To say This Morning has had a terrible year would be a ridiculous understatement. In the space of a few months, the show managed to lose both of its hosts; one to a sex scandal, the other to a full-blown murder plot. Dark mutterings of toxic workplaces and dereliction of care have followed the entire operation around ever since (though they deny these). As such, the show is desperate to get us to talk about literally anything else. And this might explain why today’s episode was co-hosted by the Duchess of York.
Is Sarah Ferguson an experienced television presenter? No she is not. Does Sarah Ferguson look as if she has ever watched a single episode of daytime television in her life? Also no. Can Sarah Ferguson read full sentences? On the basis of her performance today, it’s debatable. Did the whole thing stink of a publicity stunt designed purely to drown out the show’s obvious death rattle? God, yes.
On the plus side, the episode was a lot less cosy than usual, although it’s hard to say how much of this was intentional. After all, if your television programme has already been tainted by a sex scandal, you might as well embrace the darkness and hire a woman with links to a dead billionaire paedophile. The show, ostensibly guest-edited by Ferguson herself, seemed to delight in putting the duchess in sticky situations, too. Early on, the subject of King Charles came up, to which Ferguson babbled, “They’re very kind. Both of them. Such nice people,” despite the existence of the Mirror headline “Prince Andrew fears King Charles will ‘cut off power to force him out’ of 30-bed home” six months ago.
Even the softballs threw her. As an aside, she was asked what Christmas dinners are like at Buckingham Palace and, suddenly gripped by an existential terror, Ferguson blurted out such an abstract stream of consciousness that Gyles Brandreth had to slip in and ease her back down to earth.
Along the way she was also tripped up by the more basic elements of TV presenting. The autocue in particular seemed to be her worst enemy. At one point she jumped in one line early, stomping over Dermot O’Leary to ask herself a question. During another, she got a comma mixed up with a full stop and temporarily short-circuited herself. During a chat with a TV chef, a sentence finished much earlier than she was expecting it to, and she just left it dangling in the air like a spent piñata. The autocue ruined the poor woman’s cadences and, given her tendency to overcompensate with physical gestures, this meant she often came off like Christopher Walken learning semaphore.
And yet, despite everything – despite her utter ineptitude, and the horrible weight of grubbiness she dragged along with her – there was something weirdly endearing about Ferguson’s stint in front of camera. Part of this was just the absolute guilelessness of it all. At times we were watching a member of the royal family do completely normal things for the very first time, and having her mind completely blown by them. She watched a man cook spaghetti carbonara in the same way that people watch David Blaine do magic tricks, because she’d never seen anyone cook it before. During the daily Spin to Win competition, she was in charge of spinning the wheel and for a moment looked utterly puzzled. “Is this the first time you’ve ever spun a wheel?” asked Alison Hammond. “It IS!” cried the duchess, unable to believe her incredible luck at being given such a role.
This permanent sense of chaos rolled over into the phone-in segment, throughout which the prospect of ambush lingered heavy in the air. The subject was ostensibly that Ferguson would fix the love lives of her viewers, but she only took two calls, and her solution to both was to suggest that each caller should buy sexier underwear.
Clearly, the heroes here are Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary, two exceptionally safe pairs of hands, who managed to guide Ferguson through the show the same way you help a drunk friend safely through their front door. Hammond and O’Leary were perfect foils to the duchess throughout, and this stupid attention-seeking act would have fallen apart in seconds without them.
Let’s be clear, getting Sarah Ferguson on to host This Morning was a very silly idea. None of it made for good, or even very competent, television. But it did give you the same sort of thrill as you got at school whenever a dog broke through the fence and started running around the playing field. For a show that’s in as much trouble as This Morning is, it just about counts as a victory.
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