? “That’s exactly right. A huge number of people enjoy what we’ve got to offer, so I don’t feel like I’m going into battle with the BBC every morning.”
The rival she does feel competitive towards, however, “is the person next to me. It’s a constant battle for airtime. Sometimes I open my mouth to ask a question and hear Piers’s voice come out – so you can’t help but go into battle with him every morning. I know it’s not personal. But there was a time when I took this a lot more seriously, and personally, than I do now.”
Reid admits she struggled with their relationship until early last year. Matters reached a head that January, over Morgan’s highly vocal criticism of the Women’s March. “He said there should be a men’s march, and got a bee in his bonnet about radical feminists wanting to cut men off at the knees and create a world without men. Back then I was much more sensitive about how that rebounded on me. And I felt kind of responsible for what he thought.”
What upset her, she explains – and why she would come off air in tears – were the attacks she received from male feminists. “It wasn’t women who were criticising me, it was the men. They accused me of enabling his anti- feminist views. The man sitting next to me was spouting off whatever he believes, which I don’t agree with, and I was trying to stand up for my views, and the right for women to march. But I had men telling me it was my fault he was saying this. And I was just like, I’ve had enough of men telling me how I should be a feminist. I’ve had enough of it.”
And then an epiphany struck. “I just realised, that’s not my responsibility. It’s not my responsibility. He can say anything he likes. I don’t have to pick up the pieces. I thought, actually, I can think what I like, and I finally realised, it isn’t personal, and I am not responsible. Someone said to me recently, ‘Piers goes around setting all these fires, and you go around putting them all out.’ But on the days when I can’t put the fire out, that’s fine now. That’s OK. That’s not on me, that’s on him. And when I finally realised that, that’s when I made peace with it.”
Television co-hosts are notorious for pretending to get along, when off air they are in fact at war, and despise one another. But authenticity has always been key to Reid’s popular appeal; as she says of herself at one point, “I have to be honest. I can’t lie,” and there is nothing fake about her affection for Morgan. When I half-jokingly suggest a parallel between his controversialist presenting style, and Katie Hopkins’s, she leaps to his defence with the indignant loyalty of a genuine friend.
I honestly don’t know what Piers is paid. But I’m very happy. Every woman in TV is asked about her salary now, but I don’t necessarily want to talk about it.” Is she competitive about pay? “No, oh my God no. I’m just not. I find it sort of unsavoury just talking about it.” She is beginning to look uncomfortable. “I have no reason to be complaining about my pay. I’m well paid. And also, I think, why is this question for us individuals? It should be for the bosses. Shouldn’t there just be a rate for the job, whoever does it? Perhaps that’s the answer.”
Part of the problem, she points out, is that men’s salaries reflect their seniority, whereas female broadcasters tend to be taken off air before they reach their 60s and 70s. She would never judge any woman for choosing to have cosmetic surgery, she says. “The only reason I won’t do it is because I’d be terrified of it going wrong.” Social media periodically fizzes with rumours about cosmetic procedures Morgan may or may not have undergone, so I ask if she thinks he’s had work done. Her face lights up with mischief. “Well! If you look at his face, it is so smooth, isn’t it?”
She peers in a mirror and murmurs, “Look at my wrinkles. Lots of wrinkles,” but doesn’t sound remotely troubled. When not at work, she says hardly anyone ever recognises her, because she takes off the make-up, scrapes back her hair and pads about in a onesie. I’d always assumed she’d be prone to perfectionism, but she insists, “I’m really not. If you’re trying to make something perfect, you’re never going to be satisfied, so just enjoy what you’re doing.” Laughing, she concedes that Instagram can make this hard. “I’ve had to unfollow a few fitness models. All that ‘Live your best life’ stuff. Urghhh.”
She credits “bulletproof” Morgan with teaching her to stop minding what people say about her on the internet. “You should see the stuff he gets!” she adds, eyes widening. “I mean, honestly, I would report to the police some of the stuff he gets.” But whereas his whole philosophy for life, not just social media, is ‘Who cares what people think, as long as they’re talking about me?’, Reid says firmly, “I care very much what people think. And I’d rather people didn’t talk about me.” Wouldn’t it be wonderfully liberating, I suggest, to be more like Morgan? “God forbid, Decca, that you’re suggesting we should all be more like Piers,” she groans.
On a more serious note, she goes on, “My life philosophy is that I do quite like getting on with people. I like doing things that mean I have good relationships with people. You do that by a certain amount of cooperation, making situations easier for people.” She was horrified when Morgan once made a GMB guest cry, and scrupulously practises her philosophy in her private life. After separating from her partner of 16 years in 2014, she continued to cohabit with him for 18 months, to ease the transition for their three now adolescent sons. She and her ex now live a ten-minute walk apart in south London, their boys divide their time between both houses, and they remain “really good friends”.
She hasn’t been “entirely single” since they separated and has had “some nice times” with men, but as she goes to bed at 10pm, gets up at 4am, and “life is dominated by kids and work”, I wonder how she meets them. Online dating? “No. But I wouldn’t rule it out.” Do friends set her up? “No, although I wouldn’t rule that out either. I wouldn’t rule anything out. It’s just not the right time. Life is stupidly busy.”
I’m curious to know what she remains ambitious for, at 47. “I just don’t think it’s a word that applies to me. I don’t have a great ambition. I’ve never had a grand plan. I can imagine himself going, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, how could you say that?’ But I’ve definitely never had a goal or a game plan, or set myself a target and bent every sinew in my body to work towards it. I’m just happy doing this.”
Good Evening Britain will broadcast live Thursday 28th June at 9.15pm on ITV