OPINION - Holly and Phil have failed TV’s authenticity test and driven the public mad

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

The careers of Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield of This Morning seem to be hanging by a thread.

Of course the British viewing public like nothing more than monitoring the cracks in a strained professional relationship — this, after all, is mainly what keeps us interested in the royals. And daytime TV, like the monarchy, is deeply dependent on the chemistry between the two leads.

This Morning has lost a hundred thousand viewers in a week. Why? In a word it has become inauthentic. This, it turns out, is the worst crime in daytime TV. Viewers can tell Phil and Holly are no longer friends. Their relationship now seems “fake” — a truly dreaded word in television.

New viewers who tuned in yesterday — the schadenfreude crowd — would not have been disappointed. It was awkward. Schofield was too keen, agreeing with everything, and gazing unrequitedly at Willoughby. She, on the other hand, wasn’t keen enough. Every instinct was clearly screaming at her to direct passive aggression and blank froideur at Schofield. Her instincts won.

Willoughby tried to compromise with a few insincere-looking smiles but the camaraderie just wasn’t there. The show almost seemed to have changed genres: from the cosy comfort of daytime into the vicious voyeurism of reality. No longer background chatter while doing the ironing, this was live slow-motion car-crash TV.

The reported rift between the two might have started in several places. The juiciest speculation highlights the pair “jumping the queue” to see the Queen lying in state. While thousands waited their turn, Holly and Phil breezed in, VIP style. In vain, editors protested that they had been sent to cover it in a journalistic capacity. Then, last month, Schofield’s brother was convicted of sexual offences against a child. Phil disowned him and took a break from TV for a few weeks. Rumours circulate that Willoughby was offended not to have been informed by Phil earlier.

Yes, there is nothing more satisfying than the crunchy, brittle veneer of a TV marriage giving way to the delicious dysfunction underneath. Particularly daytime TV hosts, who trade on their relatability. When they reveal themselves to be mere professionals performing relatability — on unrelatable pay cheques — this strikes us as being a deep betrayal.

It’s a strange thing, that we demand authenticity from those we pay to be on TV. That is the real problem for This Morning’s producers: what once struck viewers as “real” about Holly and Phil — a reflection of their off-camera feelings — instead strikes them as fake. The idea that the two were “forcing” a relationship “for the cameras” has dominated the criticism. Competing presenters have accused them of seeming to be like actors, while simultaneously praising them for their “professionalism”.

This is odd, when you think about it. If Willoughby and Schofield had previously assumed they were paid for their experience or professional skill, this past week will have disabused them of that notion. They are our creatures and we will be both furious and perversely delighted if they do not play nicely.

Seeming to be professional — being able to keep the show on the road despite apparently detesting each other — now undermines our trust in them. We don’t want Holly and Phil to act as though they are friends. We want them to actually be friends.

This is a tricky thing on which to found a career. In fact, it leads us to a paradox. Can you really have an authentic friendship if your salary depends on it? Holly and Phil are paid for the (now rather difficult) task of selling the performance of liking each other. While not seeming to perform it or sell it.

These kinds of jobs are on the rise — the career of influencer depends on selling your personality without appearing to be aware of it — and the paradox goes all the way down. Success depends on being relatable and authentic. Yet success itself undermines that. That was the real issue we had with Holly and Phil “jumping the queue”. We found the idea that they considered themselves VIPs deeply irritating. Was it possible that their accessible vibe was manufactured for the cameras?

Of course the jolly relationship between presenters is always fake. Holly and Phil have never quite seemed genuine. But if they want to recover their careers, they will have to start faking a friendship in real life too.