This has been the weirdest week in British television in a long time.
In the days leading up to Boris Johnson’s resignation, the number of gaffes and surreal moments captured on live television became almost impossible to track. But in many ways, these moments reflected the surreal mood of the country as the prime minister refused to step down, despite more than 50 government resignations.
Take the political coverage from College Green, a public park in Westminster and a popular location for interviews with politicians. On Wednesday, the day after Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak sensationally resigned from their posts, ITV’s Susanna Reid and former Labour chancellor Ed Balls were interrupted on “Good Morning Britain” by the anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray singing a karaoke version of the Bay City Rollers, replacing the words “Bye Bye Baby” with “Bye Bye Boris.”
— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) July 6, 2022
On Thursday, it got weirder, still. A couple of hours after news broke that Johnson was to step down, Bray took a music request from the actor Hugh Grant on Twitter (yes, really) to blare out “Yaxety Sax.” This resulted in a Sky News interview with a Conservative MP discussing the future of their party set to the blaring and ridiculous sound of the Benny Hill theme tune.
“THE BENNY HILL THEME TUNE” IS BEING BLASTED OUT ON SKY NEWS. pic.twitter.com/N06wBwcoZl
— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) July 7, 2022
Meanwhile, earlier that morning on ITV, morning television host Lorraine Kelly used a psychic pig during her show to determine whether Boris Johnson was about to step down. In the moments after news broke of Johnson’s resignation plans, I flicked to ITV expecting to see rolling coverage outside No. 10 kicking in and “Lorraine” going off the air. Instead, Lorraine was rebroadcasting footage of the psychic pig and revealing that the animal was, indeed, right.
“You might think that is very silly,” Kelly told viewers. “But pigs are very intelligent, I think you’ll find.” ITV then crossed to No. 10 for a moment, only to switch immediately back to discuss a new film about orgasms.
Elsewhere, on Sky News, former conservative politician Michael Heseltine was interviewed while wearing a sweater with a large sheep on it. Even the BBC’s coverage, which you can rely on to remain professional and relatively straightforward on big news days, occasionally verged into the surreal.
On Wednesday afternoon, the public broadcaster introduced a “Government Resignations Ticker” at the same time as its rival Sky News. On Wednesday night, as Boris desperately clung to power, the BBC News camera took the opportunity to eagerly zoom into Larry, the No. 10 cat, for 30 seconds, waiting to be let into the building. By coincidence, some analysis about the popularity of Johnson’s premiership was airing at the time, but with the PM’s name unmentioned, it inadvertently looked as if the BBC was implying that Larry the Cat was party leader and about to resign himself.
Where blunders did take place on news channels, they often garnered sympathy due to the unexpected and seemingly unending coverage. It also strangely reflected the exasperated national mood. At one point, BBC News channel’s camera accidentally showed BBC newsreader Tim Willcox in the studio with his feet on the desk while looking at his phone, instead of Ros Atkins broadcasting live from Downing Street. The nation, which had been looking at their phones avidly for hours waiting for another cabinet member to quit, could only respond to his pose and reaction with a sympathetic “same.”
BBC News accidentally cut away to their news studio, showing a presenter with their feet on the desk. pic.twitter.com/FVvxaXTQUt
— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) July 6, 2022
The ratings for these British news channels have also been interesting to track. With much of BBC One and BBC Two’s evening schedules dominated by the second week of Wimbledon and Women’s Euro matches, most of the political turmoil in the evening has remained on rolling news channels. And while the BBC News and Sky News channels have seen a big rise in viewers, new opinionated entrants to the market such as the right-wing GB News and Piers Morgan’s Talk TV hardly budged their ratings at all.
According to ratings body Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB), GB News was reaching an average of 109,000 viewers on Wednesday at 8 p.m., compared to more than half a million on BBC News and more than 400,000 for Sky News. Piers Morgan on Talk TV — who opened his “Uncensored” episode on Wednesday evening holding a piglet and declaring that “nothing could save [Johnson’s] bacon” — was only reaching 43,000, more or less in line with the underwhelming ratings he’s seen in recent weeks.
The poor performances — even with two guests walking off Morgan’s show that night, in two separate interviews — demonstrate that these channels fail to draw viewers during big news events and only hope to compete with their rivals during quieter news days.
Still, all of this had nothing on ITV’s “This Morning,” which began Thursday’s episode with a broadcast of Beatles impersonators in the middle of a forest, followed by one of their hosts going fairy hunting. It’s reassuring to know, at least, that no matter how surreal the news or the political world gets, nothing ruffles “This Morning.”