Authors: Emily Herbert
he year was 1965, and the Swinging Sixties were well under way: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were battling it out for the title of Greatest-Ever Rock Band, while society was being turned on its head. Now the age of deference was over and a new egalitarian Britain was born, one that was to replace a keen interest in the lives of the aristocracy with an insatiable appetite for the world of the celebrity. And, on 30 March 1965, a child entered the world who would make a spectacular career on the back of that enthusiasm for celebrity before eventually becoming one himself: Piers Stefan Morgan had arrived. Legend has it that he was named after the brewery heir and privateer motor-racing driver Piers Courage – certainly he would go on to lead a similarly tumultuous life.
Not that he was known as Piers Morgan back then; rather, he was Piers Stefan O’Meara, the first of the two children of Eamon Vincent (a dentist) and Gabrielle O’Meara. His younger brother Jeremy arrived shortly
afterwards. ‘Vincent’, as he was known, would die before his son was one year old. ‘When he died, I had a very strong mother and grandmother looking after me, being extra-strong for me and loving me unconditionally,’ Piers later recalled. ‘My mother has always encouraged her four children [she went on to have two more with her second husband] to live their dreams. If we’ve ever been in trouble, she’s defended us like a lioness.’ In fact, Vincent passed away tragically early, at thirty-one; he had been in a car accident and died in the ambulance taking him away from the wreckage.
Piers Morgan’s public persona has been a rumbustious one; never afraid of controversy, happy to participate in feuds and always giving as good as he gets. He comes across as extremely brash, something which caused quite a few people to dislike him at one stage in his career, although he calmed down considerably once he made the move from the medium of the printed word to television. Yet there was tragedy in his life from a very early age: to lose a father so young was a terrible sadness. Although he was lucky enough to acquire a stepfather, with whom he became really close, Piers has more in common with the celebrities who tell him about their own problems on ITV’s
Piers Morgan’s Life Stories
than would at first seem obvious. What’s more, he can be far more sympathetic than anyone might expect.
But Piers’ relationship with his mother was strong and this was to see him through the most difficult times until she married for the second time and provided him with a
father figure. Although born and brought up in Sussex, he actually has a more international background. Technically, he is one-quarter English, three-quarters Irish (with a little Spanish thrown in): his mother Gabrielle Oliver was born in Battle, Sussex in the 1940s, to Matthew Dudgeon Oliver and Edith Margot Cantopher, who later divorced. Their story is typical of Britain at that time: a life spent in the Colonies, specifically India. Piers’ maternal
William Joseph Cantopher was born in the province of Deccan in 1891. William’s father Bernard was a London University-educated civil engineer, who worked in Berhampore, Murshadibad and Bengal; William later returned to Britain in 1911, where he worked as a stockbroker. He married Edith Mary Kelly, also of Irish descent.
William and Edith had a daughter, Edith Margot, who married Matthew Dudgeon Oliver (who, just to complicate matters, was the son of John Dudgeon Oliver, who was born in China), and it was Matthew, Piers’ grandfather, who would go on to work on the
newspaper. Other ancestors have been traced back to Spain and Scotland. Mostly due to this Irish background, the majority of Piers’ forebears are Catholic but there is some Presbyterianism in there, too.
When Piers was still a toddler, his artist mother remarried a man with the rather splendid name of Glynne Pughe-Morgan, from whom he took his surname. The couple went on to have two children, Rupert and Charlotte. Indeed, it was only when he started to make his way
as a journalist that Piers dropped the ‘Pughe’ to make himself seem more egalitarian. In truth, however, his was a privileged background – to begin with, at least.
As an adult, he developed a healthy respect for his brother Jeremy, who went on to serve in the Army (eventually rising to Lieutenant Colonel) but during their childhood the two battled constantly, as small boys will. ‘Piers used to torment me and physically bully me when we were small,’ Jeremy later told the
’ ‘Relative Values’. ‘I remember him hitting me over the head repeatedly with a small, rubber yellow hammer. My mother couldn’t leave us alone. Later on, he’d bully me psychologically – niggle, niggle, niggle – until I got into a rage and beat him to a pulp. He fought like a girl, so he was easy to overcome.’
