January 20, 2011 3:09 pm

Precious crumbs from the big woman’s table

CNN’s Piers Morgan manages to get tears and rich, news-making tidbits from Oprah Winfrey

The storyline of the comedy series Episodes (BBC1 Mondays) has a US channel boss wooing a British TV comedy writing couple to Hollywood because he loved their show (“Loved it? I want to have sex with your show!”) and thinks it will transplant. He has not, however, actually seen it: no time for that. It won prizes, was popular – enough already.

It would probably be wrong to think that CNN failed in such basic due diligence when it chose Piers Morgan to succeed Larry King in the channel’s premier interview slot (Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN Tuesday). They would know he rose through showbusiness journalism to edit the News of the World at the age of 28; that, as editor of the Daily Mirror a few years later, he narrowly escaped legal action when he bought tens of thousands of pounds worth of shares the day before his paper tipped them; and was fired for printing fake pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqis.

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John Lloyd

They would know, too, that he became an energetic interviewer of celebrities – mostly showbusiness, but the occasional politician if recognisable. He did a largely sympathetic interview with Gordon Brown a year ago, when the prime minister needed some sympathy and had been advised by Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications for Tony Blair, to be “utterly authentic” and allow people “sometimes to see the human side”. The TV presenter Melvyn Bragg recently praised it, saying Morgan got more from Brown than others. Truly: he got tears, when Brown spoke of the death of his first child. It is no disrespect to true grief to assume its outing was pre-planned: modern democratic politics increasingly demands such invasions, the invader invited in to massage the ducts.

Morgan – insistent, well-briefed, convinced of the importance of celebrity – often gets tears from his interviewees. He didn’t at first from Oprah Winfrey, but got something almost as precious – public approval. “Oh, you’re good,” she said, more than once, as he sought to get her to tear up over her relationship, persistently rumoured to be lesbian, with her friend Gayle King. She had, indeed, moistened on a Barbara Walters show last month, describing King as “the mother I never had ... the sister everybody would want”, a description that made the tears seem more of pity for herself than of love for her friend. In the end though, Piers did get tears, when he brought up Martin Luther King, America’s moral touchstone – and hers. She would not, she said, have become what she is without him, and moistened, once more with feeling, for herself.

The interest, which was considerable, was in seeing how “the biggest star in the world”, as Morgan self-flatteringly described her, presents herself. She is iron. Her description of her abused childhood, the loss of a child born to her at the age of 14, occasioned not a quiver. Marriage was not for her, even to her long-term partner Stedman Graham; children’s affection and gratitude come to her from the girls’ school she funds in South Africa. With her educational work, her book club, her exhortations to live well, she is not just a vast celebrity but the premier celebrity of upward mobility. Can’t you do it, if I can?

Morgan needed her for his own upward mobility. He has no story like hers: his professional career has been often disreputable; self-admiringly, he presented himself in one interview as “bombastic, rude, unbearable, [with] a whacking big ego”: the sleazeball you hate to love. “How many times have you been properly in love?” he asked Oprah. “Oh, you’re good! ‘Properly’ is good!” – and she told him the number, but no names.

Crumbs – precious, rich, news-making, yet crumbs from the big woman’s table all the same – but still big enough to give the boy a start. That was all, though.

As for Episodes – it doesn’t work. You can see (all too clearly) the mechanism – the witty, self-deprecating Brits, the over-hyping, semi-demented Californians – but somehow the comic clash rarely happens, and they slide past each other. For a series that does work, and which reassures us that US TV’s great creations go on and on, watch Breaking Bad (FX Wednesdays). The first series of this was shown two years ago. The story of a New Mexico science teacher, diagnosed with cancer, turning to drug manufacture and dealing to provide for a family his miserable salary can barely support, deploys comedy, pathos, social observation and horror and makes of it an American odyssey – yet another one, even better than the last.

In Too Big to Save? (BBC2 Tuesday), Robert Peston warned us that the banks, back to their old tricks even if with capital ratios raised a little, might at the next crisis crash so hard that states cannot rescue them. It had Peston’s great virtue, clarity – even if you’d thank him more for cheer.

By contrast, Horizon (What is Reality?, BBC2 Monday) was a headache. Roughly, I think it said that quantum theory came in to address the growing number of problems that Newtonian physics left unexplained, and has worked. But now it, too, is reaching its explanatory limit, and two large theories – that we exist in parallel worlds, and that the world is a hologram – jostle to prove themselves in the hands of scientists who say they don’t understand what they’re doing. If one does, we enter into a new age. This, too, is proving itself in the US. Mighty, even if semi-demented.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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