Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tanya Sweeney: We grew up watching cheeky chappies Ant & Dec, but now eyes are on the fall of the lad-next-door

Dynamic duo: Ant & Dec. Photo: Getty Images
Dynamic duo: Ant & Dec. Photo: Getty Images

Tanya Sweeney

It's almost hard to believe, but when Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly met on the set of Byker Grove 30 years ago, theirs wasn't a fast friendship.

So terrible, apparently, were young Dec's jokes that Ant initially gave his co-star a wide berth. But as their characters PJ and Duncan became inextricably linked, their friendship grew. Booze reportedly bonded them together after a teenage Donnelly got alcohol poisoning from downing three pints at a family christening.

"When I heard the words 'alcohol poisoning', right there and then I knew one thing: me and Dec were going to be friends for life," Ant is quoted as saying. Little did he know just how pertinent those words would become.

Few people back then could have predicted the pair's rise to the very top of the UK's televisual pile. But there was something in their natural, easy-going closeness that was hard for TV bosses to resist. They were the cheeky chappies that a generation grew up with; central to a typical family Saturday night.

And until a year ago, their personal lives were blemish-free to the outside world. The only allusion to their love of a good time was when, at McPartlin's wedding to Lisa Armstrong in 2006, Donnelly read out a telegram that ran: "To Ant and Lisa, our best customers, we hope you have a wonderful day. From everyone at [off-licence] Thresher."

This time last year, the biggest 'gossip' in the Ant & Dec camp was whether there would be a reboot of SM:TV, which was approaching its 20th anniversary.

And then, McPartlin collided with a number of personal challenges and SM:TV was the last thing on anyone's mind. The age old idea of what you see being what you got with Ant & Dec - their stock in trade for years - was no more.

After becoming addicted to painkillers following botched knee surgery in 2015, McPartlin also reportedly drank before many high-profile TV appearances. Keeping up his lad-next-door persona amid such personal turmoil was a high-wire act that took a toll and saw him go to rehab for alcohol and painkiller addiction. In the months since then, he has split with Lisa, his wife of 12 years. It has been reported that she is seeking a sizeable share of McPartlin's €70m fortune.

Brand Ant & Dec certainly took a knock, but when a visibly emotional McPartlin appeared at the National Television Awards, alluding on the podium to difficult times, it was official. He'd been welcomed back into the showbiz fold. It was the moment of career rehabilitation the public never even knew they needed.

And for a while, things appeared to have been restored to factory settings. McPartlin's divorce was ongoing, but on the small screen at least, it was very much business as usual.

Yet the fact that they were, for so long, the human embodiment of good, clean fun has made McPartlin's drink-driving arrest over the weekend a genuine shock. To fall from grace once is unfortunate, but twice?

For now, the duo's show Saturday Night Takeaway has been pulled from the schedules. Their friendship appears indestructible, but their dependable, wholesome brand is in freefall.

While Ant will likely have a job getting back into the good graces of the Saturday night family crowd, another question remains: what will become of Donnelly's career?

Certainly, others have bounced right back after finding themselves in similar, if not bigger, moments of ignominy. Donnelly has also sworn he will never appear on TV without his sidekick.

"We made an agreement - whatever happened, we'd be mates forever and neither one of us would ever be on our own out there," he is quoted as saying.

"If it all ended tomorrow, we'd still speak every day, we'd still see each other all the time and we'd still be best mates."

All very commendable and on-brand, but there's no escaping the fact that McPartlin's Sunday afternoon crash - in which a young child was taken to hospital - will have very serious repercussions on both their careers.

It's interesting to note that as McPartlin began rehab in mid-2017, ITV had reportedly considered handing the I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! hosting gig to Donnelly alone. It would have been the first time in 23 years that the pair would have been separated on TV.

The duo's next big gig - Britain's Got Talent - resumes next month. Several interviews between Ant, Dec and Britain's Got Talent auditionees are already in the can, but that's likely to be one of the production team's smaller headaches.

Will the show go on? It's hard to tell. But when it comes to Ant & Dec, it's precisely their ironclad friendship that got them to where they are today. To watch it face its biggest tribulations yet is, alas, likely to become the biggest show in town.

Katie Byrne is away

Irish Independent

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