An empathetic interview with the Sussexes by Tom Bradby made headlines worldwide. He talks to Susannah Butter about insomnia, his friends Harry and Meghan, and writing the sex scenes for his latest spy novel
Tom Bradby has reported from war zones, conducted sensitive and seismic interviews with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and as well as presenting ITV's News at Ten for five years, hosted its election night show which last week was nominated for a Bafta. He speaks so openly about the three months in 2018 when he was signed off work with insomnia that people come up to him in the street, asking him for advice about their own mental health. The only time Bradby (53) is flustered during our interview is when he is talking about writing the sex scenes in his new novel, Double Agent, the second in a trilogy. It is told from the point of view of Kate, an MI6 officer who is told the prime minister is a Russian agent.
"It's definitely interesting writing a sex scene from a female point of view as a man," he says warily. "You think, erm, okay, this could go wrong." Right on cue his wife Claudia, a jewellery designer, comes into their Hampshire home and waves in the background of our FaceTime call. "My wife would have a view on whether it was cringeworthy and tell me, 'Woah, there's no way you're writing that.'"
Bradby is dressed down in a navy T-shirt. His wife has cut his hair, which attracted a lot of comments on Twitter. Is it better than his colleague Robert Peston's? "That's a whole other story. But I've found doing my own make-up hilarious. I don't have a future as a make-up artist." He's finding socially distant work challenging. Presenting the first Brexit story in months, he realised he was even "nostalgic for the time that was all we had to worry about ... You can't have a laugh with a colleague at two metres' distance. Being distanced is just not how we've been brought up to behave."
At the same time, his job has never mattered more. "In the 30 years I've been at ITN it's never felt so important. There are the usual things: holding the Government to account, telling the truth, trying to give context and analysis. You have a lot of people at home, anxious, wanting information. It matters that it's not relentless doom and gloom. This is the greatest crisis of my lifetime but if there is potential for something hopeful, we want to let people know."
It has even changed how we see the royal family. "The Queen nailed the mood at the beginning with her address to the nation, but this isn't a crisis where people are thinking about the royals - they're thinking about not getting ill, keeping their jobs. We just want to know what the hell we should do."
The royal family have been remarkably open with Bradby since he interviewed an 18-year-old Harry about his mother. Bradby was a guest at his wedding to Meghan, although he forgot the second anniversary of that "lovely day" last month.
The clip of Meghan saying "I'm not okay" in his 2019 documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey was viewed more than 23 million times.
He says his mental health problems changed how he approached speaking to them. His wife advised him on the tone when he was struggling with it; she told him to just be human.
"Harry and Meghan have had a tumultuous time," he says. "Everyone needs a break, including me. It was a psychologically complex journey making the documentary. I hope they are fine. I know a fair amount of people involved and it wasn't easy for them. They've taken a big step and made it clear they want a different life. Good luck to them."
He's writing the third book in the trilogy at the moment "and it's such lovely escapism". Writing a female character came easily: "I was very close to my mother. I'm an only child and my father was away a lot, so the female perspective felt natural. And the story seemed more interesting told by a woman - Kate is in that squeezed generation, looking after her mother and her teenage children but also doing this epically important job dealing with national security. She's pulled in different directions."
He acknowledges that "I couldn't have had the career I've had if my wife hadn't been willing to allow me to disappear at the drop of a hat and pick up the domestic slack".
What does he think can be done to support women at work?
"We're heading to a world that's essentially the Danish model," he says, adding a caveat, "I haven't spent that much time in Denmark but everything will be easier when it is 50/50 in the workplace.
"The MeToo backlash made me angry - people said things were different then and I thought, no, that's absolute bollocks. It's just that men got away with more and were in a more dominant position. We as a sex are getting our comeuppance finally."
Bradby wrote the first book about Kate, Secret Service, in that frenetic period before he was signed off work. "Reading it now, it's clear to me that Kate then had a fevered state of mind and is heading for a dangerous cliff edge. That was happening in my life but I didn't have the self-knowledge to see I'd effectively created an alter ego with Kate."
He went through three months of "hard work" seeing his psychiatrist every week. "You go into it spectacularly ignorant, otherwise you wouldn't have had the crisis, and you have to shut down some of your operating systems and reboot them, totally transforming your life. You come out very different."
Online yoga classes with YouTube phenomenon Adriene five times a day "brought my body down from its permanent state of high alert".
"I was flooded with adrenaline and cortisone, so depleted and with a sense of nameless dread I couldn't shake. I'd come out of a session and feel that high agitation had gone. Let's say you have a boss you don't get on with; you'll pump yourself full of chemicals as if you're dealing with a threat but there is no physical threat. That's where yoga helps."
It was the death of his mother, a teacher, of liver cancer in 2012, and then his father in 2016 of a heart attack, that triggered his insomnia. "I don't know if it's because I'm an only child but I was wrestling with the big questions of life and if you spend your whole life worrying about what threat is going to come tomorrow, you can't."
He draws a parallel with Covid. "This pandemic has stripped our collective sense of security. We all want to feel physically, emotionally and financially secure; this is a big hammer blow to that."
Before he was signed off, his achievements never felt enough. "You sweat massively that your book is on the bestseller list, then the next time you sweat that it's going to be number one. You spend most of your life thinking about outcomes rather than the journey."
Bradby faced risk daily as a foreign correspondent, and was injured in the leg by a rocket flare while covering riots in Jakarta in 1999 - "just like in my favourite film about journalism, The Year of Living Dangerously, which made me decide to be a foreign correspondent. I remember thinking, why is Mel Gibson's journalist character leaving Jakarta, he's getting to the key, then when I was shot I understood." Bradby realises that it was hard on his wife and three children: "I had a family and I couldn't sell running off to dangerous places as responsible."
There are seven in the household, including two of his children's partners, and they have a strict cooking and cleaning rota. Bradby is a newly enthusiastic chef and trying Ottolenghi recipes.
Every morning since he became ill he's drunk goat's milk kefir. "I'm not saying it's the elixir of life and I won't get Covid," he smiles. "But the biome of your stomach matters and I haven't had any physical illness since I was off."
He tries not to drink alcohol on days he's working. "It's easier if you just have a rule that you don't, even if you're tempted by a whisky, then I tend to slightly overdo it on days I'm off."
Being in lockdown with his family has been one good thing about the pandemic. "I feel for my children who are back from university, their lives are on hold indefinitely. I think I've enjoyed being locked down with my children more than they have. My life isn't that different, I still go to work."
Double Agent by Tom Bradby, Bantam Press, £12.99