WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14
There are few more competitive events than the annual Ultimate News Quiz, pitting the country’s leading TV journalists against one another in a fiendishly difficult contest.
Things always start friendly enough, but quickly descend into a seething cesspit of bile, booing and screaming arguments.
Last year, Good Morning Britain came fifth, but I put that down to Susanna Reid and I being the night’s hosts and therefore unable to take part. Tonight I was GMB captain and gave a brief team talk over dinner at the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden.
Newsnight’s star presenter, Emily Maitlis, was this year’s co-host (with Channel 4’s Matt Frei) and spent much of the evening telling me to ‘pipe down’ and ‘shut up’, to loud applause
‘Winning isn’t everything,’ I began, to raised eyebrows from a group of people well used to my scathing view of those who celebrate failure. Then I leaned forward and snarled: ‘It’s the ONLY thing.’
I urged them to evoke the spirit of Douglas Jardine, the England cricket captain who hammered Australia in 1932/33 with infamous ‘Bodyline’ tactics. (‘You won’t make friends playing like this, Jardine!’ screamed one Australian spectator at the uncompromising Old Etonian. ‘My dear fellow,’ he replied, ‘I haven’t come to make friends, I’ve come to win the Ashes.’)
Three hours later, amid mounting acrimony over contested answers, GMB finished joint first on the leaderboard with Newsnight. The BBC show’s star presenter, Emily Maitlis, was this year’s co-host (with Channel 4’s Matt Frei) and spent much of the evening telling me to ‘pipe down’ and ‘shut up’, to loud applause.
My team erupted with ecstasy at the result. I didn’t. ‘Winners don’t share victory,’ I seethed, ‘and especially not with anyone from the BBC.’
Organisers announced there would be a coin toss to settle things, and GMB would have the call. ‘Leave this to me,’ I declared, marching forward and shouting: ‘HEADS.’
It came down heads, sparking pandemonium on stage as we wildly celebrated and Newsnight’s team collapsed in a wailing heap.
‘Better luck next year,’ I chortled to the crowd, whose reaction to GMB’s win could best be described as marginally more congealed than the proverbial cup of cold sick.
On a more positive note, the evening raised £120,000 for two excellent charities, Action For Children and Restless Development.
Maitlis texted me when I got home.
‘You were always going to win, Morgan.’
‘Why?’ I replied.
‘Because you’re a world-class tosser.’
SATURDAY, MARCH 17
Professor Stephen Hawking’s death has inspired tributes from all over the world, in most cases from people who never actually met him.
It was only when you were in his company that you could truly comprehend the sheer magnitude of his physical disability and the extraordinary determination he had to overcome it. This time last year I conducted what turned out to be his last major TV interview, in his office at Cambridge University. Hawking’s condition – he suffered from motor neurone disease – meant he could barely do anything for himself, so he relied on a small team of fiercely loyal people to help him, including two carers, an assistant for his speech machine and his delightful PA, Anthea.
Their warm, witty, protective relationship with him was based on absolute trust, often wickedly funny humour and straight talking. Hawking, for obvious reasons, had a severe aversion to bulls**t and wasting time.
But what none of them could help him with, or needed to, was his dazzling brain, which remained razor-sharp right to the end.
My favourite moment came when I asked him a supplementary question about Donald Trump, with whom Hawking was distinctly unimpressed.
I’d been warned that if I did this (all my questions had to be submitted several weeks before the interview to allow the professor time to programme his answers), there would be a long wait for him to reply. But I thought it was worth it.
‘When I next see President Trump,’ I asked, ‘what message would you like me to relay to him?’
For the next 25 minutes I sat watching Hawking construct a single two-sentence paragraph on his machine, using his cheek muscles to trigger a sensor and locate each letter. It was both agonising and mesmerising to watch such a brilliant mind struggle so tortuously to process his thoughts into written words.
‘Climate change is one of the great dangers we face,’ Hawking wrote, ‘and it’s one we can prevent. It affects America badly, so tackling it should win votes for his second term.’
Hawking paused for several minutes.
‘Are you finished, Stephen?’ asked his assistant, Jon.
A smirk slowly appeared on the professor’s face. Then he added the words: ‘God forbid.’
Everyone in the room burst out laughing. We all knew those extra two words would make global headlines, as did he.
Hawking was a mischievous showman who embraced his superstar status in the belief it helped bring science to the masses. As such, he was a willing accomplice in my self-aggrandising efforts to promote the interview.
We met on St Patrick’s Day, and because I’m Irish, I’d asked in advance if he would film a social media video clip with two pints of Guinness. He agreed.
On arrival, I went further. ‘Would he say “Cheers!” too?’
‘Let me ask the Professor,’ said Anthea. She returned, smiling. ‘He said yes.’
‘Actually, “Cheers, Piers!” would be even better,’ I replied.
‘Mr Morgan,’ she sighed, ‘don’t push your luck.’ When we taped the clip, the Professor timed his ‘Cheers!’ perfectly. ‘Any chance of “Cheers, Piers”?’ I asked him.
Hawking smirked again and amended his message accordingly.
Tonight I went to my local pub and ordered a pint of Guinness, ostensibly to celebrate St Patrick’s Day and Ireland’s thrilling Grand Slam rugby triumph. But also to toast one of Planet Earth’s greatest human beings.