Covering stories and people – “from Michael Jackson and [Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? contestant] the ‘Coughing Major’ to top politicians and the lowest criminals” – has helped to make Tonight “Britain’s most-watched weekly current affairs programme”, claimed current presenter Julie Etchingham.
Many of the show’s team past and present, together with some of its legions of fans, packed the Lowry’s Compass Room at an RTS North West event in early April to celebrate – alongside Tonight’s first host Sir Trevor McDonald – the show’s 20th anniversary.
ITV news chief Michael Jermey outlined “the alchemy which makes the show so successful”. Tonight, which has always been made in the North West, “has never been part of the ‘London bubble’,” he argued. “Its roots [are] in the ITV heartland.”
Setting the show apart, Jermey suggested, are “its instinctive understanding of the questions that interest our viewers and the desire to put people at the heart of our story-telling. [It unites] the great tradition of ITV current affairs, so strong in the old Granada, with a strong news organisation [ITN].”
Etchingham, in conversation with McDonald, illustrated how these ingredients were combined when Tonight burst onto Britain’s TV screens with “scoop interviews” of the five men accused of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Ground-breaking techniques, such as using footage from police cameras hidden in the flat of one of the men and giving the accused air-time under the close scrutiny of Martin Bashir, enabled Tonight to put the case before the public.
Tonight helped to expose the institutional racism rampant at the time in the Metropolitan Police.
In 2003, when a clearly uncomfortable George W Bush cut short McDonald’s questioning in favour of showing him around the White House, the Tonight anchor decided to keep the cameras rolling and allowed British viewers to see behind the public face of the then-US President.
Similar methods were used in Living with Michael Jackson, a show that Etchingham revealed “sold to 134 countries”.
In another innovative move, described by McDonald, Tonight sat Tony Blair down in front of “people who had been intimately connected [with the Iraq War] and held Blair responsible”. Etchingham reflected that this was quintessential Tonight: “Not only do we ask the questions our audience want asked, but it can be equally effective to have our audience there [asking those questions].”
Jermey, Etchingham and McDonald all praised the off-screen talent, with Jermey acknowledging “the care and dedication all the skilled programme-makers have put into the show”.
All photography by Claire Harrison