Halfway through our interview, Judy Finnigan throws a glass of wine over herself while attempting to wave goodbye to a guest. "You're not supposed to wave with the wine glass," jokes Richard Madeley, before displaying the sort of concern that has endeared viewers for more than 15 years to television's highest-paid couple - not rushing to fetch a cloth, but ordering her another glass of rosé.
Given their troubled relationship with alcohol - Richard was cleared of shoplifting after walking out of Tesco without paying for the booze stashed in the front of his trolley, while Judy has been the victim of unfounded newspaper speculation that she is a secret drinker - is it really wise to have launched a wine club on their Channel 4 magazine show?
The answer is yes. The Richard & Judy Wine Club, which invites viewers to drink along with the couple on a Friday afternoon, is a canny commercial enterprise. So far more than 40,000 people have paid up to £54.95 for one of the cases of wine that accompany the show. They have achieved the "Delia effect" - when they showcased French chardonnay, it was soon "walking off the shelves", says Madeley, in a slightly unfortunate analogy.
"They have pitched it at exactly the right level for beginners who want to learn a little more and might feel a bit intimidated by other vehicles out there," says Guy Woodward, deputy editor of the wine magazine Decanter.
The semi-voyeuristic appeal of watching a husband-and-wife presenting team living out their marriage on air, tiffs and all, has helped to turn Madeley and Finnigan into a major force in British television. They earn more than £1m a year apiece, and Channel 4's head of programmes, Kevin Lygo, has described their show, which regularly attracts ratings of up to 2.6 million, as "the cornerstone of the schedule". In May they signed a £6.5m three-year deal to stay at Channel 4, making them the best-paid duo in television. As presenters, only Graham Norton and the soon-to-retire Sir Trevor McDonald are paid more.
The wine club follows the tremendously successful Richard & Judy Book Club. A mention on the show can send a title soaring to the top of the book charts - the couple's favourite read, Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor, saw a 350 per cent sales increase and is the best-selling book of 2004 to date.
"They have awakened a whole new sector of the market. They have really engaged with the books in a way that has made people want to go out and read more, which is a very difficult thing to do on telly. The book industry has gone 'Wow, this is so huge'," says Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller.
Success has been hard won, however. When the show launched three years ago, it was plagued by low ratings and scathing reviews, and Channel 4 was left wondering whether it had done the right thing in poaching the presenters from ITV's This Morning, the daytime magazine show that made their name.
Madeley, whose desire to be open and frank is mirrored in his body language - he soon abandons his chair to sit cross-legged on the floor of the green room where we are talking after their show and even, helpfully, holds my tape recorder - admits that Channel 4 had doubts in the early days. "When it was a bit rocky to begin with, naturally they were a little bit 'Oh shit, have we made the wrong decision?'."
The show was launched two months earlier than expected - Cactus Television, the independent production company jointly managed by Jonathan Ross's brother Simon and his wife Amanda which makes the programme, was forced to convert an old polystyrene factory in London's Kennington into a bespoke studio in record time. It soon became clear that adapting a double act who had made their name in a late-morning slot to a more sophisticated early evening audience was going to take time.
The launch show on 26 November 2001 attracted an initial audience of 2.5 million, but lost 800,000 viewers in the first 15 minutes, and ratings soon slumped to as low as 1 million.
Madeley says: "We thought we'd got the format OK, and then you go on air and the live reality is so different from the theory that you've been practising in the studio. You can get the technicals right on the pilots, but the heart, the soul and the personality of a live-sequence show like this only comes through doing it. We realised that after a week, and we thought 'Oh fuck, this is actually going to take us probably three to six months to get right'."
But the press was not prepared to give the pair any breathing space, and quickly pounced on the show.
Madeley admits: "Of course the critics, fair enough, realised that it wasn't right and fell on us like falcons really. It would have been a very good story to say that we'd left this successful show called This Morning with a big company like Granada, come to Channel 4 and fucked up, fallen flat on our faces."
While other presenters might have ignored the headlines, they read every word the newspapers printed about them, and were determined to prove them wrong. Finnigan, who has declined to join her husband on the floor and is still sitting demurely in a chair, says they kept faith they could turn their brand of charm on Channel 4 viewers - a more upmarket bunch than the slackers, students and stay-at-home parents who tuned into This Morning. "Instinctively, deep down, we knew we'd got it right, it just takes a long time to bed in. I remember people asking us daft things like 'Are you going to get really hip and cool because it's Channel 4 and are you going to start wearing leather?'. No. There's no way without looking like complete prats we could get away with that, not that we would want to either. We're still essentially ourselves."
Madeley adds: "We just had to keep going really. We used to read the reviews in newspapers like the Mail which were really out to get us - it did turn into a bit of a vendetta - and we thought 'OK, that's their world, this is our world, either we sort this out ourselves, to use a military analogy we fight to get off the beaches, or we give in'. And we just kept fighting."
Over the ensuing months, both Channel 4 and its new presenters learnt to relax. While initial programmes included as many as 17 items, because the channel wanted the show to be "slick and pacy", they quickly realised that it worked better with just three or four main features.
