Since they were very young, my children have had a pretty consistent view of what my work involves: talking aloud and going to lunch.
Whether it’s true or not, I don’t think I’ve ever seriously tried to convince them that being a TV presenter is the most taxing occupation on Earth. After all, they might all grow up to be brain surgeons and then conversations would get awkward.
But if our business has an Everest, it is surely presenting the election night programme. From when it goes on air, just before the release of our joint exit poll (conducted with Sky and the BBC) at 10pm, until the sun rises over the studio in the morning, I can be found in more or less the same chair, listening or talking for eight hours straight.
What’s odd about it is that your brain has to work in three concentric circles all night. One part is either talking to camera or listening to someone else talking to you. The second is attempting to listen to the conversation in the studio gallery, where the director and the programme editor are discussing where to go next. And the third part is trying to think about the evolving story and assess what questions to ask in the minutes and hours ahead.
Perhaps it demonstrates the intellectual paucity of my education, but I have just never, ever concentrated that hard for anything like that long. The first time I presented an overnight programme was for the general election of 2015 and I walked out of the studio the following morning feeling as though someone had clubbed me over the head. Nor was that just the first time effect; I felt similarly dazed after the night of the EU referendum and on the morning after the US elections.
I’ve often been asked what I felt about the UK leaving the EU or Trump winning the presidency and how I kept that to myself, but the honest answer is I came out feeling absolutely nothing at all. I spent both evenings concentrating so heavily on navigating through to the morning that I had no head space to process any kind of personal reaction.
So how do you prepare for a night sitting (mostly) still for eight hours? The first time around I was worried that, off the back of a tiring election campaign, I would walk into the studio exhausted, especially given the fact that I’m not the best sleeper in the world (an issue that seems to be aggravated by age). So I went for a long walk the day before and took a sleeping pill to make sure I was in good shape.
I came into the office in the late afternoon, having determined that I would stop drinking water at about 5pm in an attempt to make sure that I could get through the night without having to run to the toilet. I probably should have done some research into the science of this, but it seemed to work well enough (I started drinking water in the studio again at about 2.30am). I didn’t eat in the evening either and went into the studio with three bananas and enough M&Ms to see me through a prolonged war.
Since it worked the first time, I opted for the same approach on the night of the referendum, but as we counted down the final minutes to the programme, our political editor Robert Peston and national editor Allegra Stratton – brilliant companions on nights like these – tried that trick where you throw M&Ms up and try to catch them in your mouth. I had visions of them choking as we went on air, so this time M&Ms will be strictly banned.
The first few hours of the night tend to rush by and on each of the three programmes I’ve presented, there have been many big waves in the story to push us on towards dawn. But there are still the moments when you feel your energy sag and certainly a few when a nip of whisky beneath the desk would go down a treat.
The programme itself is a long, dark tunnel. I’m so focused on trying to make our show the best it can be that I can’t see or hear what anyone else is doing. We aim to be the fastest, most thoughtful and most illuminating programme of the night and it’s a privilege to be asked to do it.
I came into this business to have a front-row seat for the history of my lifetime and I couldn’t have a better one. And if the recent trend is anything to go by, it should be quite a night.
ITV News Election Night: the Results is on Thursday 9:55pm