Sunday 22 September 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Holly serves up Ant amnesia in the jungle'

Holly Willoughby hasn't just replaced Ant on 'I'm a Celebrity', she has outshone Dec too, writes Sarah Caden

TAG TEAM: Holly Willoughby and Declan Donnelly on ‘I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!’
TAG TEAM: Holly Willoughby and Declan Donnelly on ‘I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!’

Sarah Caden

'It's a little bit different," said Declan Donnelly last weekend, as this year's I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! began. "I've never done it with a girl, I usually do it with a bloke."

"Let's move on," said his new co-host Holly Willoughby, wagging her finger at him, her eyebrows raised in amused disapproval.

There was something irksome about the exchange, which was in part due to the gender stereotypes of naughty boy and scolding girl.

Was this exchange going to be the template for the season? Was Dec going to play the dopey bloke whose sidekick slightly mothers him, while all the time he's the true top dog and she's really only the Ant understudy who spoils the banter with her girlie prudishness?

That, however, was a dynamic that relied on Dec as the star of the show. After all, he is the incumbent and one who would understandably consider himself the box-office draw, and big enough to play the fool in order to magnanimously make Holly feel at home.

By about night three of I'm a Celebrity, however, it became obvious that Holly wasn't playing a supporting role. Holly was the star, with her skorts and her terror when a mere leaf blew near her and her facial expressions when the celebs were doing trials. Interest in the programme, which saw the highest figures in five years for the first show, suggested that people were watching for her, and not to see how Dec would cope without Ant.

Ant? Ant who?

Poor Ant McPartlin. Though officially he's taking his time after rehab before returning to the limelight, it's hard to see how that seemingly indispensable half of Ant and Dec will come back now.

It's not just that Dec's fine without him, it's that Holly Willoughby's fresh and golden takeover of I'm a Celebrity suggests that neither guy is indispensable.

Sad for Ant, probably a bit scary for Dec.

In the summer of last year, Ant McPartlin first came clean about his alcohol and drug addiction, for which he was going to rehab. The substance abuse was borne out of dependance on prescription drugs after knee surgery, it was suggested, and there was also talk of depression over difficulties starting a family with Ant's then wife, Lisa Armstrong.

Ant went to rehab, and then life resumed. He filmed the audition stages of Britain's Got Talent with Dec and then, in March of this year, he crashed his car while under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded guilty to drink-driving, was fined £86,000 and returned to rehab.

The narrative was slightly less forgiving at that point. It wasn't just a case of Ant struggling through a personal crisis - he had put other people's lives at risk. There was a sense that something was all over.

Ant and Dec had been lovable teenage rogues from their emergence as boy actors and singers from kids' show Byker Grove. They made the leap into television presenting but they didn't lose that boyish charm and their slightly goofy BFF partnership sort of tapped into how we all feel warmly for the friendships of our youth.

Once Ant fell from grace, however, profiles of the pair highlighted how Ant had a fractured family history and a more fragile personality behind the scenes than his best mate. Dec was of solid Irish stock, with a rake of siblings and a brother a priest. Dec was solid, business-savvy and cute, in the Irish as-a-fox sense.

And Dec has talked about missing Ant, but he kept the show on the road all the same. Which worked on Britain's Got Talent and, later, Saturday Night Takeaway, but he needed a sidekick for I'm a Celebrity. They needed someone who could step in to Ant's shoes, without the worry of them stepping on Ant's toes.

A woman was probably a good call, given a woman was not going to recreate the blokey friendship. And if it was going to be a woman, then, really, there is only one woman in UK TV today.

Holly Willoughby, who is represented by the same agency as Ant and Dec, is a rare thing in television.

She's allowed to be bawdy without being considered blokeish, constantly cracking up at double-entendres on This Morning with co-host Phillip Schofield. She turns up self-confessedly hungover with him on the couch after big nights out and isn't ever criticised for it or condemned as a bad mother or a bad role model.

She was even allowed to lose weight without being rounded upon, which is unheard of. People seemed genuinely delighted with Holly for shedding weight that no one thought she needed to, and while there was a slight pip of disapproval when she started wearing really expensive clothes on her newly very slim frame, she copped on quickly.

Funnily, though, her selfies with celeb friends on regular holidays at her house in the Algarve and snaps with her husband and three kids on exotic beaches only make fans happy that she's finding a work/life balance.

If Dec was to have a new lovable sidekick, it had to be Willobooby. See, there's more of her magnificence. Holly doesn't even object to that nickname in the age of #MeToo.

Holly, with her sexy head- girl appeal was a great choice for the jungle and possibly, made Ant McPartlin fear for his job. Then again, part of Ant McPartlin's recovery might be that he doesn't want to be on TV again. It has been reported that he's not part of the pre-publicity for next year's Britain's Got Talent.

Is it just Ant who needs to worry about the Holly factor, though? The 11m people who tuned in for the return of I'm a Celebrity weren't there for the lacklustre line-up of celebs and, well, they've seen before what Dec can do. What they tuned in for was the breath of fresh air that is Holly Willoughby, and she hasn't disappointed.

Holly has done, in fact, what she pulled off effortlessly already on This Morning. She came in there as the replacement for Fern Britton, whose dynamic of warm and sometimes naughty camaraderie with Phillip Schofield had proved such a ratings winner. It didn't seem certain that this pretty young one could really work out, but not only did Holly gel with Phil, she made it seem like he was the new boy in her world.

Dec has survived without Ant. But can he survive Holly Willoughby?

Sunday Independent

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