Interview: Richard Madeley And Judy Finnegan Hard At Work On Book Club, And Their Own Books
"Our friends are all completely down to earth, and we don't hang out on red carpets. We have our best times when we're away from big cities and having a go at being creative."
So says Richard Madeley, one half of arguably still the most easily recognised pair of British faces after two decades' conquest of daytime television. He's explaining why, these days, the perfect afternoon is spent a long, long way from the box.
He and his wife Judy Finnegan are sitting side by side on a sofa in a London hotel, with all three keeping a bemused eye on the TV screen as 'Hack-gate' continues to unfold before us, and we all ooh and aah with glee. But they both tell me they're actually at their happiest curled up in one of their summer retreats, either in the South of France or Cornwall, with their noses deep in books under consideration for their Autumn Book Club 2011.
Back when they were the nearest our television audiences had to a joint version of Oprah Winfrey in terms of reach and influence, it was fitting that Richard and Judy's TV book club would become as central to the pursuit of this country's perfect summer read as that of Ms Winfrey in the US. It is testament to their enduring appeal that, despite their no longer being regular small screen fixtures, WH Smith have committed to an enduring partnership with them at the forefront of their campaign to keep the nation reading and their book sales healthy.
For Richard and Judy, this recent incarnation of their book club away from the demands of daily telly schedules has meant the time to read a much wider variety of books from further up the decision process and feel more clued in on the selections.
"We're both non-stop readers," Richard explains, "so it's far more satisfying to go through all the books properly. We generally find that we both agree on what works, what doesn't, but it's nice to have the time to check."
With this opportunity comes the responsibility, too, of playing literary god. The eventual winning writer will undoubtedly enjoy a meteoric rise in fame and sales, and the couple remain all too aware of the weight of their high-profile patronage.
"It weighs heavily," says Judy, "knowing there are so many great books out there looking for a readership, and realising there are only so many we can pick. That's definitely the toughest part of the job, having to take one off the final pile."
This feeling is particularly potent, with both familiar themselves with the rollercoaster emotions that accompany the challenge of completing a book. They co-wrote their own autobiography nearly a decade ago and Richard's first solely-penned tome, a memoir of his childhood named Fathers And Sons, was greeted with unexpected praise when it came out 2008, although much media attention inevitably focused on his frank descriptions of the abuse he suffered at his father's hands, something he reflects on today with impressive equanimity.
"I'm often asked if writing the book was cathartic. The truth is I loved my father very much - he was a rich, complex man - and I forgave him the day he apologised to me, one day after the final beating, so I had no more work to do. It may sound trite, although more experienced writers will know it's not, but there were actually far more technical challenges - writing a book covering that extended period - that intimidated me, not dealing with my feelings for my father. That was far, far behind me."
Richard is now chewing on his next book, a novel, but is much more ready to salute Judy's writing aspirations. While she stays quiet and dismissive about her efforts, her husband is swift to point out she has a two-book deal, and is actually working harder than ever.
They are incredibly tanned after a summer abroad, relaxed and chatty, both very aware of the good fortune of their position - facing the classic mid-life challenge of creative self-expression, within a framework of more public projects of their choosing. For Richard, this has included a natural fit as a regular stand-in on Radio 2, most recently and successfully for Chris Evans' high-profile breakfast show, as well as being the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? - to be broadcast later this month.
Judy, meanwhile, is quite adamant that she isn't bothered if she never steps inside a TV studio again.
Their daughter Chloe is following her parents into the spotlight, stepping onto the rink for Dancing On Ice, and into the arms of skater Sam Attwater (they have recently separated). So do her parents worry about her future life in a precarious industry, and the column inches, press attention and criticism she will inevitably attract?
Richard is upbeat: "I have no concerns for her at all. She knows who she is, we know who she is, I just want her to have as much fun as possible along the way.
While Judy, ever more circumspect, has more pressing maternal concerns than that of any off-screen scrutiny: "I do want her to enjoy herself, but it's not a secure profession financially, so I just hope she makes the right choices."
Meanwhile, what of the press attention hoisted on themselves over the years, during which they've had more than their fair share of barbs? Both realise, having done their own time in newsrooms before becoming familiar faces themselves, and as a married couple working together on air, that they are fair game.
Judy reflects, "We're very fortunate. We're a strong unit, so I really don't worry any more about what might or might not get written. We're what we appear to be, so there's no ticking time-bomb that I sit and worry about. The day I realised it all came with the territory, I became a lot happier."
Richard signs off succinctly: "And, of course, if you take yourself too seriously in this industry, you're f***ed."