Madeley and Finnigan differ in their appraisal of when the show reached a turning point. For him, it was a review in the Financial Times, which praised the show for taking criticisms on board and made the "very clever" observation that to begin with they had been overly concerned with differentiating the programme from This Morning, "defining ourselves by what we weren't".
For Finnigan, the more cautious of the two, the critical moment came later on when the ratings for the book club proved it was a hit, boosting the audience by up to 400,000. The idea of a television reading group was something that the couple had unsuccessfully tried to convince ITV to do on This Morning - the channel refused, claiming that viewers would be bored.
Before Madeley and Finnigan joined Channel 4, the hour between 5pm and 6pm was regarded as the "graveyard slot" by most schedulers. When Richard & Judy took off, however, ITV realised the massive potential of the time slot, and programme chief Nigel Pickard pulled out all the stops to tempt them back to the channel, offering them "quite a lot more money" to move the show lock, stock and barrel. But Finnigan and Madeley were sceptical about whether ITV would welcome the more upmarket ABC1 audience they are now attracting.
Finnigan says: "We all looked at each other and thought, 'They are not going to want this demographic. ITV does not have the same audience'."
ITV responded by launching its own teatime chatshow, hosted by Paul O'Grady, which has recently trumped Richard & Judy in the ratings, albeit with more downmarket fare. In the New Year, ITV plans to move Today with Des and Mel to the slot, with veteran chatshow host Des O'Connor and Melanie Sykes. Finnigan and Madeley have known O'Grady for years - as his alter ego Lily Savage, he was a regular guest on This Morning - but relations seemed to have soured after Cactus insisted that Joan Collins could not appear on ITV before honouring a prior commitment to Richard & Judy. When the couple secured a coveted interview with Madonna, O'Grady was quoted as saying: "I don't give a toss who Richard and Judy have got - it could be the Pope for all I care. Whoever they get, I'll still be nailing them in the ratings day in and day out."
Amanda Ross, the energetic joint managing director of Cactus, admits that the show does have a "tough guest policy" which means it will not interview guests who have appeared on other daytime chatshows, but rubbishes reports that the company threatened to ban other authors from Collins's publisher, Robson Books.
O'Grady has since sent a big bunch of flowers and a letter of apology explaining that he was misquoted.
"Paul is what you might call a very volatile person," says Finnigan. "I think he says things without thinking about it and without realising what he's really said. But as far as we're concerned there's no way that we are in a ratings war with him. Our audience is completely solid and it's building year on year. We've not lost one viewer to ITV. Paul's supposed rivalry with us, whether he really feels like that or not, is just bonkers as far as we're concerned."
They quit This Morning in 2001, following a series of rows with the team then in charge at ITV network centre, most notoriously with former head of daytime television, Maureen Duffy, dubbed "Duffy the vampire slayer" by the press, whom they believed had been charged with making the programme work without them.
Madeley is candid. "The truth of the matter was that we were pissed off... ITV became very worried about what would happen to This Morning if we were poached, if we got run over by a bus, went into the Grand Canyon on our summer holiday. They increasingly, very gently, but in a rather sinister way, tried to remove us from our own programme."
When the message came down on from on high that the couple should not take part in the daily phone-in, one of the highlights of the show, and that they should conduct interviews separately, Madeley says, "we said 'fuck off' and Granada said 'fuck off', but this kept happening and we just got pissed off".
Ironically, they both insist that they had no intention of leaving before the arguments began. But when Ross, a friend of the couple, realised they were becoming increasingly unhappy, she made overtures to Channel 4 on their behalf.
Finnigan says she is "happier here professionally than any job I have ever done". As well as presenting the show, Madeley and Finnigan are executive producers. They arrive at Cactus each morning at 11.30am and spend the rest of the day in production meetings with the Rosses and rehearsals. The entire building - including a purpose-built studio, newsroom and editing suites - is a Richard & Judy factory. It is small wonder that their increasingly high-profile guests enjoy coming here to be interviewed. An on-site chef prepares canapés for after the show, and the dressing-rooms are among the best in town. Each is equipped with a shower room, a large Venetian-style mirror and a hand-picked gift - Sir Elton John was recently presented with the latest must-have black leather travel bag as featured in Vogue, while Madonna liked her present of a purple handbag so much that she immediately went online to order similar accessories for her friends.
Their list of interviewees is impressive - Bill and Hillary Clinton, Cherie Blair, Madeleine Albright, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Leonardo DiCaprio have all sat on the purple celebrity sofa. One wonders what the former US president made of the inane quiz slot "You Say, We Pay", in which viewers have to describe a series of items to the couple without using their names in return for a cash prize.
Madeley explains their interviewing technique. "We're not soft, but we're never judgemental. We try to be journalistically fair. That doesn't mean holding back on difficult questions, it just means not coming at people with an attitude. If you've been doing it for as long as we have, word gets out that you're not going to look like you're playing a game of softball with me and Judy, but equally, they're not going to stitch you up."
