There was a time when the notion of Ant without Dec, or Dec without Ant, was unfathomable, but in the past few weeks that moment has come. Following the literal car crash of Ant McPartlin’s career, where he drove headlong into a car containing a young family, the 42-year-old has been in rehab awaiting his court date for drink-driving.
Meanwhile, his on-screen partner of 30 years, Declan Donnelly, hosted their award-winning television show – Saturday Night Takeaway – on his own, and will reportedly host the forthcoming series of Britain’s Got Talent solo. On paper, it could seem as if the untouchable Ant and Dec brand – once worth more than £100 million – will never recover.
‘Ant is mortified,’ a long-term friend told me. ‘He talked about his problems and everyone believed they were behind him, but he still had the demons on his back. He feels he has let Dec down, himself down and, most of all, the public. He doesn’t know if he can ever win their trust back. He is tormenting himself with guilt and shame. He is going to need so much support to get himself back.'
Behind the scenes over the last few months, the broken star has been sent regular messages of support from Dec, as well as his estranged make-up artist wife Lisa and his mother, Christine Woodhall. He is also being showered with messages from well-wishers in the television industry – the likes of Chris Evans, Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Amanda Holden. The friend said, ‘These people are not just sending small texts, they are writing him letters to read and to keep. All his fan mail is being kept. It actually could be a crucial part of his recovery. Ant needs to realise how loved he is.’
In truth, however, I firmly believe that neither Ant’s career nor brand ‘Ant and Dec’ is over.
The first time I met Anthony David McPartlin more than a decade ago, he was very keen to explode the myth of the television phenomenon that was Ant and Dec. Sitting in the bar of a North London photographic studio to the right of his best mate, Dec, he told me, ‘We can only be those happy-go-lucky guys you see on the telly after about 50 meetings, lots of sleepless nights and endless amounts of rehearsals. It takes a hell of a lot of work to look as spontaneous and relaxed as we are on the screen.’
That was my first introduction to the Geordie duo and it was my first indication that there was an awful lot more complexity to these two men (or ‘boys’, as they are always called) than their carefully constructed image ever allowed. There are few people in the industry with such a reputation for professionalism, strong work ethic and lack of ego as Ant and Dec. Gary Barlow – who himself suffered a breakdown when his solo career tanked following the demise of Take That – is just one of many who have insisted, ‘He can come back from this. Absolutely.’
In many ways, Ant’s problem is that he never really believed in his own celebrity. He is the first to tell you how few GCSEs he has (Ant and Dec have five qualifications apiece) and how much of an effect it had on him when his father walked out, leaving him to become the man of the house at the age of 10.
When he first tasted fame alongside Catholic schoolboy Dec, it was in the children’s TV show Byker Grove. ‘We didn’t like each other at first,’ he once told me. ‘But we were pushed together and we just bonded over Greggs pasties and Newcastle United.’ They were the stars of Byker Grove and then, after being told they were going to be given their own television series, the plan was suddenly cancelled and they were let go from the show and faced with the prospect of enrolling on a B-Tech course unless they thought of something else. ‘So, we sat in my light-blue Metro Turbo in complete shock and realised we had to do something ourselves. You’re somebody and nobody in a split second. This is a business. You can only look out for yourself... or, in our case, each other. We’d had some vague offer of doing a pop record so we then became PJ and Duncan [their Byker Grove characters].
Success has not just happened to either Ant or Dec. They work their backsides off. Ant has spent hours talking about how they agonise over every single detail of their show, from the tone to the little inset dramas, to the giveaways to the guests. When they came up with the idea for SMTV (their first breakthrough show as presenters), they were so concerned with keeping control of the idea that they put the programme document in a briefcase and handcuffed it to a security guard before sending him to the head of entertainment at ITV.
In the past few years, it is Ant who has struggled the most with his success and fame. After Dec finally married his girlfriend, Ali Astall (now pregnant with their first child), Ant’s 11-year marriage to make-up artist and childhood sweetheart Lisa Armstrong crumbled when he became addicted to painkillers after a botched knee operation in 2015 and then suffered from major depression. ‘That let the darkness in,’ says the friend. ‘Ant’s always had this fear that one day everything will be whipped away, that somehow he doesn’t deserve everything he has, that he has failed in his marriage, let Lisa down and that with each award, the pressure to get better just increases and increases. ‘He needs a total break. He needs to get himself out of his [own] head and see how loved he is. Yes, he has made a mistake. But he has the capacity to come back from this stronger than ever before. He just needs time and patience and not to rush back before he’s ready, like he did last year. Everyone has faith that he will pull through.’
And in the meantime, Dec is holding the fort. ‘All he wants is for Ant to come back,’ confirms the source. I wish you well, Ant.