Good Morning Britain editor on the 'blood, sweat and tears' of managing Piers Morgan and being 'proud to be tabloid'
For all the fond memories they arouse in soap fans, Jack and Vera Duckworth of Coronation Street are not the most obvious role models for achieving success in the news media.
Nonetheless, the fictional couple can be revealed as the unlikely inspiration for Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid of Good Morning Britain, whose occasionally turbulent on-screen relationship has revived the breakfast television sector with an energy that transfixes the tabloid press.
For more than a decade, since GMTV lost its mojo, the early morning schedule has been a source of consternation and embarrassment for ITV. But the presence of the irrepressible Morgan on the Good Morning Britain sofa, with his capacity both to captivate and to irritate the audience, has given new definition to ITV’s breakfast output and its audience is growing.
But Morgan divides opinion. Some have claimed his attitude towards Reid, as well as fellow presenters Charlotte Hawkins and Kate Garraway and womenkind in general, is chauvinistic and unacceptable. Actor Ewan McGregor refused to come on the Good Morning Britain sofa after Morgan (a self-proclaimed personal friend of Donald Trump) questioned the validity of the Women’s March on Washington.
An online petition calling for the presenter’s sacking (an admittedly tiresome feature of modern life) has almost reached 25,000 signatures and is addressed to Neil Thompson, editor of Good Morning Britain.
An 'authentic' on-screen relationship
But things have worked out pretty much as Thompson intended when he brought the former CNN host into the presenting line-up late in 2015, and partnered him with Reid, who was originally poached from rival BBC Breakfast in 2014 to be Good Morning Britain’s star name. “I said to Piers and Susanna when they first started working together: ‘We are going to be able to give the viewers something they haven’t ever had before – they will see your relationship evolve on air’,” he says. “I said to them look, 'Your creative cue is you are Jack and Vera Duckworth.’”
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It’s hard to imagine that Morgan relates much to the pigeon-fancying layabout Jack (played until 2010 by the late Bill Tarmey), but Thompson sees some common ground. “Jack is loved by the nation as much for the heat as the light he brings to conversations,” he says. “Every conversation you hear Jack Duckworth have, whether on the cobbles or in the Rovers [Return pub], was always an exciting one and brings insight.”
As for Reid’s muse Vera (played by Elizabeth Dawn), Thompson says: “Vera may not get to ask all of the questions but she sure as hell asks some of the smartest ones.” Reid has not been slow to show her exasperation at some of Morgan’s excesses. She has admitted that the stress induced by working with the high-octane former Daily Mirror editor has left her in tears after the show.
Unlike the Duckworths' marriage, the relationship between Morgan and Reid is neither scripted nor rehearsed. “It’s authentic,” says Thompson. “We don’t encourage them to disagree, we encourage them to be themselves and they do that instinctively. They have a relationship on screen, and indeed off it, that is absolutely real.” It is a different presenting recipe, he says, from that of the legendary American breakfast duo Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford, whose on-air chemistry at ABC was “produced in a petrie dish”, he says.
These relationships matter in breakfast television like nowhere else in media. ITV has had nothing like it since Eamonn Holmes and Fiona Phillips in the golden years of GMTV, Thompson believes. GMTV came off the rails in 2005 when it was hit in quick succession by the departure of Holmes and a scandal over premium rate phone charges on competitions. The audience went into “very definite decline”, Thompson says, and ITV’s breakfast show was largely “unloved and overlooked” for years afterwards.
A new dawn after Daybreak
Thompson, an ITV veteran of 28 years, had worked on the launch of GMTV in 1993, and was called back to the early morning schedule in 2013 to take hold of the debacle that was Daybreak (hosted by Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley and produced by ITV after it bought GMTV) and replace it with a new show. In making Daybreak, ITV “believed they could do it better but just made it worse”, Thompson says. “What that did was accelerate the decline and the audience basically felt that the show had given up on them. It bore very little connection with their interests and what excited them.”
While Daybreak was “slightly bland, pastel, inoffensive, don’t scare the horses television”, the team that was making it had the potential to produce something very different, he says. “The team that had delivered the ultimate failure of Daybreak was the team that would deliver the success of Good Morning Britain.”
The result has been edifying. After an initial period of familiarising the audience with a new presenting line-up, led by Reid, alongside Ben Shephard, Charlotte Hawkins and Sean Fletcher, the ratings finally began to pick up at the end of 2014. Audience growth of 12% year-on-year in 2015, was followed by 13% in 2016, and a further 6% in the early weeks of this year. The show reaches around 2.5 million each morning. Crucial to that momentum has been the hiring of Morgan in late 2015 (when the show was still being written off as a failure).
News is at the heart of the offering, even if the rival BBC Breakfast (which has double its audience) has a better reputation for serious news. Good Morning Britain’s approach combines tabloid instincts for a human interest angle and a determination to maintain a high story count. “It’s finding those stories that will galvanise people. You have got to be proud to be tabloid and I’m a tabloid journalist through and through,” says Thompson, whose peripatetic career has taken him from Fleet Street newspapers and news broadcasting to overseeing cookery programmes, TV quizzes and talk shows hosted by the likes of Trisha Goddard and Vanessa Feltz.
He claims he can compete with the BBC’s resources because his own team (totalling 160, with 100 dedicated to editorial roles) are dedicated to the breakfast show and are highly flexible, maximising use of mobile connectivity and lightweight technology to broadcast stories live.
Good Morning Britain will turn down recorded interviews with Hollywood A-listers in preference for a live interview with a lesser star. Sometimes it has the best of both worlds. Lindsay Lohan recently flew to the UK just to be on the show, which cleared the schedule to accommodate more than 20 minutes of interview time. The show’s showbiz sponsorship with Sharp-Sony is in its fifth year (it has other sponsorship arrangements with Checkatrade, for national weather, and Costa Coffee, for regional weather).
Good Morning Britain routinely rips up its running order to include breaking stories, and it closely monitors the output of its breakfast time rivals, making more changes to the schedule where it sees potential advantage. “We are always cleverer, more eye-catching,” Thompson claims.
But what makes each edition of the show “a live event”, he says, is its presenter line up. “When you watch Good Morning Britain, every day will be an event. You can never be quite sure in which direction Piers will go and you can never be quite sure about the ways in which the other presenters will manage him.”
For an editor, managing a personality like Piers Morgan must be a considerable challenge.
But Thompson has a unique, almost career-long relationship with the presenter. “I’ve known Piers a long time. On my first local paper in 1984, I was a graduate trainee on a paper near Brighton, and he was the intern and I had to look after him.” Thompson says he doesn’t mind Morgan throwing his weight around off screen. “We didn’t hire him only to have strong opinions on air. He wouldn’t be an authentic signing. Actually what you get on screen and what you get off screen that is Piers.”
Neither is he overly concerned by the accusations of misogynism levelled at the presenter. Morgan was doubting the merit of protesting against Trump’s election victory and suggesting women should march on a policy issue, he claims. “I would have been unhappy or uncomfortable if the point Piers had made was spurious or ill-informed [but] it was a rational argument, not one you had to agree with, but a reasoned, considered argument.”
Clearly, working with Morgan isn’t straightforward. “With Piers, if I am completely honest, a lot of blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights go into the mincer but what comes out, through the conduit of Piers, is greater. However much you put into him, however much energy and angst goes into providing content for Piers, what he does with it makes it greater.”
Thompson says he made this hiring “with eyes wide open” and the toll on its stress levels is one that he is prepared to pay. And so, he believes, is Susanna Reid. “Piers and Susanna will go down in history as one of the great on-screen relationships,” he says. "No question."