Piers remembers something similar. ‘My brother wasn’t the most quick-witted of spanners,’ he told the
‘He had a very short fuse; I found it amusing to light it and watch it explode. We were very competitive and my mother did everything to stop us fighting. I’ve just always loved verbal combat; my whole family are like that – rebellious, into debating and feuding. We’re Irish Catholics. It gets fiery. I love it.’
Of course, the two are extremely close in age and it was clear, listening to both of them, that they were extremely pugnacious. Neither has ever been afraid of a tussle, albeit in very different fields: Piers in the world of celebrity and Jeremy out on the battlefield. But the existence of a younger brother was to give Piers a moral authority in later years, something he couldn’t have dreamed about back then: when
he was criticised for apparently not supporting the War on Iraq while he was editor of the
. In his defence, he could point out that his own brother was serving in the Army and, naturally, he backed our boys; it was just the field in which they were fighting that he didn’t like.
But the journalism bug bit very young, as did the bad habits that famously go along with it. ‘I was really into newspapers at five or six, and used to point out the headlines that grabbed me,’ Piers revealed in an interview with the
. ‘I learned to read through the papers; whether this is good or bad, I have yet to work out. My parents ran the Griffin Inn and at Fletching C of E Primary, near Lewes, East Sussex, I was one of the few kids who every night went to the local pub. Ever since then, as a journalist, I have staggered to the pub after work.’
Indeed, he did more than that, helping his parents run their business from a very young age. ‘I used to do the bottling up at 5am, then come to school,’ he revealed in later years. ‘I used to get in trouble for that [at school]. I think they thought I had an alcohol problem as a child.’
He maintains this is where his somewhat brash personality began to develop. Pubs are not places for quiet people and the young Piers was forced to fight to get heard. He succeeded, and began to develop a trademark style from an early age. ‘I was always very cocky and noisy in the pub,’ he admits. ‘I loved holding forth, hearing the sound of my own voice, and a lot of people found it amusing so I just carried on.’ It was a philosophy he was to continue into later life.
And he was a clever boy; although Piers would never shine academically, his achievements have been enough to defeat many a lesser man and required a good deal of native wit, something he possessed right from the start. ‘Piers was unusually bright: at four he was reading Tolkien,’ his brother Jeremy recalled. ‘Later, he was into newspapers and Arsenal Football Club. I liked rugby, fishing and
magazine. We led independent lives, apart from cricket: we played it endlessly in our garden in Sussex. We became known at Sussex County Cricket ground – Imran Khan even invited us to the nets to bowl at him.’
Again, a reference to ‘newspapers’, something that was to surface repeatedly in stories about Piers’ early life, and another early clue to his eventual destiny was that his birth father had also once been a journalist, although Piers did not discover this until he himself was an adult. It was on a visit to Ireland, where both sides of the family originated, that this came to light. ‘There I was in the middle of southern Ireland in a place called Banagher and all these people came up to me, who had known my father,’ Piers told
‘His mother persuaded him to become a dentist because there was more money and security and all that, but it was interesting to find out that it’s obviously in the blood, you know.’ Indeed, it was there on both sides – his mother’s father was a ‘proper investigative journalist’ on the
in the 1970s and it was this connection that would first introduce him to the world he was to dominate.
Piers always considered his stepfather Glynne to be his true father and emphasises that he treated him as if he were his own son. ‘You know, he’s been absolutely incredible,’ he later said. ‘He took on two young boys when he was in his twenties and did a great job for us. All four of us children had a lovely upbringing and a lot of fun. It wasn’t privileged and we didn’t have much money, but we had a great time.’
Another important family member was Piers’ grandmother Margot, who looked after the children on a day-to-day basis while his parents ran the Griffin Inn. ‘Unbelievably long hours, catering to maybe 200 people a day,’ was how Piers described it. Within the family, Margot was known as ‘Grande’, and she and Piers have maintained an extremely close relationship; he has since dedicated one of his books to her and also moved his grandmother into one of his properties when she got older.
