"Sorry I'm late mate, the traffic was fucking awful." A lean, perma-tanned Richard Madeley bounds into the Simon & Schuster offices, in faded jeans, T-shirt and a silk cravat. He launches into a quick-fire monologue about London roadworks; but while the words are angry, his demeanor is irrepressibly upbeat. This is the same Richard we see on screen—the only marked difference is his very fruity language (for example, he describes Monica Ali's Brick Lane, the only book club choice he regrets, as "shit . . . fucking boring").
I ask him if he thinks that his family memoir Fathers & Sons (Simon & Schuster, 6th October, £18.99) will alter public perceptions of him. "I don't give a tuppenny fuck," he snorts. "Some people who will review it who won't even have read it— they'll get the knives out because I'm that wally off day-time TV. The key thing is to have no sense of self-importance: it's ridiculous to be self-important. I just do the best I can and hope most people take me on my merits.
Madeley, who began his career as a local newspaper reporter, can certainly write. The preface and first chapter of the book—all S&S released at the time of this interview—are well-crafted, pacey and at times genuinely moving. "Geoffrey, Christopher, Richard and Jack," he writes. "Fathers and sons, four generations strung together like beads on the twisting double-helix of their shared DNA."
He opens with his father's death from a heart attack in 1977 (when Richard was 21), re-creating the moment when he fell through the front door into his mother's arms. The death fell hardest on his grandfather Geoffrey, who "shrouded what remained of his own life in speechless sorrow". It was the final blow for a man who was abandoned at the age of 10. When the rest of his family emigrated to Canada, Geoffrey was left behind to work on his uncle's farm (effectively to pay their passage).
Madeley drew on all the stories that were told while he grew up—unsurprisingly it was a "very loquacious" family—and details were confirmed by long discussions with his mother and cousin. The book blends this research with memoir, and his own musing on what makes a good father.
Other cracking tales emerged. In 1917 his grandfather enlisted and was sent to the trenches. He hadn't seen any of his family since they deserted him for Canada a decade before, but had been told his two brothers had joined up. On the way to the south coast his troop train stopped at Crewe and another pulled up alongside. He realised it was full of Canadian soldiers, got permission to board, and shouldered his way down the packed carriages asking if anybody knew "a Madeley". Suddenly there they both were, sitting in their uniforms smoking their pipes.
"I can't invent what was said at that moment," Richard says. "But we know they had five minutes and we know [it] was one of most moving experiences of my grandfather's life. His brothers had last seen him as 10-year-old boy; now they were men speaking with Canadian accents."
They swapped unit details and promised to meet up in France when they had leave. But they never made it: the older brother was killed, and the younger was sent back to Canada wounded.
While these "deeply human" stories affected Madeley, he is most moving when writing about his relationship with his own dad: "It gets sharper and sharper as you move closer to the present. Some of the experiences I had with him were a result of the way he'd been brought up by his father. Sometimes I had to go for a walk and calm down."
These include being beaten with a cane when he was seven. "Suddenly my legs caught fire—I was in complete physical shock and couldn't breathe. I thought the kettle had gone off, but the sound was me screaming."
Yet his dad was not a brutal man, and was determined to show more affection than he was accorded from his own damaged father: "He worked his arse off to be a good father and swore to himself he wouldn't pass on this shit. He did a good rounded job, but he still bore the scars and they came out later."
This is the inner theme of book: are the sins of the fathers necessarily visited upon the sons? "I've discovered that sometimes there is no blocking the flow, and other times you can divert it away," Madeley says. In turn he has tried to "take the good and push out the bad", both as a stepfather and a father. Son Jack, now aged 22, is writing the epilogue to the book to complete the line-up. "And would his dad have been proud? "He would have been proud of my achievements, but been uncomfortable with the kind of notoreity that comes with celebrity. When I was accused and then acquitted of shoplifting at Tesco in 1991— a horrible embarrassing mistake—it would have mortified him."
We can't close an interview with Madeley without mentioning the book club, which this week started its final run on Channel 4. Did he ever predict what it would grow into? "No—it started as a way to fill 10 minutes on a Wednesday. I thought it was worthy idea that wouldn't work, because television and books are so far apart in way they function. But somehow we've stumbled into a format that works. The book club has nailed the lie that our audiences are work-shy, slipped-disc dunces."
And true to form, he's upbeat about the switch to a new UKTV digital channel this autumn. Book sales won't suffer, he promises. "People know 'Richard &Judy' books are properly sifted and graded for quality. Lloyd Grossman sells massive amounts of pasta sauce, but when was he last on telly?"
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