Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'Susanna thought I was absolutely horrific at the start... but she really is truly brilliant'

Love him or loathe him, Piers Morgan is an unmissable part of morning television with seemingly every one of his interviews making the headlines. Polly Vernon spends a morning in the presenter's inflammatory company

It's 6.30am and I'm in the gallery of the Good Morning Britain studio watching legions of coffee-addled professionals attempt to keep Piers Morgan on the rails. Morgan - Twitter provocateur, close friend of Donald Trump, the country's most unruly TV anchorman - is live and on-screen, capable of doing anything between now and the 8.30am end credits. Only the ultra-sharp put downs of co-host Susanna Reid and the messages the gallery relays to Morgan through the earpiece (which he might remove at any moment) can stop him.

Right now, for example, he is asking Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions - who is on the show to discuss a rise in the reporting of sexual harassment - how she would feel if he wolf-whistled her… Ah, but it's okay! Saunders is blushing and saying she'd rather like it.

Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain is a challenging proposition. You can't work out if you want to cringe, laugh or scream at the screen or smack yourself because you just agreed with that last thing Morgan said. It is exhausting, exhilarating and embarrassing, and viewers adore it. He is currently on a three-week break until next week and people have been wondering online where he is.

Since Morgan joined in October 2015, the show's audience share has risen 24% (it now regularly peaks with 1 million viewers).

I ask him why when the show is finished. The two of us sit on a sofa to the side of the studio. He's taking up a lot of it, one of those rare celebrities who isn't smaller in real life.

He is 52 years old, 6ft 1in, broad-shouldered and tubby - though less tubby than he was (he's got a £5,000 weight-loss bet on with his pseudo arch nemesis, Lord Sugar, over who can lose the most weight by the finale of The Apprentice in December).

He is booming, brash, a shameless example of that raddled old cliche about masculinity: the alpha male. I first met him 11 years ago when he was living in LA, reinventing himself as a judge on America's Got Talent, having been sacked from his editorship of the Daily Mirror in 2004 after publishing fake photographs purporting to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. I liked him immediately, even though one's not supposed to. Piers Morgan is all those awful things you think - but he's also funny, fun, generous and game. Also, by all accounts, a natural on breakfast TV.

"What you've got to remember is, it's theatre," he tells me. "If it's serious news, if it's trivial nonsense. We're basically in a theatre and you want to make everything revealing, dramatic, entertaining."

This would, I guess, account for the on-screen scrap he had the day before with George Monbiot, writer and environmental activist, who was on the show to promote veganism (Morgan pointed out he was wearing a leather watch strap), or the time Ewan McGregor pulled out of an appearance last minute because Morgan was hosting.

Morgan promptly turned McGregor's no-show into a story in its own right. No one, Morgan tells me, is more surprised than he to find himself doing this. "Never appealed to me. I thought the hours would be completely brutal. And they are." He was originally asked to fill in on GMB for a brief week in 2015. "Helen Warner, who was running daytime, rang and said: 'Would you consider a week?' I said: 'I'd rather shoot myself,' which would have been ironic, given my gun stance. Then I thought about it, said: 'What can go wrong for a week?'"

What indeed?

"Within one hour, we had to issue a first apology for my behaviour, which led to an Ofcom ruling. We had a French guy and he kept saying something that sounded like the F word, only we thought it was a French word - but it wasn't. And I kept laughing."

Much of the awful, compulsive brilliance of GMB is derived from the unusual dynamic Morgan shares with co-host, Susanna Reid.

The pair tease, snip, snipe, fall out and fall back in again, like raucous siblings. Did their relationship show instant promise?

"No! She thought I was absolutely horrific. This beast comes in, cracking terrible jokes. She was very much queen bee on breakfast TV for a long time, I was very alpha male, and when you're putting an alpha male and a queen been ear each other... let the entertainment begin."

Morgan's week of filling-in evolved into a three-day-a-week commitment, and two years later - having enamoured himself to Reid ("my jokes, she now gets") and negotiated with ITV so that he might roll into the studios at 5.30am rather than at 4.15am with everyone else - he has just signed up for another year.

Are they paying him extortionate amounts? "They pay me what I'm worth."

Which is?

"A lot."

More than Reid?

"I have no idea what she's paid. I don't think it would matter to her even if she found that I was being paid more, because she, I think, would be the first to accept that I've slightly redone the wheel here. I bring a completely different kind of feel. I think she's truly brilliant, worth every penny ITV gives her, but I don't know what that is."

Does he fancy her?

"Of course. Who doesn't?"

Does he think Reid secretly fancies him back?

"Absolutely not."

