The secrets behind the world’s most successful duos

Over my years as a broadcaster, I’ve had professional cause to ponder the extent to which dyads are the linchpins of TV shows: Ant and Dec, Philip and Holly, Phil and Kirstie… And of course many news programmes, Channel 4 News included, follow the convention. Co-anchoring adds warmth and informality: it’s a far cry from the days when the news was read, or rather declaimed, by a lone man in a dinner suit. Although, at the other extreme, Bill Tush – a newsreader on early American channel WTCG in the 1970s – would recount the day’s events assisted by Rex the Wonder Dog, a German Shepherd wearing a shirt and tie.

Some of the most interesting thinking about dyads was done by German sociologist Georg Simmel. He thought their unique quality, which he called a “special consecration”, resulted from the fact that “each of the two knows that he can depend only upon the other and on nobody else”.

The delicate balance of mutual dependency

Simmel applied this not just to political groups and small businesses but to close friendships and, of course, romantic relationships. Dyads are intense but fragile. The perks of mutual dependency can, in a split second, become pitfalls. Finding the right balance takes time and patience. You need to assert yourself, but not too much; compromise, but not to the point where you cancel each other out.

For me, the secret of a well-tempered marriage is realpolitik. I met my husband, John, at university back in 1993. One reason we’re still together is that our personalities are complementary. I’m very ordered and efficient, with my life chopped up and diarised into manageable chunks, including time for relaxing. I couldn’t do my job, which involves constant deadlines and precise cue-hitting, if I didn’t live this way.

John understands this, even if it occasionally frustrates him. For me to hold down my job, something that benefits the whole household, the whole household needs to be as accommodating as possible. At the same time, a balance has to be (sometimes reluctantly) struck between my desire for perfection and the messy realities of family life.

And this, to coin a phrase, takes two. John does the bulk of the domestic stuff – childcare, food shopping, cooking – and fits his work as a freelance writer around it. Even today, when men are much better at pitching in, some husbands would be unhappy about this arrangement. Luckily for me and our children, John embraces it. And besides, his work suits his quieter, more ruminative personality, just as my job, which involves being social and performative, suits mine.

John helped me with a lot of the research for It Takes Two. He’s in his element sitting in libraries, slowly sifting through material, not talking to anyone. I’m so used to working quickly – frantically programming my brain with information – that any slackening of pace feels unnatural, even frightening. Much of It Takes Two was written in manic spurts on my iPad on trains or cafés. Even on the loo. (John would never write on the loo, by the way. For one thing, he would worry it was unhygienic.)  

When serendipity takes hold

I wanted to showcase different kinds of collaboration, and particularly those in which serendipity played a part. Jewish immigrant Michael Marks turned his penny bazaar into a high-street institution with the help of a burly Yorkshireman called Thomas Spencer. But he only recruited Spencer after his top two contenders for the job turned him down.

I was also drawn to trailblazing couples, whose talent for dandyish self-promotion was a function of their coupledom. The Ladies of Llangollen – two aristocratic Irish women who settled in Wales and became famous for their probably-lesbian “romantic friendship” and “masculine” way of dressing – adhered to a rigid system of self-improvement, setting aside time for reading, walking and transforming their cottage into a Gothic showpiece.

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