They both agree that Hillary Clinton has been their favourite guest to date - describing the "bulletproof moment" when she realised her interviewers just wanted a friendly conversation, and let down the invisible screen she had until then put up between her and them.
The pair met in the early 1980s when they were working together on Granada Reports in Manchester. They quickly became a couple, leaving their first marriages behind, and in 1988 were chosen to become the faces of ITV's new daytime magazine show This Morning. Both are keen to stress their background as journalists. Finnigan's first on-screen role was as Anglia Television's first female reporter, while Madeley began his career on local papers in Essex and London. At 19, he joined BBC Radio Cumbria as a news producer, and went on to work as a reporter and presenter for Border Television and Yorkshire Television.
Asked how they have managed to stay at the top of their profession for so long, Finnigan says: "I'd like to say it's because we're both good journalists, but I know it's not entirely that. It's clear that people do like the fact that we have a relationship and a married relationship which allows us to be more open with each other."
In preparation for the show, they read all of the newspapers, make sure they catch one of the lunchtime news bulletins and insist on being given a breaking-news list before they go on air.
Madeley reveals: "When we were on This Morning, we used to do a four-day week and John Leslie was my stand-in on a Friday. I'm not dissing him, I'm just saying I used to go into my dressing-room on a Monday to find all of Friday's newspapers still bound up with twine. And I thought, 'How the fuck can you go on air with a show like This Morning, which is a live show, news reactive, not reading the papers?'."
So what does the future hold for the husband-and-wife team? It is "too early to say" whether they will sign another deal with Channel 4 in three years' time. They have no ambitions to pursue individual projects, insisting they have already proved they can work separately and "can't be arsed really".
The one place that it seems highly unlikely they will end up working is the BBC, which they both find "frightening", even under their former boss at Channel 4, Mark Thompson. "It would be a little like an artist working for the Civil Service," says Madeley, without a hint of irony.
Both have book contracts on the table - they co-wrote an autobiography published in 2002 and also write a weekly column for the Daily Express - and Finnigan in particular is keen to try her hand at fiction.
Madeley says: "The next thing is at some point to find time to smell the flowers. Five days a week - it's only telly, it's not digging ditches, you're not on a chain gang - but, I'm sorry, it is quite tiring and intellectually demanding." Despite this professed lack of further ambition, when I ask whether they would like to step into Michael Parkinson's role as late-night chatshow hosts, Finnigan praises Parky's "longevity" and Madeley's eyes light up. "Yeah, maybe some kind of Saturday-night version of what we do now," he says. There is clearly life beyond the purple sofa.
LIFE AND TIMES: GOLDEN COUPLE
Born in Manchester in 1948, Finnigan attended Manchester High School for Girls before reading English and Drama at Bristol University. Essex-boy Madeley, eight years her junior, started out as a rookie reporter on local newspapers in Essex and London. At 19, he went north to work as a news producer on BBC Radio Cumbria.
In 1978, Madeley joined Border Television as a reporter and presenter, and two years later moved to Yorkshire Television, where he reported and presented on the news magazine programme Calendar. Meanwhile, Finnigan had joined Granada TV as a researcher in 1971. In 1974 she took her first on-screen job as Anglia Television's first female reporter.
Finnigan rejoined Granada in 1980, working on a range of live programmes including Flying Start, Scramble and Granada Reports. In 1982, Madeley was recruited to co-present Granada Reports. On his first day in the job he was greeted by Finnigan, who had been asked to look after him as part of a parenting scheme. "Boo," she said. "I'm your mummy." They quickly became a couple,.
In 1988, Finnigan and Madeley were asked to become the faces of ITV's new morning magazine show, This Morning. They were to stay there for the next 13 years. Highlights included Finnigan greeting Keith Chegwin's admission of alcoholism with the words, "You've got a lot of bottle", and Madeley impersonating Ali G. They quit in 2001 to join Channel 4, following a series of rows with ITV network centre.
Trials and tribulations
The usually upbeat Madeley hit a low in 1990, when he was accused of stealing alcohol from Tesco after forgetting to pay for bottles in the front of his supermarket trolley. He fought for a year in court and cleared his name. Finnigan's most embarrassing moment came when her dress fell apart on stage during the National Television Awards.
Richard & Judy
Since 2001, Madeley and Finnigan have presented the 5pm to 6pm show on Channel 4. Disappointing early ratings were turned around by the success of the Richard & Judy Book Club, which has taken the publishing industry by storm - the 16 titles featured on their show this year were worth £22m or two per cent of the total consumer market, according to The Bookseller. They are now aiming to build on this success with a wine club, and more clubs are planned next year. Guests on the show have included Bill and Hillary Clinton, Cherie Blair and Madonna.
The couple have a teenage son and daughter, Jack and Chloe, in addition to Finnigan's adult twins, Tom and Dan, from her first marriage. They have homes in Hampstead, Cornwall and Florida, and in their spare time enjoy watching The Simpsons and repeats of Frasier.