If a casual viewer of This Morning had turned on the show at any point last week, it is unlikely they would have noticed anything was wrong.
Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby were presenting as normal, with the usual revolving door of celebrity guests balanced with regular items on cooking and consumer advice.
But viewers who had been following the 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 arm-touching, less general camaraderie.
On Saturday, Schofield announced he would be leaving the show after 20 years – referring directly to the “very difficult last few days”.
The show had limped on throughout what we now know was Holly and Phil’s last week together, as viewers and media pundits watched with interest to see if the pair could leave any personal drama at the door and still give the appearance of friendship on screen.
However, in the end everybody involved knew the headlines surrounding the increasingly strained relationship between the daytime TV’s golden couple were becoming too much of a distraction. When you can’t convince the viewers at home of your authenticity, the whole show crumbles.
It is worth remembering how great Schofield and Willoughby were together before their relationship went off the rails. Excellent on-screen chemistry and an easy, affectionate relationship is precisely the dynamic needed on mid-morning television.
They regularly went viral for their propensity to crack up at mishaps or sexual innuendo. One of their most famous corpses, when Gino D’Acampo told Holly “if my grandmother had wheels, she would’ve been a bike”, has 12 million views on YouTube alone.
Viewers loved it when the pair showed up, apparently still drunk, the morning after the National Television Awards in 2016, having partied most of the night.
For all the air miles they clocked up, Schofield and Willoughby were involved in scandals only occasionally. In 2012 when Schofield was deemed to have gone too far by presenting then-prime minister David Cameron with a list of alleged Conservative paedophiles he had found online.
But broadly speaking, the duo maintained a healthy relationship for well over a decade – which is no mean feat. They brought in healthy viewing figures, rarely upset the apple cart, and even went on holiday together.
The wheels began to come off as early as last September with what became known as queue-gate. When Holly and Phil visited Queen Elizabeth II’s lying-in-state, their actions were interpreted by many as skipping a queue outside of up to 20-hours.
The pair had not technically done anything wrong, they were granted press access to visit the late Queen’s coffin just as hundreds of other journalists had been that same week.
But because they were two of the most famous faces to have done it, there was suddenly a target on Willoughby and Schofield’s backs. When other stars like David Beckham had dutifully queued outside, it was not a good look.
ITV’s chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall admitted the whole affair had taken a toll on the duo. Schofield appeared to reference the backlash as he collected the best daytime trophy the National Television Awards several weeks later, telling the crowd: “This means so much to us every year, especially this year.”
Unfavourable headlines and gossip continued over the following months. There was much speculation about Phillip’s personal relationships since coming out as gay in 2020, and no shortage of unsubstantiated rumours surrounding the split from his wife.
But the relationship between ITV’s second most popular presenting pair really appeared to turn sour in the early part of this year.
In April, Schofield’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 Schofield had to take time off from presenting This Morning for the duration of the court case, which is always a risk in broadcasting. There’s a motto in the media industry to “never go on holiday” – in case your cover presenter is more popular than you.
Bear in mind that it is rare to see one half a successful presenting duo without the other. Although both had hosted other shows without the other, when it came to This Morning they were very much a double act. They took their holidays at the same time, so the show’s viewers were used to seeing them either both together, or not at all.
Sure enough, the guest presenters who temporarily took Schofield’s place were hugely popular with viewers. Alison Hammond in particular worked well with Willoughby, and it was not long before fans were calling for them to host the show together permanently, sparking another flurry of media stories.
Those headlines would have put additional strain on the already fragile relationship between Schofield and Willoughby.
Last week, Schofield tried to get ahead of the feud story by releasing a statement, in which he admitted the last few weeks “haven’t been easy for either of us”.
That was only one sentence in a statement which otherwise praised Willoughby to the hills (“Holly is my rock, we’re the best of friends”, he also said), but it was the only sentence that mattered. It was seized upon.
Willoughby was reportedly “blindsided” by the release of his statement, but kept quiet. To this day, she has not acknowledged any fallout on the record, unlike Schofield. However, certain journalists in certain newspapers seemed curiously well informed about her feelings.
There have been other clues too. Willoughby recently changed her Twitter biog to remove a previous reference to Schofield, who had introduced her to the platform. Stories appeared in the tabloids claiming she had made clear to bosses she would want to stay on the programme if Schofield was to exit.
By this point, the writing was on the fake digital backdrop of the Thames.
It is telling that Schofield, rather than Willoughby, has been the one to leave. They are, after all, a 50/50 partnership. If a double act has to be broken up, why should Schofield automatically be the one that has to go?
There are several reasons, but perhaps one of the most significant is their respective ages. Schofield is 61, Willoughby is 42. That is a hugely important factor in the world of broadcasting and talent management.
Given his older age, it is likely Schofield would be seen as nearer the end of his career, and therefore might be less of a priority for a TV network to hang on to.
Willoughby, on the other hand, is two decades younger, and far more ripe for poaching by other TV networks. She is very well connected in the TV industry herself, having hosted many programmes for networks including the first two seasons of The Voice UK, when it was on BBC One.
Her husband Dan Baldwin is a renowned TV producer, whose company Hungry Bear is behind big hits such as Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel. At a time when Willoughby was clearly unhappy at this morning, keeping her sweet in an attempt to stop her going to a rival broadcaster would have been a high priority for ITV bosses.
Having said that, ITV would ideally want to keep Schofield too. The broadcaster was at pains to say in their statement on Saturday that he will still host The British Soap Awards in June, as well as a brand new peak-time series on the channel.
When The Jeremy Kyle Show was removed 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 based on all kinds of factors – the time of year, that day’s content, the weather outside. Many viewers dip in and out, rather than sit down to watch for the full three hours, which means it is hard to make sweeping statements about any rise or fall.
Nonetheless, there were some headlines last week about a drop in viewing figures of around 100,000, which many media outlets chalked up to the controversy. In reality, all ITV daytime shows declined last week, including Lorraine and Loose Women, likely an effect of the sunshine.
But network chiefs would have been aware that the likely direction of travel for This Morning was downwards, and keen to pre-empt any further drop. The show relies on advertising and sponsorship to keep it afloat.
All eyes will now be on whoever is hired as Schofield’s permanent replacement, to see whether he or she can build a convincing relationship with Willoughby. That is ultimately what will rescue the show.