Farewell to the First Couple of TV

For nearly two decades, they have dominated daytime television – and had a huge influence on our wider culture. But now Richard and Judy say that they are going to call it a day. John Walsh laments

It's a sad day for celebrity psychiatrists, minor film stars, career criminals, song-pluggers and paperback writers. Richard and Judy are calling it a day. Not for their marriage, which seems as inexplicably strong as ever, but for the show that has, in various guises, been running for nearly two decades. It was announced yesterday that, at the end of 2008, 20 years after their first joint appearance on the small screen, Richard & Judy will be no more.

Many reasons have been advanced as to why the successful husband-and-wife team should shut up shop. Obliging friends of the couple insist it's their decision, that they're looking for "fresh challenges" after 20 years on the sofa. Others insist that Channel 4 was planning not to renew their contract and is axing the show because of falling ratings: 2.9 million viewers last year; 1.7 million this summer. Still others maintain that Richard and Judy never recovered from being required to alternate their popular 5pm slot with Paul O'Grady, the former Lily Savage, who was lured away from ITV and given his own chat show. And it's generally agreed that Richard & Judy never shook off the taint of corruption that washed around it in the premium-rate phone-call scandal in spring of this year.

Whatever the reason, the show's demise is not an occasion for rejoicing. It was never the most incisive or intellectually bracing of programmes on the networks, but it was extraordinary for three reasons. The first was the often-startling quality of the guests: Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Tom Hanks and Madonna all parked themselves on the comfy cushions, to be subjected to the mildest of grillings. The second was the staggering success of the show's book club, which started in 2004. And the third was the unique relationship between the stars.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan weren't like other yin-yang co-presenters. They were no Fern-and-Phillip or Natasha-and-George; they weren't indefatigable gigglers or joshers. They were married, and often they let little cracks and hairline fractures in their relationship show through the bonhomie; sometimes they seemed close to having a full-scale row right there on the comfy banquette. The audience didn't mind; indeed, they seemed to lap it up, as the audience for Oprah (in many ways a blueprint of R&J) lapped up the details of their heroine's marriages and struggles with her weight. People liked the privileged access they were granted into a real-life marriage, conducted, for several hours a week, under TV's pitiless scrutiny.

Many people wondered, frankly, how Judy could stand Richard. While she was small, bosomy, placid and sweet to the guests, he was tall, skinny, cross and argumentative. Where her conversation cooed and meandered around them, he would interrupt and hector, and demand they cut to the chase. Journalists who visited them at Cactus TV, where the show is produced, noted that Richard, off-camera, did 90 per cent of the talking when the couple were asked a question, and constantly interrupted his long-suffering wife. When, in one show, he offered an ad hoc impersonation of Ali G – all rude-boy hand gestures and "Is it becos I is black?" – Judy visibly cringed with embarrassment. Richard is good at embarrassment. He is fabulously indiscreet, a master of the inappropriate story. He has a genius for getting things wrong.

In 1997 he asked Neil Tennant, the famously gay singer of The Pet Shop Boys, how his wife was faring. When interviewing a novelist in 2004, he asked: "If you were going to write an autobiography – who would it be about?" When Bill Clinton came on the show to plug his memoirs, Richard told him, at some length, how he himself had once been falsely accused of shoplifting and how he'd carried the burden of accusation for months, despite being innocent, "so I know how you must have felt". Clinton blinked at this startling moral equivalence between a minor shop-theft and the destabilising of the White House. At such moments, Judy tends to gaze at Richard with a kind of pained, maternal indulgence, and you wonder again about their relationship. She is eight years older than he. When they first met, and she was assigned to take care of him on his first day, her first words to him were, "Hello, I'm your mummy."

They met at Granada TV in 1982. She was a 34-year-old Mancunian TV journalist who'd been the first female news reporter on Anglia TV in the mid-70s, before moving to Granada Reports in 1980. He was an east Londoner of 26 who started in local newspapers, and had early success as a presenter on Radio Carlisle. He began reporting for Border TV, moved to Yorkshire TV where he fronted Calendar with Richard Whiteley of Countdown fame, before his fateful move to Granada. Both were married to other people, but they wed each other in 1986. In October 1988, Britain – or at least a constituency of bored housewives, chronic invalids, stoned teenagers and agoraphobics – woke up to a new phenomenon called This Morning: two hours every day of celebrity chit-chat, phone-ins, cooking demonstrations, health discussions and the like, a kind of televisual balm for the afflicted.