Gabrielle had a fair bit to contend with, not least because her son displayed an aptitude for the profession he was to make his own from early on. ‘I was always incredibly nosy and fascinated by news,’ he told the
in 2008. ‘I also loved reading papers from a very early age. My mother remembers me pointing to a headline about a rape case when I was six and asking: “Mum, what does it mean when it says this girl was raped?” Quite a tricky enquiry to navigate for any parent.’ But she managed, and Piers continued to be fascinated by news and how it was reported in the press.
Perhaps rather surprisingly to some, given the
rough-and-tumble nature of the world he was to come to inhabit, first in journalism and then in show business, Piers was brought up a practising Catholic and attended church regularly. Further, he was given instruction in the religion by nuns, something he enjoyed.
‘I don’t want to overdo my devoutness because I think a proper devout Catholic would see me as pretty lapsed – it’s just that my whole family, apart from my dad, are believers and that’s the way we were brought up,’ he told
‘You’d just go along [to the nuns] and chat for an hour, and I liked the purity of the nuns and their pure view of life and the world. It was nice. I don’t think that I’ve led such a pure life as those nuns, no. But I thought there was an idealistic side to them that was rather nice, you know. Always looking for the good in people is a nice trait to have.’
It was pretty much the polar opposite of what he himself would go on to do, but it hinted again at the more empathetic side of his character that was to make him an excellent interviewer once his television career proper took off.
Up to the age of seven, Piers attended Fletching Primary School in his home village, where he later recalled winning the ‘Christmas decoration on your head’ competition, before moving to Cumnor House and then Chailey, near Lewes in West Sussex. It was a bit of a comedown: Cumnor House was a private school, while Chailey was a comprehensive, but he coped with the change. ‘I was very happy in my schools,’ he recalled. ‘I bounced between the two types of education; at seven, after the local primary,
I went to a fee-paying prep school three miles away – Cumnor House – and was a boarder between eleven and thirteen. I noticed there was more money and it was better resourced. And there was daily sport – brilliant! A kid tossed a jar of magnesium into the swimming pool and blew it up. Although I’m now involved with the npower Climate Cops Campaign, in those days we weren’t really aware of the environment, but I do remember thinking, that’s not the most environment-friendly thing!’
In fact, his tone veered wildly when discussing his education; he found the transition from private to state school quite traumatic and had to endure some bullying, more of which below.
The young Piers was fairly typical in his television and radio tastes back then. Later, as an adult, he was asked what programmes he had enjoyed. ‘
Thunderbirds, Dallas, Dukes of Hazzard, Morecambe and Wise,
Selina Scott and all the big boxing fights,’ he told the
‘Try getting your shrink to analyse that little lot! As for radio, I used to pretend to my schoolmates that I listened to John Peel, but of course listened instead to Peter Powell – who has transformed himself into one of the most successful talent agents in the country (well, he has to be, he manages me).’
It was standard fare for the 1960s and 70s, and revealed both mainstream tastes and a solid Middle England background. One of the secrets to Piers’ success in all aspects of his life, from outrage over the Iraq War to his judging on ITV’s
Britain’s Got Talent,
is that he
understands exactly what his audience/readership is thinking – because he is one of them.
Writing held an appeal from early on. When Piers was just fifteen, he wrote his first piece, a 1,500-word article about his village cricket team’s visit to Malta for the
Mid Sussex Times.
For this, he was paid £15. ‘I was so excited that I framed the cheque,’ he later revealed on finding his forte. From then on, it was obvious what he planned to do.
And his education, after the local primary school, first at a private school and then a state one, was to stand him in good stead, as he admitted in a more positive reflection on his schooling. Both he and Jeremy completed their education that way round (whereas his two younger siblings attended state school first and were then educated privately) and he felt the experience had done him a power of good. ‘I think my education was, in many ways, perfect,’ he declared. ‘I went to a great prep school until I was thirteen and then I got my snobbish creases ironed out [at Chailey, near Lewes], where some of the kids did give me a hard time for being a posh twit.’ His younger siblings suffered a lot of snobbery, he says, having come from the state sector.