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27 September 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

The double act that changed Britain

The Today programme has far too much shouting. Instead, watch Richard and Judy, who really

By Suzanne Moore

So Cherie Blair did good on Richard and Judy. She was warm, earthy and charming. She plugged her book and people took to her, and I am not in the least bit surprised. If I had been Cherie’s media adviser (another of new Labour’s wasted opportunities), instead of those nameless individuals who decided early on that she must be publicly gagged, I would have had her on Richard and Judy the day after new Labour won the election. Why? Because Richard and Judy is where it’s at.

The metropolitan elite, the chattering classes, or whatever we now call the unthinking cultural snobs of this world, have taken notice of this show only lately because of the phenomenal success of its book club. Gosh, people read books and discuss them in fairly intelligent ways on television and – astonishingly – book sales rise! How can this be? Aren’t all those who watch daytime TV somewhat retarded? Students, “housewives”, old people?

Well, no. For a start, all TV, with the exception of the odd drama and documentary, is essentially daytime TV. Every make-over show originates from daytime; every expert giving advice on buying property, handbags or decking exists because these leisure pursuits were pursued by programmes that first went out in the daytime. What Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan offer is a unique combination of interviews, discussions, reports and daft quizzes. In their own inimitable way they have, over the years, touched on most taboo subjects. They are as happy celebrating a gay marriage as they are discussing Richard’s vasectomy and Judy’s irregular ovulations.

Add to this mix a seriously all-star line-up of interviewees, and you may begin to understand their success. They get the big Hollywood stars, from Tom Hanks to Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz to Jennifer Lopez. They have had Hillary and Bill Clinton on their couch – separately, of course. Anyone who is a media player turns up, too. Nigella has been a guest, as has Bob Geldof.

The accusation always levelled against the couple is that they are sycophantic and won’t ask tough questions. This is to underestimate them – and the genre in which they operate. We have reached a situation where we have the hard men v the “soft” sofa; that is, the confrontational Jeremy Paxman/John Humphrys-type interrogation v a more chatty approach from the likes of Richard and Judy. Much as I enjoy the entertainment value of the hard men, I am beginning to wonder how often it produces the desired result: answers to questions. What it seems to have produced instead are ministers who simply refuse to be interviewed, or bruiser types such as John Reid and Charles Clarke, whose very existence depends on their ability to defend the indefensible at some God-awful hour on the Today programme.

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Yes, I am well aware that not listening to the Today programme is heresy, but there is too much shouting and no music. I remember once saying this to Andrew Marr when he was editing the Independent. He looked at me as if I was from another planet. Perhaps I am. And it is a planet that doesn’t have Westminster at its centre.

Richard and Judy also represent this other planet. I have no idea of their personal politics beyond their obvious social liberalism, which seems to me a quintessential modern British characteristic. It doesn’t matter where their viewers are coming from – what they get with Richard and Judy is really the thing that new Labour promised but never actually delivered: social inclusion. Most subjects, from incest to gay adoption to flower arranging to modern art, can be brought inside their tent. That is why the book club has been such a success. It is not lowbrow, but features celebs and ordinary readers discussing books in an intelligent manner.

This is not the showy discourse of Newsnight Review, in which panellists exhibit their knowledge rather than their passion for literature; it is a discussion that viewers feel they can join in. When Bonnie Greer and Bob Geldof discussed Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, Geldof called it “a masterpiece”. That night sold out of copies.

Not all the books are easy reads, by any means. Richard and Judy often disagree about books themselves – but the show is said to have made nearly two million people buy books and the publishers are thrilled. What the show has also done is blur the boundaries between commercial and literary fiction. Indeed, blurring boundaries is this couple’s speciality. What can be discussed publicly is an argument that is being had within the programme itself, as with Richard champing at the bit to give us too much information about Judy’s hysterectomy.

The essential element of their success is to do with their relationship. He is younger than she is, and looks it. He is often quite mad: his conversations go off at a tangent and he rarely stops talking about himself. Who else, while interviewing Bill Clinton, would explain that he knew what Clinton must have felt like when he was accused of lying about Monica Lewinsky because he had once been falsely accused, too? That Clinton had indeed been lying, and that the charges against Richard – stealing soap powder and wine from Tesco’s in Didsbury – were in a different league, did not seem to enter Richard’s head. Researchers on the show are said to have a file called Richard’s Stupid Ideas; this is quite remarkable, as he appears to blurt them out anyway.

Judy is far more grounded, yet she is always portrayed by impressionists, from Avid Merrion to Ronni Ancona, as a trembling wreck. She is far from that; she is genuinely curious about her guests and often visibly irritated by her husband. But she has that magical quality of being able to react spontaneously on TV. She cries when viewers phone in with sad stories, but she can weep with laughter with someone such as Rob Brydon. Here is a Botox-free post-menopausal woman, one of the highest earners and most powerful people in TV. What is it about this that causes such viciousness? You tell me. Critics whisper that Richard must be gay: Victor Lewis-Smith of the London Evening Standard said recently they look like mother and son. Viewers, on the other hand, see a complicated relationship full of bickering as well as affection.

It’s no coincidence that two of the most embarrassing moments on television have been produced by these two: Richard’s mind-bogglingly awful Ali G impression, which left viewers cringing; and the moment when Judy’s top fell down and showed her bra at the 2000 National Television Awards ceremony.

What is especially fascinating, though, is the picture of Britain that can be glimpsed in this show. Liberal, tolerant, family-loving, aspirational but not in a purely materialistic way, it is a Britain that enjoys glamour and celebrity yet is not overawed by it. It thinks it better to talk things out than keep them bottled up. It is in two minds about cosmetic surgery, but thinks people should make the best of themselves. It watches The Office as well as Coronation Street. It would like to be friends with its teenage kids. It believes in marriage – for everyone, gay or straight – but accepts that divorce is common. It is pro-choice on abortion, but acknowledges the difficulties. It wants to be in the know about culture. It regards itself as classless.

In short, it is a Britain that has moved on socially in ways that the political classes fail to understand. The audience of Richard and Judy cannot be easily stereotyped by the old categories of political allegiance but, yes, it may feature those elusive women of Middle England. We hear a lot about winning hearts and minds these days. Anyone who wants to appeal to the electorate needs to win the hearts and minds of Richard and Judy‘s viewers, because they rule.

Forget the Today programme. If I was Gordon Brown, I’d be on that sofa tomorrow.