ITV when I was growing up was the channel of wrestling, soap operas, game shows for money, oleaginous presenters, oiled-up musclemen, stock car racing, unfunny sitcoms, racist sitcoms, bibulous newsreaders, randy God-botherers and, of course, commercial breaks. Pressing the third button wasn’t actually forbidden but the sense that I’d mildly disappointed Dad hung in the air like the fug from his Benson & Hedges.
My own man and what’s more my own viewer, I’ve watched plenty of ITV since – well, television’s one big schlockhopper now, isn’t it? – although will still shout at the screen when the programmes are very ITV or too ITV in memory of my father. But 6.38am a week ago today marked the end of one particular obsession, when Piers Morgan walked off his own show.
If I can’t wake up with Morgan then I’m not watching Good Morning Britain anymore. He was the reason to tune in, to get the day going with one of his high-cholesterol, low-collegiate rants. The premise was simple: “Everyone’s entitled to my opinion.”
This included his co-presenters who were reduced to holding down the papers on the studio desk, lest they be sucked up in the tornado of his spitting fury.
But I don’t know if I’d have stuck with Morgan if he’d only ever ranted at frivolous celebrities, millennial snowflakes, Love Island, everyone who ever uttered a woke word, virtue signallers, the Guardian, the under-dressed, the over-tattooed, pop stars announcing themselves as gender-fluid and maybe worst of all, sausage rolls announcing themselves as vegan.
No, he really came into his own, Monday through Wednesday (don’t kill yourself, mate), when he was the Unofficial, Self-appointed, But-bloody-hell-the-country-needs-me Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, trashing the government over their (mis-)handling of the pandemic.
Why have you acted so slowly? Why was that big football match allowed to happen? And the Cheltenham Festival? Why are planes still flying in from abroad? Where’s the PPE you promised? Why were patients discharged back into care homes? Why are you laughing?
It made for electric TV. I was too young to have witnessed, as they happened, David Frost’s skewering of insurance swindler Emil Savundra or Bernard Levin being punched on That Was the Week That Was, but here were modern near-equivalents.
Because the ministers were being interrogated in their homes and not a studio, they couldn’t storm out of the interviews like Defence Secretary John Nott at the height of the Falklands War. Matt Hancock, trapped in his study, just had to take it.
This was car-crash stuff with Morgan as White Van Man aggressively demanding answers. To his victims it must have felt that the presenter – with a tabloid on the dashboard like the one where he began his career and which was still influencing his style – had churned up their lawns and rammed the side of their houses.
There were moments when the confrontations got too excruciating and I’d have to turn over to BBC1 only to quickly flip back again. I know Corporation presenters can’t comment on the news but even so, their breakfast alternative was, and still is, soggy cereal and Auntie at her most mimsyish. Any minute you expect to see the return of the skateboarding duck, the hoary all-time nadir of Beeb bulletins.
The all-comment Morgan was only too aware of this and, like he was back at the Mirror slagging off the Sun or vice versa, he would, live on air, bait Dan Walker over the BBC’s rigour-free interviews. Before long, though, BBC interviews were the only ones going. The government stopped sending ministers to be beaten up by Morgan.
He had some fun with this, getting ITV cameras to spy on the rival channel as it prepared for its “exclusives” and informing viewers that the spin doctor no longer prepared to serve him up Hancock or Gavin Williamson or the quivering Helen Whately for the most important meal of the day once had duties which involved dressing up as a chicken.
And where was the main man, Boris Johnson? Still hiding in that fridge? This was the PM’s ruse back in 2019 – a blissful, pre-Covid time when it was nevertheless still a good idea to avoid Morgan at all costs.
Thankfully the ban didn’t last, for Morgan ranting at no one in particular or of much importance has limited appeal, and he was soon back scrutinising Hancock’s weird, half-sobbing response to the start of the vaccine programme and asking: “Do we believe this, viewers?”
If the BBC, afraid the government might tamper with the licence fee, have been too soft during the pandemic, then some might argue that Morgan was too tough. But he wasn’t.
On Good Morning Britain, he may have gone too far in his criticisms of Meghan Markle. He may have name-dropped about his famous friends, a legacy from his days on the Sun’s Bizarre column and the much-ridiculed arm-round-the-shoulder of soap sexpots and pop ponces (although the friendship with Donald Trump elapsed amid that nonsense about bleach).
He may have mentioned his local pub a lot and made you think, crikey, thank goodness I was never there when he was holding court. He may indeed have been a preening, pontificating provocateur. But on Covid he was the right man at the right time asking the right questions, and if you want another old ITV reference, often with Bernie the Bolt accuracy.
What a way to go as well. Almost as memorable as the TV exit of Oliver Reed, losing the argument with a feminist in a late-night discussion, staggering to his feet and announcing: “Right, I’m off for a slash.”