He's tall and athletic and tanned and slightly sweaty, as though he's run most of the way from his publishers, where he's been signing 1,700 copies of his first novel. Though he's 57 this year, he looks, in a skinny brown T-shirt, 20 years younger. He's very bustling, as if whatever he's doing now, he could be doing something infinitely more rewarding elsewhere. His exophthalmic gaze wanders away from you while he's answering questions.
And dear god does he answer questions. He explains himself at length and at blistering velocity. He talks at the rate of a cattle auctioneer in Montana, an ice-hockey commentator in Toronto. He talks at twice the speed of human thought. When telling a story he's told before, he sounds like he's learnt a script and is delivering it at 78rpm. It's disconcerting when he looks away; there's such a torrent of words going on, you wonder if he knows you're there.
We're here to talk about his book, published this month, exactly four years after his TV career, in a much-loved double act with his wife Judy Finnegan, terminally nose-dived. The book is called Some Day I'll Find You. Its cover features a young woman in a 1950s summer frock, looking over the balcony of a hotel on to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. It could not be more Mills & Boon if it was called Sands of Passion.
As you read about the Arnold family in 1938, and meet Diana, the headstrong, Girton- educated daughter who argues with her parents about Hitler and imperialism, you fear the narrative will lurch down a highway of clichés into a steam-bath of torrid embraces. But Madeley's book is actually much better than that. It's pacey and absorbing, briskly written and tantalisingly unpredictable, in its tale of a fighter pilot who romances Diana and disappears when his Spitfire is shot down in France. Ten years later, the widowed Diana, remarried and living in Nice, sees someone who looks strangely like her deceased fighter beau… So we embark on a mystery/adventure/thriller with extra flavours of extortion, abduction, gunplay and the Mafia thrown in.
Why write a wartime melodrama? "I published a biography of my ancestors called Fathers and Sons three or four years ago," he says. "It did all right – sold about 50,000 copies actually – and many people said it read like a novel. Some people said, 'You made this up.' My agent said, 'I think you could write a novel.' But I simply couldn't think of a plot. My agent Luigi would ring up and say, 'Listen, I've got this plot…' and I'd say, 'No no NO.' Then one morning, a couple of years ago, as I was making lunch, I was suddenly aware there was a family living in my head – the Arnolds. It was as if they'd moved in overnight. Diana and her father Oliver and her mother Gwen – I knew them all. They were sitting around a table arguing about Munich and appeasement. It started in my head like one of those pictures in three dimensions from Harry Potter. I felt part of a family, some of whom were relieved that war had been avoided, others who felt frustrated because we were betraying the Czechs. During lunch I kept running away from the kitchen table to jot down notes, and by the time I went to bed, the story was there. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, but completely real."
The mention of Harry Potter is apt, because Madeley's it-all-came-to-me-in-a-flash explanation of his book echoes JK Rowling's assertion that the plot of the whole Potter oeuvre came to her during a train journey. A more plausible inspiration for Some Day I'll Find You was revealed in Madeley's confession about his childhood ambition. "I always wanted to be a fighter pilot. I've always been interested in the last war, particularly the RAF, and by the time I was nine, I wanted to be a supersonic fighter pilot. It was my golden grail, as long as I could do the maths. Then, when I was 14, my eyes went a bit short-sighted. I went to an RAF centre in Holborn, showed them my prescription and said, 'I can still fly can't I?' They said, 'You can fly transports and choppers but not supersonic jets – you have to have 20/20 vision.' I didn't want to fly anything else, so the dream crumbled."
Given his childish dream, it's odd to find that James, the fighter pilot in the novel, is far from heroic. He is, in fact, an 18-carat prize shit, who rises from working-class squalor, blackmails a pederastic headmaster to sneak into the RAF, exploits posh-but-dim friends and impressionable girls and becomes a brutal murderer.
"I loved creating James Blackwell," says Madeley, grinning. "I wanted the reader to constantly forgive him, and quite like him, because he is charming and funny, rather than think he's just a horrible, selfish nutcase."
The book is such a machine-tooled construction, I wondered if he'd had help from an editor. "I have a very good editor, Suzanne Baboneau at Simon & Schuster. Her hand in the book was in the amplification of certain scenes. The occasional page would have a big circle drawn on it, with the word 'MORE' or sometimes 'CLUNKY' written inside."
