Matthew Wright: 'I don't feel I have a job. I'd turn up for nothing'
That's how happy Matthew Wright is hosting his chat show on Five. And now he can also be heard in a Radio 2 arts slot. Not bad for a one-time Mirror showbiz hack.
Monday 24 July 2006
In the middle of an item about a cheese festival on Five's The Wright Stuff, a member of the audience leapt up and started accusing Matthew Wright of being gay. The presenter ended the programme the only way he could think of - thrusting a cheeseboard into the man's face and asking him, "Would you like some cheese?"
"I'm very comfortable as a slightly camp man. I can't be any other way, so if people want to imagine that they're my gay lovers, more power to them," says the once married, currently single 41-year-old. It is this personable approach to broadcasting that has made The Wright Stuff one of the most successful daytime programmes on British television, consistently beating Channel 4 in the same 9-10.30am time slot.
Two months ago, Wright, formerly a Daily Mirror showbiz hack, was hired by BBC Radio 2 to host its Friday-night arts show. Wearing this new hat, he is about to come out of the closet - as a folk fan - and this week he will present his show live from the Cambridge Folk Festival.
A passion for folk music is more usually associated with bearded types than sharp-suited presenters, but names such as Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Curved Air, the Sixties psychedelic folk rock band, roll easily off Wright's tongue, confirming his enthusiasm.
He is also keen on the new wave of folk bands, from the bizarre Circulus to the soulful Seth Lakeman, whom Wright has known since the singer was 12. (He is the son of the Mirror's West Country correspondent, Geoff Lakeman.)
The BBC originally booked Wright into a hotel in Cambridge, but he insisted on camping instead. "I can't go to a festival and not camp. What is the point of going to a festival and staying in a hotel?" he asks.
His former partner in crime on the Mirror showbusiness desk, Richard Wallace, now the newspaper's editor, likes to describe Wright as "lite, trite and full of shite". But at Radio 2, he feels able to express a different side of his personality - "to show that there is more to me than a tabloid caricature".
Wright did not really enjoy his previous experience of radio at the London station LBC. "I'd turn up on a Saturday morning to an empty building, with just a security guard to let me in, and a fairly rudderless show for three hours." In contrast, Radio 2, where he regularly stood in for Steve Wright before his current job, "seems to be ticking like a Rolex watch". "You've got guys there that have been in radio all their lives. I can't describe how professional it is. It is a joy to go into. You've got producers who are mustard-keen, who know everything there is to know about their subject."
In each two-hour show, he and guests - who have included Pete Townshend, Vic Reeves, Dean Koontz and Paul Greengrass, director of United 93 - discuss the latest films, plays, books and music releases. There is no prescribed playlist. Instead, Wright tries to match tracks to whatever has just been discussed.
He is keen to do more radio and is learning to "drive the desk", although he admits that at present he is "still wearing L-plates". Indeed, he is a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability. Halfway through the interview, Wright asks, "Mind if I smoke?", then quickly adds that he is seeing a hypnotist the following day to help him to quit. "I did five years stopping, and then started again at Christmas in an act of lunacy. I hate it." After the interview, he asks if we mind not using a picture of him with a cigarette in his hand, as part of his new post-smoking persona.
As a boy in Croydon, Wright wanted to become an actor, and came close to achieving this ambition, starring in children's films and adverts for Rowntrees Fruit Gums. But following an avant-garde English and drama course at Exeter University - "wandering around with sticks that we had to make our friends, and doing classes in black karate" - he realised that he hated actors.
After six fruitless months looking for work, his father suggested that he stick some CVs through letterboxes in Godalming, Surrey, where his family by then lived. He received one reply, from the Surrey Mail. "I was the world's least determined journalist, purely accidental," he admits. Despite this initial lack of direction, he soon buckled down to a decade of hardcore showbiz journalism, first on The Sun, later on the Mirror, under Piers Morgan. He confesses: "I'm not the world's most sociable person, and yet I went to every showbiz party for 10 years. And that takes its toll."
