When Richard Madeley ejaculates he prefers to rest his "equipment" for 25 minutes before attempting to make love with Judy Finnegan again. Or so he told the world in 1995. He has had a vasectomy, and her painful, irregular periods were the cause of a hysterectomy three years ago. This may be much more information than you need, but it represents only the tiniest sample of the personal details Richard and Judy have disclosed to the viewing public since they began presenting a live television programme called This Morning in 1988. There is nothing they won't talk about on air, except her weight and the eight-year age gap between them. Richard is sleek, fastidious, endowed with long, shiny hair, and 45. His wife is 53, and frankly she looks it alongside her clean-cut, mane-tossing husband. She is also by far the sexier of the two.
Theirs is not a fake chemistry like that of erstwhile rivals Anne and Nick. This Morning did not become the most successful daytime show on British television ever, regularly attracting more than two million viewers, because of its fashion make-overs, celebrity chefs, star interviews or phone-ins. The real secret was that it offered the ultimate in voyeuristic television. Forget the staged claustrophobia of Big Brother or the brief distraction of a docu-soap such as Airport – This Morning had the real-life, real-time spectacle of a married couple arguing, sulking, flirting, teasing and sometimes weeping, on camera, every morning, day after day, for year after year. Judy even appeared with a black eye once, and told viewers she had banged her head on the mantelpiece. Whatever else was going on in the world, viewers knew Richard and Judy would always be there on ITV of a morning, giggling about some absurd nonsense such as the group of naturists who came on in the nude, fawning over a middle-ranking pop star or wearing compassionate faces to talk about health matters.
Then, suddenly, it all stopped. In May, Richard and Judy announced they were leaving Granada and This Morning. Some of their bosses were told in person, some by fax and others found out only when they saw images of the couple posing outside the headquarters of Channel 4. Their defection after a year of secret talks meant not just the loss of a popular couple to another station, but a big dent in the business. Granada had contrived to lose the stars of a flagship programme that topped the ratings for its time slot almost every weekday and brought in revenue of more than £8m a year.
Jo McGrath, head of daytime programmes for Channel 4, insists the defection does not represent the dumbing- down of her station. She points out that their new hour-long live topical magazine, which starts on Monday, will replace the imported Rikki Lake show. Richard and Judy are as keen as puppies to be our friends, and now our guides through the breaking news and gossip of the day, rather than ringmasters at a freak show.
The moment that will probably define Judy's career happened at the Royal Albert Hall last year when she stepped forward to receive an award, unaware that her gown had come undone at the front. The live audience and 12 million television viewers received a full view of her bra-clad bosom, which was bountiful, possibly a little matronly, but not unattractive. Richard was lost for words, for once, but found his tongue in time for the show next morning. "Thank you very much for this sort of silver globe," he said, brandishing the award. "It wasn't the nicest globe on display last night."
Lovely, cheeky Richard, smiling at the camera, melting hearts and looking like he knows it. He has never grasped that Judy is the really interesting one. A survey of people in the Midlands named her the perfect fantasy mum; other viewers feel she is just like them, or has suffered as they have. Over the years she has had (and talked about) miscarriages, ovarian cysts, post-natal depression and that hysterectomy. Born in Manchester, Judy has described herself as "working class, hauled up by the highlights". She took elocution lessons to lose her accent and studied English and drama at Bristol University before joining Granada Television as a researcher in 1971. She was working as Anglia TV's first female reporter when her twins, Dan and Tom, were born 24 years ago.
After two years back at Granada she was asked to look after a new arrival. It is said she tapped him on the shoulder and said: "I'm your mummy." Richard had come from Yorkshire TV where his nickname was Mannequin. The light of love began to flicker after they had been working together for six months. "He invited me to have a meal – tuna fish casserole – and he cooked it himself. Tinned tuna, tinned mushrooms, sweetcorn and crisps. Well, it worked."
They were married in 1986, both for the second time, and renewed their wedding vows last summer at a small church near their summer home in Cornwall. Their teenage children Jack and Chloe were christened at the same time. Those who still doubt the couple's grasp on the zeitgeist should know that Jack and Chloe are the most popular names in the country for a boy and a girl.
"There are two views taken by people of who does what in our relationship," said Richard. "One is that Judy wears the trousers and I'm struggling to keep up with her, and the other is that I'm the driven, ambitious one, dragging the semi-reluctant Judy behind me. Neither is true. Every decision we make about anything is a joint one."
Friends say they really do spend every hour of every day together, at work or at home in Hampstead. Judy found it harder to move south than he did, and has frequently spoken about how exhausting live broadcasting can be. When it goes wrong it goes spectacularly wrong. A week after hosting a crime prevention special on the show they were burgled. Richard's attempt at dressing up like Ali G was recently voted one of the worst television moments of all time. During a phone-in a caller once asked him to steal her a bottle of wine. She was referring to his trial and acquittal for shoplifting in 1991. "Go spot trains or buy yourself an anorak, love," said Richard with more feeling than usual.
This Morning cannot quite be dismissed as a confection. It has won three National Television Awards for best daytime show, and done things nobody else dared: the first trial of Viagra live on air, the first full examination of male genitalia for testicular cancer, the first gay wedding to be shown at that time of day. Tony Blair has sat on the sofa three times, once with Gordon Brown. In 1999 they coaxed Blair into unguarded comments that helped get the England football manager the sack. These may not rival the moon landings for great moments in TV but they are certainly more interesting than a DIY show.
After all these years together they have very clear ideas of how they want to be seen. Only last week they gave a taped interview to the Mirror, demanded to see the results, then rewrote more than 1,000 words of it – erasing, for example, the suggestion that Judy had been "emotionally bruised after months of unhappiness at work".
Now Richard and Judy are reinventing themselves, seeking to acquire some of the cool their children say Channel 4 still has. In return they can offer the station their popular touch. "I always say to myself that if it all went wrong tomorrow I can always go and work at Boots," she has said. "I genuinely mean that." You can almost imagine Judy managing the store, which says a lot about the woman's appeal. Richard would be the junior in charge of shampoos.