Ant McPartlin: from squeaky clean star to a man fighting to conquer his demons
When Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly won the “best presenters” category at the National Television Awards in January for the 17th consecutive time, McPartlin gave an emotional acceptance speech. "It's been a tough year for me personally,” admitted the man who for almost a quarter of a century has formed half of the much loved double act known as Ant and Dec.
If his drink-driving arrest at the weekend has sparked new fears for his well-being, it is not the first indication that all is not well in his life. For by the time he collected the award two months ago, the shine was already coming off the squeaky clean image he had cultivated alongside Donnelly since the pair landed their inaugural TV presenting gig on a Saturday morning children’s show called Gimme 5 in 1994.
It was last summer that fans caught a glimpse of a more troubled side to McPartlin (42) - one that lay concealed behind his image as one of the entertainment industry’s most wholesome, family-friendly figures.
In August, he had given an interview to a tabloid newspaper in which he confessed his secret two-year addiction to prescription drugs.
He had, he said, finally gone into rehab in June after a knee operation left him reliant on a cocktail of painkillers. And he had pleaded with his wife, make-up artist Lisa Armstrong, to take him to hospital after a night bingeing on tramadol, morphine and alcohol. It was an addiction, he said, that led him to "neck tramadol to the point of psychosis".
Then, the week before the television awards in January, he confirmed that he and Armstrong were divorcing after 11 years of marriage. Not long afterwards, as he gratefully accepted the gong, he said: “I had a very tough summer last summer, I had to face up to a lot of things and my one thing was just getting back to work, and getting back to work with my best mate. We done it."
Yet for all the optimism contained in his speech, it is clear he has yet to conquer all his demons. On Sunday, McPartlin was arrested after a collision involving three vehicles in south-west London. A child passenger from one of the cars was taken to hospital to be checked as a precaution, police said. McPartlin is alleged to have failed a roadside breathalyser test and was taken in for questioning: he has since been released under investigation.
Although his ITV colleague Lorraine Kelly initially insisted he would still appear this weekend on Saturday Night Takeaway, which he presents with Donnelly, it was later announced he had stepped down from his television jobs and would return to treatment for addiction issues.
"He has spoken with Dec and ITV today and asked for time off for the foreseeable future," said a spokesman. "As such Saturday Night Takeaway will not be going ahead this Saturday.”
Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the long-term future of the man once lauded as a king of light entertainment.
So how has a figure so beloved of the nation, celebrated for the cheerful, unchallenging brand of comedy he and Donnelly represent, fallen so far?
Friends of his suggest the trouble has been brewing for a while. One tells me: “While the stint in rehab was well-intentioned, as with so many TV personalities it’s often done in a kind of trouble-shooting way. For Ant, it meant he was able to go to the jungle and present I’m a Celebrity...Get me out of here [the hit ITV reality show] and wasn’t blacklisted by the TV companies. But it hasn’t necessarily helped him overcome his personal demons. Ant’s demons have been there for much, much longer than people even think and it’s going to take more than one brief spell in rehab to conquer them.”
McPartlin was in his mid-teens when he first came to prominence on TV, playing PJ the DJ in the BBC children’s drama Byker Grove, a role he landed in 1989. It was here he became friends with Donnelly, who played the character of Duncan in the show, the two Geordies cementing their off-screen bond over a shared love of Newcastle United. In 1993 they launched themselves as a pop duo called PJ and Duncan, their hit single Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble peaking at number 9 in the UK charts in 1994 and containing the lyrics “I'm Ant, I'm Declan, a duo, a twosome.”
And they would remain a duo, a twosome for decades to come, graduating into television presenting with Gimme 5 and then on to other programmes - The Ant & Dec Show, a BBC children’s show, in 1995, and Ant & Dec Unzipped on Channel 4 in 1998, shortly followed by SM:TV Live on ITV. Their first Saturday night prime time slot came in 2000, with the BBC One game show Friends Like These.
While their presenting career went from strength-to-strength, leading to gigs on ratings behemoths like Saturday Night Takeaway, I’m a Celebrity..., Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, McPartlin’s off-screen persona was perhaps not quite as chipper as the one seen on-screen - or as Donnelly’s. “He was always the quieter one of the two,” says his friend. “If you go out with him, he’s not as bumptious as Dec is. I can see he has a darker side, whereas I don’t think Dec has.”
If this is the case, it has not seemed to affect the real-life friendship of the pair, who even bought houses next door to each other in Chiswick, west London. For years they have socialised as well as worked together, and were best man at each other’s weddings.
The fact that McPartlin’s union did not yield children is thought to be a source of sadness to him and his estranged wife, however. “They were both very upset they didn’t have kids,” says the friend.
In the interview he gave in August, he told how he had hidden his depression and drug addiction both from fans and loved ones. Speaking candidly of how low he had sunk, he said: “I was at the point where anything — prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs — I would take. And take them with alcohol, which is ridiculous. The doctors told me, ‘You could have killed yourself’. ”
So what next for the man who is so much a part of the cultural landscape that shock headlines resulted when Jeremy Corbyn failed to identify he and Dec during a leadership debate in 2016? “I think he needs to concentrate on getting himself better,” his friend says. “He’s having to confront the breakdown of his marriage and he needs to take time to come to terms with everything. I think he’s been pushed into doing some trouble-shooting rehab but it hasn’t even scratched the surface. When you’re battling extreme stress, you return to an old crutch to get you through.”
It is not the end of Ant and Dec as a double act however - of that, the friend is adamant. “Ant is making a lot of people a lot of money so everyone has been pushing him into a quick fix,” she says. “But his problems have been going on for years and years so he’s not going to snap out of them just like that. I do think he’ll ride it out eventually though.”