The show pootled along inoffensively for 13 years, occasionally derided by Channel 4 bosses, who resented the growing personality cult of Richard and Judy. The couple were given their own early-evening chat show Tonight with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan, on which their first guest was OJ Simpson, shortly after he was acquitted of the murder of his wife and Ron Goldman. The show lasted one series and died quietly.

By 2001, the couple had had enough of ITV. They decamped to Channel 4, bringing many of their ITV team with them. They also linked up with Amanda Ross, the glamorous, omnicompetent producer of the Soap Awards they'd hosted. She and he husband, Simon Ross, formed Cactus TV, which from 2001 produced the show, now bluntly titled Richard & Judy. After a disastrous start ("Our first show for Channel 4 was shit," was Richard's judicious comment) they settled down to a steady nine-months-a-year series in the 5pm slot, with a similar anodyne mix as before. This time, though, their pay was estimated at £1m apiece.

One new strand of the Channel 4 show was books. Amanda Ross, their producer, thought it might be interesting to exploit the new-ish vogue for readers' groups and start a TV book club, discussing and recommending new paperbacks. The idea took off like a Scud missile. Their first recommendation – Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea – was praised on Richard & Judy by Bob Geldof. In the week before the show, it sold 4,421 copies; in the week after, it sold 18,255. It happened to other choices: Notes on a Scandal, The Lovely Bones, The Bookseller of Kabul. Sales of the titles picked by the show in 2004 were 4,300,000, or £25m in hard cash. The following year (The Time Traveller's Wife, My Sister's Keeper) the show shifted 3,345,000 copies, worth £18.4m. The book trade rubbed its eyes in amazement. Cynics who doubted that Madeley and Finnegan read anything more demanding than Heat magazine, or who sneered that their choices were low-brow adventure stories, were confounded when the book club offered their vast audience the Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and the 24-carat literary heavyweight Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. People started talking about "the Richard & Judy effect", a modern version of the Midas touch.

In February this year, the show ran into Phonegate, when a Sunday newspaper alleged that it had defrauded viewers of thousands of pounds in the daily quiz slot, "You Say, We Pay." Viewers were encouraged to phone in, paying £1 a time, for a chance to play the quiz, and an average of 15,000 did so, each day. The paper alleged that people were being encouraged to phone in even after a winner had been chosen. Madeley and Finnegan weren't blamed for the scam – the quiz provider, a Hemel Hempstead firm called Eckoh, was fined £150,000 and Channel 4 had to pay back viewers – but had to make a grovelling apology on air.

"Richard & Judy Not Unscrupulous Public Cheats After All" – you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from an audience. Eccentric, wayward, menopausal, indiscreet and sometimes phenomenally dim though they both sometimes seemed, they had, over 20 years, taken what seemed like a permanent residency in the nation's collective affections. They were popular because they never seemed to be acting. They gave themselves away all the time. Viewers gazed at Judy, battling against the onset of terminal frumpiness, and at Richard, turning before their very eyes from a handsome devil into a cantankerous git, and instinctively warmed to them. They were the perfectly British odd couple, inviting you into their warm parlour, probing and bickering and keeping the conversation going at all costs.

The world of Richard and Judy: a brief history

* 1988: The couple begin hosting This Morning on ITV.

* August 1990: Richard is accused of stealing champagne from Tesco after absent-mindedly forgetting to pay. He is acquitted a year later.

* November 1998: A caller is asked by Richard whether her "little lad of 12" is "a boy or a girl".

* September 2000: Richard's on-air impersonation of Ali G, above, is voted "worst television moment of all time" in a Channel 4 poll.

* October 2000: Judy accidentally exposes her breasts when accepting the National Television Award for Most Popular Daytime Programme, right, prompting Richard to promise: "If you vote for us next year she will show you both of them."

* July 2001: George Michael phones in to This Morning, telling Judy: "You've had your work cut out over the years with Richard next to you talking rubbish – divorce him love, divorce him."

* March 2002: Richard tries (and fails) to comfort a woman who missed out on her £928,000 Lottery win by telling her that "maybe it was for the best".

* July 2004: Bill Clinton appears on the show, above; Richard confronts him about Monica Lewinsky, saying: "I was in a similar position to you. I was accused of shoplifting. But, unlike you, I knew I was innocent."

* January 2004: The Richard and Judy Book Club launches and is an immediate hit, boosting the number of viewers by 400,000.

* February 2005: Richard tells the transvestite artist Grayson Perry: "You're just humming with sexual energy! Is it the fabric? Is it wearing tights?"

* January 2007: The couple confess on air to using Viagra.

* March 2007: Police confirm they will be investigating the show's "You Say, We Pay" competition slot, right.

* November 2007: News that show will end in 2008.

Alice-Azania Jarvis

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