Did she tell him to put in more sex? "No, she didn't," says Madeley with evident relief. "I dreaded writing about sex. You worry that people will say, 'He's been sitting in judgement on other people's books – now let's get 'im.' Or ,'He can't write for toffee. Have you seen the sex scene?'" Was he afraid they might laugh at him? "Oh yeah – 'The wally from daytime TV has written a novel.' I didn't want to make myself a target."
Did he ask Finnegan for advice about female psychology? "We… endorse each other," he says guardedly. "Some people have asked me, 'Did Judy write the female bits?' which would really piss me off. But look, if you're married to someone like Judy, and have a daughter like Chloe, and you've presented This Morning for 13 years, watched by a 67 per cent female audience and with lots of phone-ins on the menopause, people's emotional lives, the woman's perspective, it would have been weird if some of it hadn't sunk in."
Richard and Judy's ITV1 show This Morning, everyone agrees, "reinvented daytime television" and made its presenters a) household names, b) very rich and c) the object of fascinated speculation to the British viewing public. People looked at this odd pair – she so comfy-cosy and sympathetic, he eight years her junior, boyish and chippy and given to putting his foot in it – and saw a real working marriage, stresses and all. When he went off on one of his egotistical flights, dressing up as Ali G or spending ages telling Bill Clinton how he was once falsely accused of shoplifting, the look on Judy's face was priceless. They had on-screen tiffs and marital spats, and viewers loved it. This Morning was voted most popular daytime TV show four years running from 1998 to 2001. At its height it pulled in 2.5m viewers. In 2001, the couple decamped to Channel 4, to front Richard and Judy, an hour-long afternoon show produced by Cactus TV.
"It was a near-disaster," says Richard. "The first three or four months were a plane crash. Almost every day there was a piece in the papers saying, 'They're a one-trick act, they're cruelly exposed.' The Daily Mail hates Channel 4 and us, they came out with horrible pieces every week. After three months I had a meeting with Tim Gardam [then director of programmes for Channel 4]. The ratings were 1.7m, against expectation of 2.5m and there was another nasty piece in the paper. I said 'Sorry Tim, this isn't what you expected when you bought us is it?' I've never forgotten his answer. He said, 'I'm damned if I'm going to be told what to commission by Paul Dacre and the fucking Mail. We're sticking with it.' Two weeks after that the show clicked and the ratings started to improve."
And then the Richard and Judy Book Club started, in which they and their helpers chose a title each week and recommended it to viewers. It was a massive, unprecedented success. "A week after the first Book Club, we got a call from Quercus, publishers of Star of the Sea [by Joseph Connor] saying, 'Would you mind giving us a bit of notice next time you do this – we've had to order three reprints.' The book's sales rose by 1,000 per cent in just four days."
The Club lasted eight years, with the show weathering the occasional storm, such as the "quiz phone scam" about You Say We Pay, a game that encouraged viewers to phone premium-rate lines to win a prize despite the fact that the winners were chosen in the first two minutes. "We were asked, 'How do you feel about your name being tarnished?'" says Madeley ruefully, "and I said, 'Our name's on the tin, so it's been tarnished, so thanks to the faceless IT guys who were in charge.'"
A year later in October 2008, they moved to the UKTV digital channel Watch to front Richard and Judy's New Position. "We'd been talking for some time, saying, 'Let's stop this and do something else.' Judy wanted to write. I was increasingly frustrated about having to say no to other projects. Then a month before we were due to announce it, this new channel came and said, 'Here's a huge cheque for a one-year contract.' They were buying the brand. We were told it would be free-to-view, but when it launched it was pay-to-view. That killed it. [The initial ratings of 200,000 declined to 53,000, then 11,000, then a mortifying 5,000 before the plug was pulled in July 2009.] Within a month of starting, I had more followers on Twitter than viewers. We shook hands and went back to plan A, which was stopping it altogether."
