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To students, they are a surrogate mum and dad. To cynics, they are just too squeaky clean. But what will OJ make of them?
Richard and Judy look very different in three dimensions. He has the improbable good looks of Seventies British tennis heart-throb John Lloyd. She has the sort of dazzlingly beneficent aura more usually associated with alien spacecraft. At lunchtime in Manchester's Granada HQ they are still groomed and glowing from work, having not lost their lustre in the short journey from the studio in Albert Dock. On this morning's This Morning they were on top form, revealing their precise emotions with the instinctual candour that has endeared them to the nation. Judy surrendered to the charisma of a creepy American defence attorney in a crazy fringed jacket, moving Richard to observe icily: "I think my wife has fallen in love with you."

Their press officer hovers somewhat anxiously, distributing a well-balanced line-up of soothing beverages - diet Cokes and white wine, orange juice and tea - with the earnest solicitude of the housekeeper in Father Ted. Sunday's headlines ("Richard and Judy in OJ Cash Scandal") are still printed on the inside of her eyelids every time she blinks. In fact, outside of the standard courtesies of accommodation and travel expenses, OJ Simpson is being paid the princely sum of pounds 1 to appear on the first episode of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan's evening show on Monday week. What is wrong with these people: couldn't they have got him for 90p?

There are obviously ethical questions to be asked about giving OJ a platform, but tabloid editors who would happily sell their dear old grans into slavery for a whiff of his demonic codpiece are probably not the right people to ask them. Why does Judy think OJ agreed to be interviewed? "I can only think it's because he's been so shunned in America that he's virtually a recluse. It's almost as if he's not allowed on the American networks." That's strange, given the voyeuristic delight they took in his trial: if they hadn't all been falling over themselves to secure the rights to Richard and Judy's interview, you might think they were ashamed of themselves.

"Everyone's got unanswered questions they would want to put to him, and it's legitimate for us to do that," Richard says gamely, "but it's not an interview that will do itself." It certainly isn't. A few basic decisions have already been made. "It's not going to be a retrial," Richard explains, "but it's not going to be 'welcome OJ Simpson, an innocent man' either. He's certainly got no veto on questions - we can ask him whatever we like. We wouldn't do it otherwise." Presumably they won't say: "Most people still think you did it." "But he knows that most people still think he did it," Judy insists cannily, "so we can discuss it that way."

"We'll get flak whatever we do," she continues. "We always do." Richard and Judy's last night-time chat venture, a couple of years back, was not a huge success, partly because of a last- minute schedule change and competition from the Olympics and Wimbledon, and the question of why they would want another show seems a valid one. Don't they get tired of talking to people?

"Not at work," Judy smiles tiredly, "but I suppose that's why we don't tend to go out much. We meet so many people in the day that by the evening we just want to be monosyllabic with the kids."

If all their big nights out end up like the Baftas last month, Richard and Judy could be forgiven for cocooning. How did they feel when the Best Talk Show award, which might have seemed to be made for them, was misdirected to Panorama's Princess Di scoop? "The word in the industry," Richard says conspiratorially, "was that the Talk Show category, which had never existed before, had been created so that Panorama would win." Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to create a Most Vividly Entertaining Public Relations Exercise by a Member of the Royal Family category? Judy laughs: "We did feel used."

They looked anxious at the Baftas, as if tensed for the assassin's bullet. Coverage of This Morning's autumn move to the capital suggests the London- based media are waiting to have their revenge on the duke and duchess of Albert Dock. Richard and Judy don't seem too bothered, gleefully repeating such unlikely alleged quotes as: "Now we can go to all those glitzy London dos." Richard rolls his eyes. "Honestly, would we really say that?"

Can they understand why people who love This Morning would be worried that a move to London might diminish the show's distinctive character? "I think that's more a media thing," Richard argues. "I'm not sure that it affects anyone watching in Birmingham. Liverpool has a strong identity - it certainly lets you know you're there - and it was always a temptation to make a lot of the fact that this was a regional centre bringing you a network show, but we never did. People already come up and ask us which part of St Katharine's dock [in London] it's filmed in."

The new This Morning studio will be on the South Bank. "The Palace of Westminster is to one side and St Paul's is to the other, but you won't see them," Richard says reassuringly. "It'll just be light / water / distant shore - it could be anywhere." Given that moving the show to London was Granada's only hope of keeping Richard and Judy on it, as after eight years they were hungry for change, leaving Liverpool seems a small price to pay. Judy is adamant the programme will not be tampered with: "It's our responsibility and our challenge to make sure it retains that essential This Morning-ness."

What is the essence of that mysterious quality? "It's difficult to define," Richard says. "When you're in the painting, it's hard to step back and see it from the perspective of the viewer." "We know the show so well now," Judy continues, "that, as opposed to just doing it, we sort of inhabit it."

This might be why stand-in couples never seem to work - it's like they've turned up at a wedding wearing someone else's clothes. "We've never been cool," Judy says wistfully. But that's why This Morning means something. There are plenty of TV programmes that want to be cool, but few whose presenters rigorously go through their scripts "taking out everything that sounds like an attempt to be wacky".

Richard has an intriguing theory about the origins of This Morning's committed student following. "I think the programme has a lot to do with family - the fact that we're a mum and dad obviously has something to do with that [Richard and Judy have four children - Jack, nine, Chloe, eight, and older twins, now at college, from Judy's first marriage] so I think it ends up as a sort of surrogate home." Either that or they're just too lazy to get up and go to the library, and anything's better than watching Anne and Nick. "You may say that," Judy says, "but we couldn't possibly comment."

It's not just students who find the lure of This Morning's endlessly updating menus hard to resist. When the programme started, all the research suggested that people, especially women, felt guilty about watching TV in the morning. Eight years on, that no longer seems to be the case.

It is a fine irony that a programme so often unfairly castigated by those who don't watch it as out of touch should turn out to be at the cutting edge of changing work patterns in this country. How many VDU screens, both at home and at the office, are illicitly tuned to its seductive frequency?

Given the affection and esteem in which Richard and Judy are held by the public at large, it seems strange that they have been subject to such venomous treatment by the press. "I suppose people think, 'They can't possibly be this perfectly nice-sounding and happily married couple - there must be something wrong,' and if they can't find it they get frustrated," Judy says mournfully.

"It's just the culture that we're in." Richard shakes his head. "It's not as bad in America, it's not as bad on the continent, but it's bloody awful here." Why does he think that might be? "I've no fucking idea."

! Tonight with Richard & Judy kicks off with OJ Simpson on Monday 13 May. Rumours that the second show will feature Lord Lucan riding the Derby course on Shergar have yet to be substantiated.