'None of their punches was ever likely to connect'

When Richard and Judy hit OJ with hard facts, he just denied them, writes Tom Sutcliffe

The big question was - would he get away with murder? To which the short answer was, not entirely.

Giving his first interview on British television since his acquittal for the murders of his wife, Nicole, and Ron Brown, OJ Simpson might have been cheered to discover that his interrogators were to be Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, presenters more famed for tea and sympathy than ruthless forensic rigour.

In the event, though, most of the tough questions were asked with a nervous determination that occasionally bordered on panic. There was no doubting who was on trial here - making a break for prime-time and introducing "the most controversial person we've ever interviewed" Richard and Judy had just 15 minutes to convince us of their competence.

They cunningly skirted the first obvious hurdle - the vexed question of how you introduce a man recently cleared of murder, a man of whose innocence some audience members will be less than convinced.

Traditionally, talk show hosts give their guests an applause-begging crescendo, voice cresting to the name. But notoriety demands a different etiquette than fame and who can be entirely sure which branch of celebrity OJ now occupies? Slyly, they slipped him on to the sofa under the cover of a jazzy sequence recapitulating the case - when it finished he was in place and ready to go, deprived of the welcome (Neil Diamond, who appeared after the break, was granted a more conventional entrance).

The bid for sympathy came very early - asked why he was fleeing in the Bronco, OJ shared his pain: "My favourite person had been brutally murdered . . . I was being attacked for the first time in my life . . . I was hurting". He hadn't been escaping at all, he said, merely visiting Nicole's grave. There wasn't much that his interviewers could do in the face of such assurance, which set the tone for everything that followed - though a tiny bead of sweat soon formed on Simpson's top lip, though he grimaced at Nicole's name, there was no question who remained in command.

Where they had to rush, pressed by the idiotic compression of the interview, he could take his time - getting some more wear out of the arguments that had cost him so much. Their knowledge of the case against could not possibly equal his knowledge of the case for - he had spent two years of his life rehearsing.

Besides, when facts were inconvenient, he simply denied them: "She did not say that," he replied when questioned about Nicole's claim that he might kill her - despite the fact that many of those watching can probably still hear that frightened phone call in their heads. Judy Finnigan's hands were shaking, the tremor of someone clutching at a cliff with no handholds.

"Tell us about the nice Nicole, tell us about the Nicole you loved," they said. It was a dummy, designed to lead Simpson into the uppercut of a hard question about his beatings. But none of their punches was ever likely to connect. They looked visibly sick as they endured the G-force inflicted by the swerve from unsolved murder to Neil Diamond's chart success. Diamond played a number and got the publicity he wanted. Exactly like the man who preceded him.

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