In his new novel there's a climactic, heroic role for a grandfather. Would this have anything to do with the fact that Madeley became a granddad last October? "Yep, my step-grandchild Ivy, born to my son Tom and his wife. I've no genetic link to the baby but bloody hell, when I went to see her in Manchester, and walked into the room – well 'atavistic' doesn't cover it. You look at this little scrap and think, 'You're one of us.' Tom put it well: he said, 'It's like she's in our cave.' Exactly. And we'll do anything to protect her."
Madeley gets quite intense about family matters. He speaks of his children with great fondness, as though always conscious of the dreadful time he had at the hands of his own father. His book Fathers and Sons was a harrowing chronicle of exile, betrayal and family violence – and included the revelation that Richard's father used to beat him viciously.
"He was angry I think because he was denied love and affection in his childhood," says Madeley. "And I think he felt he was losing control as I was growing up. He tried to control me and my sister in lots of ways – I had to have a short back and sides in the mid-1960s, and when my sister grew her hair long and hippyish at 14, he made her get it cut off – 'You look like Janis bloody Joplin,' he said. For a year, when I was nine or 10, he laid into me about 20 times with a stick, hard, and afterwards was very contrite, as abusers often are. Very apologetic. The last time he did it [to punish Richard for eating a whole pack k of Rolos] my mother threatened to call the police. He made a whole firework display of apologies and contrition, and it never happened again."
Madeley was born in Romford, Essex, in 1956. His father, Christopher, had grown up emotionally stunted by his own father's cruelty (he beat him regularly and sent him away to boarding school), before becoming a journalist and moving to Canada, where he met Richard's mother and returned to England with her.
"When people think of Essex, they think working class," says Madeley. "My dad was a white-collar worker, very middle class, and so were a lot of my friends at school. But physical violence against children was de rigueur in those days. I don't think there was anyone in my school who didn't get hit with a stick, the back of the hand, a fist, a slipper."
Ask him what kind of father Madeley is to his children and you're in for 25 minutes of fond reminiscence and benign advice. "I've always been a very liberal father. Chloe, for example, wanted to have a tattoo when she was 12. She said, 'What d'you think?' I said, 'To tell the truth Chloe, I hate them, I think they look awful, so I'd rather you didn't – but if you go to Golders Green after school today and get it done, I can't stop you. I think you should at least wait until you're 16 and think about it, though, because you'll be scarred for life.'"
Did it work? "She waited until she was 24 to get one done, and you know? The roof hasn't fallen in. When you see kids who've gone off the rails, you can often trace it back to too much control when they were younger. They respond much better if you've made them feel responsible for themselves."
Readers of the tabloid press won't need reminding that Chloe Madeley is photographed a lot in her underwear. Does Madeley think she has been over-exposed? "I know fathers are supposed to get hot and bothered about this but I'm not. She has a personal-trainer boyfriend called Danny, and she's changed her body shape, so she's had some stick from women's magazines, saying she's anorexic, when she eats like a horse. She and Danny have started a website, and she writes fitness and health articles for health mags." He pauses for breath. "If she was posing topless or appearing in stockings and suspenders or… fetishistic stuff, I'd be horrified, but it's not even Victoria's Secret. It's just a wholesome bra and pants."
Despite his capacity to say and do slightly daft and eccentric things, Madeley comes across as a happy man, uxorious and fatherly and boyishly keen to be in demand ("On Father's Day I did the Radio 2 Sunday Brunch show, then I came home and we went to the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead. My son came over with his girlfriend. Chloe was there, and Judy…").
It's possible that his ceaseless torrent of words is simply the voice of buoyant enthusiasm for life rather than the patter of a salesman. As for the future: "I'd happily do anything on TV provided it sounded fun," says Madeley. "Once a week, maybe, for a limited period." And he's planning a sequel to Some Day… in which Diana's daughter Stella, now in her early twenties, does an internship with John F Kennedy in the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis.
"She has a relationship with him that's a little deeper than Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton's," says the author reassuringly. "The crucial thing is to get Kennedy's cadences, the way he'd speak, and the way he'd treat her, how he fucks. That's very important." Having delivered this characteristically gnomic judgement, Mr Madeley furrows his handsome brow. "The only downside is that it's 50 years since his death, so there may be a lot about him out there already…" 1
'Some Day I'll Find You' is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £7.99Reuse content