To ITV’s London headquarters at the ungodly hour of 3.30 a.m. Piers Morgan is sunning himself in Beverly Hills and I’m sitting in for him on Good Morning Britain. I’ve known and liked Piers for 30 years, from the days when he used to scribble for the Mirror’s showbiz page, and although we could hardly be more different we do have one thing in common: we’re both television Marmite. People either like us or loathe us. But in the mysterious, perverse alchemy of TV ratings, detesting a presenter doesn’t necessarily mean shunning their show. Viewers enjoy shouting at their bêtes noires, so it’s all good for business. I too have presenters I love to hate; household names who’ve never done me any harm but for some reason I can’t abide. If I meet them, all that bile usually melts away; it’s hard to hate a real flesh-and-blood person, yet so easy to casually revile their flat-screen incarnation.
Meanwhile after years in the doldrums, ITV breakfast telly has finally regained confidence and GMB’s ratings are steadily climbing. All programmes need to have a belief in the fundamental reason for their own existence or they perish. That’s why the godawful Nightly Show, which earlier this year briefly shunted News at Ten out of its slot, flopped so dismally. Its smattering of scriptwriters floundered to grasp the point of the series. America’s late-night political satire shows, which TNS tried to ape, succeed because they understand the importance of employing big writing teams who’ll deliver stiletto-sharp opening monologues, sketches and songs. Letterman, Leno, Corden etc are direct descendants of Bob Hope’s live radio series of the 1950s and 1960s. Hope paid up to 30 top writers (30!) to be his feeds. One night he was about to go on air when he phoned his writers’ room. ‘The gag on page four about LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson, often portrayed as thick] — it’s crap,’ he rasped. ‘Rewrite it, with a double punchline. Now.’ Minutes later the fresh gag was silently passed to Hope. ‘News just in, folks,’ he announced. ‘A fire in the West Wing. Nobody hurt, but LBJ’s personal library in ashes. Yup, both books.’ A pause for the sucker-punch. ‘Including one he hadn’t even coloured in yet.’ Read it and weep, Nightly Show.
Politicians’ determination to dissemble is getting worse. Are they sent on courses teaching obfuscation? Since returning to daily TV I’ve discovered that MPs are more skilled at dodging questions than ever before. Infuriating to listen to at home — but if you’re the questioner being shamelessly blanked or blocked, the response (in my case, at least) is visceral anger. I try not to interrupt someone if they’re actually attempting, however ineptly, to answer a question, but I won’t tolerate duck-diving. I call offenders out on it as soon as I realise they’re trying it on. So far on GMB, I’ve had ill-tempered exchanges with, among others, Nigel Farage and Sir Keir Starmer. Both generously offered me answers to questions that I hadn’t actually asked. How to bring such offenders to account? I explain I’m not asking the question for myself, but for viewers. If I can see the interviewee is being evasive, so can they. So it might be a good idea to give the audience an answer to a question that is, in effect, coming from them. And the viewers, of course, are the voters. This usually does the trick.
Sitting next to a former Conservative party bigwig at dinner, I ask if he thinks the Tories will be OK at the next election as long as they deliver a reasonable Brexit. ‘Not a chance,’ he says. ‘We’re totally fucked.’ What, even if May stands down once the deal is done? ‘Even then. The kids want Corbyn. The bloody 30/40-somethings want Corbyn. They don’t care or even understand about all that horrible IRA stuff, or Marxism, or nationalisation. After a couple of years of Corbyn government, they’ll get it. Too late by then. But at least the pendulum will swing back to us three years later.’
Lunch with the editor of my last three novels. The fourth is due for delivery by the end of February and of course I haven’t started it yet. ‘Have you even written the prologue?’ she asks, almost tenderly.’ ‘Er… well…’ I obfuscate as shamelessly as any politician. ‘I thought not,’ she says sadly. Talk turns to the title. My plot begins with a crucifixion, Roman-style (the victim inverted like St Peter on an X-shaped cross) in the centre of the huge 2nd-century amphitheatre that stands outside Cirencester: it will be the first in a series of imperial-inspired slayings. ‘How about Circus?’ I offer. My editor shakes her head. ‘Too tenty, too Big Top,’ she says. I ponder the sub-plot, which focuses on the killer being lured on to the internet with faux praise for his lethal achievements. ‘Clickbait?’ I try. ‘I think we should order our coffee,’ she smiles. Oh dear.