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Back in the long forgotten days of 2011, some genius walked into the offices of CNN – one of the world’s biggest cable news networks – where they were searching for a replacement to legendary primetime interviewer, Larry King. When asked who they’d put forward for that prestigious role, this person replied, presumably, without a hint of irony: Piers Morgan. It wasn’t a practical joke. It wasn’t the consequence of a lost bet. It was the end result of a long hunt to fill one of current affairs programming’s biggest slots. The answer: Piers Morgan, a man who, as editor of the Daily Mirror, presided over the Golden Age of Phone Hacking, before rebranding as a jowly Simon Cowell on both Britain’s and America’s Got Talent.
Anyhow, it’s worth remembering all that as Morgan returns to British screens as the host of Piers Morgan Uncensored. He opens his first show – an interview with former US president Donald Trump – with a bastardised quote from Nelson Mandela. “As Mandela might’ve said,” he tells viewers, “it’s been a long walk to freedom of speech.” Well Piers, as Dorothy “might’ve said”, we’re not on CNN anymore, Toto. This is the launch night for TalkTV, a cheap-looking spin-off of Rupert Murdoch’s TalkRadio (beloved of cabbies and insomniacs), which can be found on the freeview box at your grandmother’s house (or YouTube).
The show begins with a 15-minute monologue of quite awe-inspiring grandiloquence and disregard for the conventions of normal human debate. Rather than progressing his argument beyond the fact that, apparently, “it’s OK to go for a beer with someone you’ve just spent an hour arguing with”, Morgan takes aim again and again, at everyone from “Princess Pinocchio” (Meghan Markle) to vegans. “I’m gonna cancel cancel-culture,” he announces. This is a reasonable enough aspiration for a show on an, admittedly, conservative station, but not one that requires a quarter hour of repetition. And by the time he finishes railing against the “modern-day fascism” of the woke mob, it’s the moment to move to that not-at-all modern-day fascism of Trump.
I won’t review Donald Trump; I’ll leave that to the historians. But what ensues is a truly tortured piece of broadcasting. Oscillating wildly between sycophantic and confrontational has always been Morgan’s style (I think this is his attempt to mitigate any fence-sitting, though the impact on his arse must be largely the same), but Trump brings out the worst in him. They face off in a room in Florida, their uncrossed legs radiating towards one another. The set-up is so genital-centric that Trump is even crowned, in the background, by his own oil-painted crotch, like a halo of pulsing, performative masculinity. “I’ll be completely straight with you to your face,” Morgan announces, looking like a sweaty dad who’s just destroyed the primary school egg-and-spoon race, before proceeding on a series of mealy-mouthed questions that are edited together so clumsily they look like something from a GCSE Media Studies project, or GB News. The interview is so shredded, so constantly interrupted by Morgan’s asides from back in the studio, that, at times, the ghost of the President’s incongruous last answer can be heard over Morgan’s next interrogation.
At the end of the hour, Morgan announces that the interview will be concluded the following night, a segment that will include the much-teased Trump walkout. He refers to this premiere of Piers Morgan Uncensored as “television history”, a claim that might not stand up in court. But there is something heroic about this vainglorious boast. After a baffling hour in Morgan’s company, a mystery remains. It isn’t how such goofy graphics made it to the screen in the year of our Lord 2022. It isn’t how much grave rotation Winston Churchill, George Washington and Christopher Hitchens will be doing at their quotes being used in reference to university swimming races. It isn’t even why Morgan suddenly has a Mallen streak, that shock of grey hair at the front of his thatch, like someone out of Queer Eye. It is: how was Morgan ever taken seriously enough, as an interviewer and entertainer, that he was, however briefly, considered the heir to Larry King? I suspect the search for an answer to that question will outlive Piers Morgan Uncensored.