- by Steven McIntosh
- entertainment reporter
If a casual viewer of This Morning had turned on the show at any time last week, it is unlikely they would have noticed anything wrong.
Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby were presenting as usual, with the usual revolving door of celebrity guests balanced with regular items on cooking and consumer advice.
But viewers who had been following tabloid stories about an apparent behind-the-scenes feud between the presenters could tell something was up. There was less eye contact between the pair, less hand-touching, less general camaraderie.
The show we now know was Holly and Phil’s last week together, with viewers and media pundits watching with interest to see if the pair could leave any personal drama at the door and still give the impression of a friendship on screen.
However, by the end everyone involved knew that the headlines surrounding the increasingly strained relationship between the golden couple of daytime TV were becoming too distracting. When you are unable to convince the audience sitting at home about your authenticity, the whole show falls apart.
It’s worth remembering how great Scofield and Willoughby were before their relationship went off the rails. Great on-screen chemistry and a comfortable, affectionate relationship is definitely the dynamic needed on mid-morning television.
They regularly went viral for their tendency to crack down on accidents or sexual intimacy. One of his most famous corpses, when Gino D’Acampo tells Holly “If my grandma had wheels, she’d be a bike”, has garnered 12 million views on YouTube alone.
The audience loved it when the pair appeared the morning after the National Television Awards in 2016, apparently still intoxicated, having attended most of the night.
For all the air miles, Scofield and Willoughby were rarely involved in scandal. Scofield was deemed to have gone too far in 2012 when he presented then Prime Minister David Cameron with a list of alleged Orthodox pedophiles that he had found online.
But by and large, the two have maintained a healthy relationship for over a decade — which is no small feat. They brought up healthy looking figures, rarely bothered the apple cart, and even went on vacation together.
Last September the wheels began to come off on what became known as Q-Gate. When Holly and Phil visited Queen Elizabeth II’s bedchamber, many interpreted their actions as skipping a line outside for 20 hours.
The pair had technically done nothing wrong, they were allowed press access to the late Queen’s casket, just like hundreds of other journalists who had been that week.
But because they were two of the most famous faces to do so, Willoughby and Scofield suddenly had targets on their backs. When other stars like David Beckham dutifully queued outside, it didn’t look good.
Dame Caroline McCall, chief executive of ITV, admitted the whole affair had taken a toll on both. Scofield appeared to reference the backlash as he collected the Best of the Day trophy at the National Television Awards several weeks later, telling the crowd: “It means a lot to us every year, especially this year.”
Adverse headlines and gossip continued over the following months. There has been much speculation about Philip’s personal relationships since coming out as gay in 2020, and there has been no shortage of unfounded rumors about his separation from his wife.
But relations between ITV’s second most popular presenting pair really appeared to be turning sour in the early part of this year.
In April, Scofield’s brother was found guilty of sexually abusing a boy. According to reports, Willoughby was upset that her co-star had not warned her in advance about what Timothy Schofield was accused of or that the trial was coming.
Phillip Scofield had to take time off from presenting This Morning for the duration of the court case, which is always a risk in broadcasting. “Never go on vacation” is the motto in the media industry – if your cover presenter is more popular than you are.
Bear in mind that it’s rare to see one half of a successful presenting pair without the other. Although the two had hosted other shows without the other, they were pretty much a double act when it came to This Morning. They took their vacations at the same time, so viewers of the show either saw them together or didn’t see them at all.
Sure enough, the guest presenters who temporarily replaced Scofield were hugely popular with viewers. Alison Hammond worked particularly well with Willoughby, and it wasn’t long before fans were calling for them to host the show together permanently, sparking another flurry of media stories.
Those headlines may have put additional strain on the already fragile relationship between Schofield and Willoughby.
Last week, Scofield tried to move past the feud storyline by releasing a statement in which he acknowledged that the past few weeks “have not been easy for either of us”.
That was only one sentence in a statement that otherwise praised Willoughby’s hills (“Holly is my rock, we’re best of friends”, he also said), but it was the only sentence that mattered. It has been confiscated.
Willoughby was reportedly “blindsided” by the release of his statement, but remained silent. To this day, he has not acknowledged any deterioration in records, unlike Scofield. However, some journalists in some newspapers were curiously well aware of her feelings.
Other clues have also been found. Willoughby recently changed his Twitter bio to remove a previous reference to Schofield, who introduced him to the platform. Stories appeared in the tabloids claiming that she had made it clear to the bosses that she would like to stay on the program if Schofield was to exit.
Up to this point, the writing was on a simulated digital background of Thames.
It’s telling that Scofield has been the one to leave, rather than Willoughby. After all, they are a 50/50 partnership. If a double act has to be broken up, why should Scofield automatically go in?
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps one of the most important is their respective ages. Scofield is 61, Willoughby is 42. This is a hugely important factor in the world of broadcast and talent management.
Given his older age, it is likely that Scofield will be seen as nearing the end of his career, and therefore may be less of a priority for TV networks to hang onto.
Willoughby, on the other hand, is two decades younger, and far more ripe for poaching by other TV networks. She herself is very well connected to the TV industry having hosted several shows for the network including the first two seasons of The Voice UK on BBC One.
Her husband, Dan Baldwin, is a well-known TV producer whose company Hungry Bears is behind big hits like Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel. At a time when Willoughby was clearly unhappy this morning, keeping him sweet must have been a high priority for ITV bosses in an effort to prevent him going to a rival broadcaster.
Having said that, ITV would ideally like to keep Schofield as well. The broadcaster was at pains to say in its statement on Saturday that it will still host the British Soap Awards in June, as well as a new peak-time series on the channel.
When The Jeremy Kyle Show was pulled from the ITV airwaves in 2019 following the death of a guest, bosses filled the gap in the schedule by giving an extra half hour to Good Morning Britain and an extra half hour to This Morning.
Schofield and Willoughby’s viewing figures vary between 500,000 and one million depending on all sorts of factors – the time of year, the day’s content, the weather outside. Many viewers would rather dip in and out than watch the full three hours, which means it’s hard to make a broad statement about any ups or downs.
Nonetheless, there were some headlines about a decline in viewing figures of around 100,000 in the last week, which was disputed by many media outlets. In fact, all ITV daytime shows including Lorraine and Loose Women went down last week, possibly the effect of the sunshine.
But network chiefs would be aware that the likely direction of travel for This Morning was downward, and were keen to prevent any further decline. The show relies on advertising and sponsorships to keep it afloat.
Now all eyes will be on who is appointed as Scofield’s permanent replacement to see if he can forge a solid relationship with Willoughby. Ultimately this will save the show.