At the Mirror, Wright became close to the "City Slicker" Anil Bhoyrul, and when the latter stood trial last year, he wrote a letter to the court defending his friend's good character. "When my marriage went down the Swanee, Anil Bhoyrul found me somewhere to live and threw me a lifeline. He's a smashing bloke," Wright says. "Without commenting too much about the case, I have a slight feeling that they were hung out to dry."
Wright admits that he stayed at the Mirror a year too long. "I was sick of it during the last 12 months. By the time I left, I had given up all hope of doing anything in television." His departure to join the internet start-up company mykindaplace.com coincided with the dotcom bust, although the site went on to become the UK's most successful teen portal, sold earlier this month to Sky for £12m. But within a week of starting his new job, Wright received a phone call out of the blue asking whether he would be interested in hosting his own chat show on Five. By the end of the day, he had handed in his notice, and The Wright Stuff was born.
He has remained loyal to Five ever since. "Chris Evans gave me very good advice. He said, 'Whatever you do, don't leave The Wright Stuff. You've got a show named after you that's doing well. What on earth could you do that would beat that?' He's right."
Moving to Channel 4, where Kevin Lygo, who hired him at Five, is now director of programmes, "doesn't seem to make much sense... to try to win back an audience I already have". A move to ITV is even less likely. "ITV would be primarily interested, if their current daytime output is anything to judge by, in more humiliation and degradation. My ambition would be to liven people up and raise awareness; it wouldn't be picking on people because they're fat or ugly or having extramarital affairs."
While Wright believes that Dawn Airey's launch of Five as the home of "football, films and porn" was misguided, he is a staunch defender of the channel in its current incarnation. "Since Kevin Lygo arrived, and subsequently Dan Chambers, there's been a full-on attempt to make quality programming on a shoestring budget. To see Five so firmly spanking BBC2 on the arts with Tim Marlow, and to see Five emulated by BBC2 with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen going round art galleries, is a huge compliment," says Wright.
He is proud of the fact that his total editorial team at Five consists of just eight people, and enjoys the freedom that gives him. "I don't feel I have a job. I would turn up for nothing. To be able to do what you want and say what you like on national television, with no restrictions, is a fantastic exercise."
He tries to run the programme along Fleet Street lines, "because they're the only lines I know how to run anything along". But he insists that he wouldn't be tempted to return to print journalism, apart from as a columnist, preferably on a quality newspaper rather than the tabloids that were his training ground.
A low point in an otherwise charmed career at Five came when Wright inadvertently named John Leslie as the anonymous man accused of rape in Ulrika Jonsson's autobiography. "I just blundered like a fool," says Wright, who has always denied naming Leslie deliberately. "The most difficult thing was The Mail on Sunday running stories on an almost weekly basis saying that I was going to be sued for £12m, when I only had about £120 in my bank account at the time." In the end, the threatened legal action never actually happened, and Wright and Leslie remain friends.
When Tony Blair appeared on the show as part of a pre-general election charm offensive, his spin doctor Dave Hill tried to stop Wright from asking whether Ken Livingstone should apologise for comparing a Jewish reporter from the London Evening Standard to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Incensed, Wright persuaded his mother to call in and confront the Prime Minister on the topic. "God bless my mum, she phoned up and she was as sweet as anything. This just goes to show how spin doctors can get it wrong. Tony was absolutely cool with it. He said, 'Yes, I believe that he should apologise.'"
It is not a tactic to which Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys are ever likely to resort, but Wright is a self-professed "man of the people". "I think a journalist's job is to make even the most complicated subjects very easy to understand. Do we want to obfuscate everything and have an intellectual elite and a dim-witted proletariat? "Or do we want everybody to understand, so that we have all got a chance of having a discussion together? I really can't understand why anybody would opt for the former."
Matthew Wright presents The Weekender live from the Cambridge Folk Festival on Radio 2 on Friday at 10pm
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