Morgan has a complicated relationship with women. I've never had any doubt he likes us; and not just because he's a fan of our aesthetic. Heaven knows, he is: in his first week at Good Morning Britain, co-presenter Kate Garraway reminded him live on air that when she'd married lobbyist Derek Draper, Morgan had sent a wedding message saying: 'If I'd known the bar was set so low, I'd have had a crack myself!' Yet at the same time: the first time I interviewed him, he told me he thought women make better journalists, and he's proud of how many he employed as a newspaper editor.

"I think I'm an absolute feminist!" he tells me now. "I've only had battles with the more radical end of feminists over stuff like The (2017) Women's March, which wasn't a genuine march for equality but just Trump bashing." Right, I say, but Trump advocates the grabbing of women by the p****…

"I just felt (The Women's March) didn't advance women's equality one iota."

Who wears the trousers in his marriage (his second, to the writer Celia Walden, mother of his five-year-old daughter, Elise)? "She does!"

He romps through some of the big political and cultural stories of the day. "Opinions are my job," he says. The Weinstein revelations have just broken - Morgan, who has known Weinstein for years, swears he had no idea.

"I knew he had a temper, but not this".

The Las Vegas shootings are barely two weeks old. Morgan is passionate about gun control. He covered the Dunblane shootings in 1996 while at the Mirror, "the single worst story I ever covered, I had reporters ringing me in tears".

In 2012, while he was hosting his own nightly CNN news show, Piers Morgan Tonight, in the US, he became vocal about reducing gun access in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings - a stance widely believed to have contributed to the cancelling of that show in 2014. How does he square that passion with his friendship with the US President, who is doing nothing to reform gun control laws? "I've got lots of friends with different points of persuasion. I've got family who are far more right wing than Trump. It doesn't mean I disown them." Morgan met Donald Trump in 2007 when he won the US Celebrity Apprentice, which Trump judged.

"Trump has always been someone I would consider a friend, who I've known for 10 years and speak to at least every three weeks."

Even now?

"No, because he's the President. I get the odd note from him."

What did the last one say? "Come and see me."

What form does a missive from Potus take? Text? WhatsApp? Does he slide into Morgan's DMs? "He prints things out, either stuff he's read or if you send him an email, it's printed out and he writes on it. Handwritten notes, which they scan and email back."

That's actually… sweet.

"I wouldn't have voted for him," he says.

Would he have voted for Hillary Clinton? "No. I don't like Hillary. Joe Biden's my kind of politics. Trump, I do like him personally. He was very loyal to me when I left CNN. He rang me a few times just to check I was okay. The number of people that did that in America, you can count on one hand. They move on - bang, you're out of there, you're gone. Trump was good."

I wonder what kind of a father Piers Morgan is. He has three sons by his first marriage, to Marion Shalloe: Spencer, a journalist; Stanley, a Lamda drama student; and Albert, "my youngest (boy), who's at boarding school. We'll talk for hours about all his problems and he'll emote to me to his heart's content".

Which Morgan is fine with, "between me and him. If he was doing it in public, I'd feel slightly uncomfortable, I'd say: 'Come on, mate.' I watched Prince Harry and Prince William, and they're very admirable guys and I get why they're doing this, but they never stop! At some point, this public emoting, it has a slight limitation to it".

Stanley, meanwhile, "voted Corbyn. He said: 'Father, you missed the Corbyn surge,' as he drove to Tooting to cast his vote. I went: 'What's the Corbyn surge?' He went: 'You'll find out tomorrow.'"

How do his kids feel about their father's bullish public persona - not to mention all the flak he gets? "I always say to them, if you get stick for stuff I've said, you should simply make the point that you are not me, you might have been created partly by me, but…"

He tells me that nights at his Kensington home with Celia are characterised by the two of them sitting around; him tweeting, her telling him to stop.

"Celia doesn't get Twitter, but I don't get her obsession with eBay. I'll be tweeting and she'll be outbidding herself on 13 dresses, and I'll be like: 'You are aware of the irony of you saying I'm addicted to this stuff?'"

I ask him if his experience of now being a father to a girl is different. "God, yeah. You feel massively more protective. She goes to a little school, and the boys with curly hair, the taller ones, the cocky ones, you're like: 'You may only be six but already I'm parking you in the 'watch at all costs' category.'"

We wind down. It's nearly 10am, Morgan wants to go back to bed, and frankly - having been up since 4am - so do I. I have one last question. Given that he has already screwed up/been sacked from two jobs of a lifetime - the editorship of the Mirror, and the CNN show - does he think he's inevitably going to screw this up, too?

"Screw what up?" he asks.

I nod over at the empty Good Morning Britain desk.

"This," I say.

Morgan sighs, looks at the desk, then back at me, and laughs. "Probably," he says.

Good Morning Britain is on ITV weekdays, 6-8.30am. Serial Killer with Piers Morgan, the final instalment of ITV's Crimeand Punishment season, airs on November 16 at 9pm

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