The secrets behind the world’s most successful duos

Cathy Newman
·7-min read
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the original Hollywood power couple - Everett/Rex/Shutterstock/Rex Features
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the original Hollywood power couple - Everett/Rex/Shutterstock/Rex Features

A couple of years ago, I published my first book . An alternative history of modern Britain focused on the women who did sterling work fighting wars, running businesses or inventing things but had been left out of most accounts of the period.

Something that surprised me when I chatted to readers at talks and book festivals (remember them?) was their interest in the stories I’d unwittingly included and that involved collaboration between couples: not just married or romantically linked pairings, but also partnerships in business, politics and science.

Welsh MP Nye Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee, who was also an MP - Keystone/Hulton Archive
Welsh MP Nye Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee, who was also an MP - Keystone/Hulton Archive

Partnerships such as that between NHS founder Nye Bevan and his wife Jennie Lee, who was so popular as arts minister that audiences applauded her when she took her seat at the theatre. Or the pairing of Elsie Widdowson and Dr Robert McCance, Imperial College research partners whose work on food nutrition informed the wartime rationing programme.

The power of ‘dyads’

It set me thinking about the ‘power of two’ – the bond that can form between two people and generate a unique kind of catalysing spark. Sometimes that spark flashes brightly for a second. Sometimes it sets fire to something. It depends on the personalities of the individuals who comprise what social network theorists call a ‘dyad’ (or group of two).

Daytime ‘dyads’ Philip and Holly - Lia Toby/WireImage
Daytime ‘dyads’ Philip and Holly - Lia Toby/WireImage

Over my years as a broadcaster, I’ve had professional cause to ponder the extent to which dyads are the linchpins of TV shows: Ant and Dec, Philip and Holly, Phil and Kirstie… And of course many news programmes, Channel 4 News included, follow the convention. Co-anchoring adds warmth and informality: it’s a far cry from the days when the news was read, or rather declaimed, by a lone man in a dinner suit. Although, at the other extreme, Bill Tush – a newsreader on early American channel WTCG in the 1970s – would recount the day’s events assisted by Rex the Wonder Dog, a German Shepherd wearing a shirt and tie.

Some of the most interesting thinking about dyads was done by German sociologist Georg Simmel. He thought their unique quality, which he called a “special consecration”, resulted from the fact that “each of the two knows that he can depend only upon the other and on nobody else”.

The delicate balance of mutual dependency

Simmel applied this not just to political groups and small businesses but to close friendships and, of course, romantic relationships. Dyads are intense but fragile. The perks of mutual dependency can, in a split second, become pitfalls. Finding the right balance takes time and patience. You need to assert yourself, but not too much; compromise, but not to the point where you cancel each other out.

For me, the secret of a well-tempered marriage is realpolitik. I met my husband, John, at university back in 1993. One reason we’re still together is that our personalities are complementary. I’m very ordered and efficient, with my life chopped up and diarised into manageable chunks, including time for relaxing. I couldn’t do my job, which involves constant deadlines and precise cue-hitting, if I didn’t live this way.

John understands this, even if it occasionally frustrates him. For me to hold down my job, something that benefits the whole household, the whole household needs to be as accommodating as possible. At the same time, a balance has to be (sometimes reluctantly) struck between my desire for perfection and the messy realities of family life.

And this, to coin a phrase, takes two. John does the bulk of the domestic stuff – childcare, food shopping, cooking – and fits his work as a freelance writer around it. Even today, when men are much better at pitching in, some husbands would be unhappy about this arrangement. Luckily for me and our children, John embraces it. And besides, his work suits his quieter, more ruminative personality, just as my job, which involves being social and performative, suits mine.

John helped me with a lot of the research for It Takes Two. He’s in his element sitting in libraries, slowly sifting through material, not talking to anyone. I’m so used to working quickly – frantically programming my brain with information – that any slackening of pace feels unnatural, even frightening. Much of It Takes Two was written in manic spurts on my iPad on trains or cafés. Even on the loo. (John would never write on the loo, by the way. For one thing, he would worry it was unhygienic.)  

When serendipity takes hold

I wanted to showcase different kinds of collaboration, and particularly those in which serendipity played a part. Jewish immigrant Michael Marks turned his penny bazaar into a high-street institution with the help of a burly Yorkshireman called Thomas Spencer. But he only recruited Spencer after his top two contenders for the job turned him down.

I was also drawn to trailblazing couples, whose talent for dandyish self-promotion was a function of their coupledom. The Ladies of Llangollen – two aristocratic Irish women who settled in Wales and became famous for their probably-lesbian “romantic friendship” and “masculine” way of dressing – adhered to a rigid system of self-improvement, setting aside time for reading, walking and transforming their cottage into a Gothic showpiece.

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn had a professional rivalry - Bettmann
Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn had a professional rivalry - Bettmann

But so many qualities contribute to making duos productive and intriguing. In the case of writers Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, it was professional rivalry. Alpha male Hemingway felt hugely threatened by Gellhorn’s achievements.

“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” he once asked her. For the black Edwardian composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his white wife Jessie, it was a fierce, protective love, with Jessie leaping to his defence on occasions when her husband, one of the most successful composers of his era, became the target of racist abuse.

I was fascinated, too, by how many tech companies, from Hewlett-Packard to Microsoft and Google, are rooted in dyadic relationships between their founders.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor behaved appallingly at times, but always had the power to fascinate - Everett Collection
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor behaved appallingly at times, but always had the power to fascinate - Everett Collection

Not every couple in It Takes Two serves as a desirable model. Some behaved appallingly, whatever their dyadic achievements. I never tire of hearing about the antics of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on and off the set of their 1963 film Cleopatra – the drunkenness, absenteeism and general brattish behaviour. As a paid-up feminist in the post-#MeToo era, the low point for me was reading about the moment Burton strode into the men’s dressing room and exclaimed: “Gentlemen, I’ve just f----- Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!”

Burton and Taylor’s love withered and perished as often as it blossomed and flourished, so that observing their ups and downs became a compulsive media sport. But they were the original and best Hollywood power couple – for the ‘power of two’ includes that all-important power to fascinate.  

The last few years have been marked by a surge in populism and strong-man politics. But as we look for ways to rebuild society after the pandemic, it’s clear isolationism isn’t going to serve us well. Only by working together and forging unexpected links will we continue to thrive as a society.

Yes, it will ultimately take more than two. But it’s a good place to start.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News. It Takes Two by Cathy Newman (RRP £20) is available now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514