They work together, holiday together, even live on the same street – a duo, a twosome, that have outlasted all the defining partnerships of our age: Charles and Diana, Liam and Noel, even LMFAO.
Now for the first time in their near three-decade-long careers, they are stranded from one another. On Sunday, Anthony McPartlin was involved in a car collision and arrested on suspicion of drink driving leaving Declan Donnelly reportedly “devastated” at his best friend’s condition.
Even before the road incident, Ant McPartlin had had a desperately trying 12 months. In June, he checked himself into rehab for addiction to drink and painkillers. He said he started self-medicating after dealing with depression and chronic knee pain, telling the Sun on Sunday he was bingeing morphine and Tramadol “to the point of psychosis”. After a two-month stint in rehab he returned to host I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and seemed to have made a rehabilitation. Then in January, he announced he was splitting from Lisa, his wife of 11 years and childhood sweetheart.
Many wondered whether he would be able to return to TV so soon after the divorce and in the midst of recovery. I’m a Celebrity … mostly involves presenting links from behind a table, but with a series of ITV’s Saturday Night Takeaway lined up for February, McPartlin would be expected to prance around in dresses, perform dangerous live stunts and land gag after gag. Is it possible to be a light entertainer when life has become dark?
On the first show of the series he was unflappable: racing monster trucks with Donnelly and dressing up in the slinky white dress from Can’t Get You Out of My Head to dance with Kylie Minogue. There was no sign that anything was up.
Still, McPartlin’s strong performance did not stop tabloids running stories suggesting that the show was a disaster. The Mirror and Mail Online ran full stories about viewers’ concern for McPartlin’s wellbeing, both based on a single tweet by a random viewer who said he “doesn’t look right”. The Mirror ran a long headline “What a difference a year makes! ... The collapse of his marriage – coupled with his former addiction issues – have clearly taken their toll.” The story then positioned a professional studio photo of McPartlin in 2017 next to a low-res screengrab of him in 2018 to illustrate his supposed fall from grace. The death of Amy Winehouse was meant to have prompted media soul-searching as to how the press should treat recovering addicts – but it seems as if very little had changed.
From the viewers’ perspective, at least, things seemed to be back on track. McPartlin managed a further three episodes with no noticeable issues. Then, on Sunday afternoon, McPartlin was involved in a collision as he was driving home in his Mini Cooper in Richmond. After the incident, he failed a police breathalyser test and was arrested, before being released under investigation on Monday. ITV quickly announced that this week’s episode of Saturday Night Takeaway would be cancelled. The rest of the series is under review, but McPartlin will definitely not be in any episodes as he returns to rehab.
ITV bosses would be the first to say that McPartlin’s health is their priority, but they must be seriously concerned about the jeopardy this puts them in. Ant & Dec have been the most prominent faces on the network for over a decade – graduating from the critically acclaimed Saturday-morning show SMTV Live to host Pop Idol in 2001. Since then they have been the faces of almost every entertainment format the channel has tried: when the Saturday Night Takeaway series is over, Britain’s Got Talent, also hosted by the duo and normally the channel’s biggest show of the year, begins. They will have already recorded links for the early rounds of the show, but will it be in poor taste to broadcast them if McPartlin is unable to host the latter stages? The pair have always said they would never want to work without the other, so it seems likely that they will both disappear from our screens for a while, taking their first hiatus ever.
You might think it won’t be that difficult to find replacement hosts. But compare them with their nearest competitors – the 1,000-mile stare of Tess Daly as she tries to remember what excitement felt like, the rambling dissociative patter of Alexander Armstrong as he says “Thank you very much indeed” for the 562nd time in a 45-minute episode of Pointless – and Ant & Dec are in a different league, the De Niro and Pacino of Saturday nights. To see their magic, just look at the one who is not talking, always working twice as hard as the one who is; they have a reactive, emotional rhythm that has not been bettered. Perhaps a fair comparison would be the likes of David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon, but they host their shows for a relatively small late-night audience of cool kids; Ant & Dec manage the same shtick while taking Mum and Grandad along for the ride
Saturday Night Takeaway, in particular, is a greatly misunderstood show. Thought of as mainstream fodder, it’s actually an innovative, formatless show that pushes the boundaries of shiny-floor live TV. In the one episode of this series, for example, they did a bit called Games of Phones in which they took the phones from everyone in the studio audience and then told viewers that if they knew someone in the studio they should ring them. Suddenly hundreds of phones started to ring as Scarlett Moffatt tried to plug them in and identify which audience member they knew so the caller and receiver could split a grand.
In this series, they had organised a chartered plane to take hundreds of competition winners for a week-long stay at the Universal theme park in Orlando. They would dish out tickets through various means (they surprised three people who lived equidistant from the studio and made them race there while the show was live – the first person to arrive won) with a plan to film the final episode of the series from there.
Yet for all their patter and warmth, the pair have never found a register to talk about something as complex and unhappy as addiction or depression. They only know pure joy, or a sob story that quickly becomes pure joy. They have not done too many tell-all interviews; one of the most memorable was a 2013 episode of Desert Island Discs in which they said that the hardest moment of their careers was when they were wrapped up in the TV competitions scandal – people who were not entered into prize draws but still charged for their calls. A blip in their nice-guy act, perhaps, but realistically nothing compared with the current challenge.
During that same interview, they said the problem with making live entertainment TV is that you’re only as good as your last show. Once you are off the box, you are forgotten; a Michael Barrymore or a Matthew Kelly. They said they wanted to make a scripted comedy at some point, so they would leave behind something for the comedy canon.
But now they have been presented with a different opportunity to be remembered, and to do something they have never done before: drop the act. Who could be more important ambassadors for mental health than two people whose public personas are relentlessly chirpy. It won’t be easy. However bad your mental health, drink-driving – if McPartlin is found guilty – is not something that can be easily forgiven. But if they can find a way to work depression and recovery into Saturday nights, they could leave a legacy far more profound than a dodgy ITV sitcom.