As Ant McPartlin goes to rehab, what happens to Ant & Dec?

The TV star’s plight may start a conversation about men’s mental health and infertility

Ant McPartlin feels he has ‘let people down’ following a battle with depression, alcohol and substance abuse. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

Ant McPartlin feels he has ‘let people down’ following a battle with depression, alcohol and substance abuse. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

 

The British TV star Ant McPartlin – better known as the taller, high-foreheaded half of Ant & Dec – has checked himself into rehab, admitting that he is suffering from an addiction to prescribed painkillers and alcohol.

In a statement to the Sun on Sunday, the 41-year-old apologised to friends and family, saying he felt “like I’ve let people down”, after depression and chronic pain from a “botched” knee operation two years ago left him in physical and mental “agony”.

He said he had “spoken out because I think it’s important that people ask for help if they’re going through a rough time and get the proper treatment to help their recovery”.

His “exclusive confession” to the tabloid suggests an alternative reason, though. As is often the case with these stories, he may have had no choice but to go public – if the newspaper was on the point of publishing it anyway.

“Ant in drug rehab: He admits booze, pills & substances,” blared the Sun’s not entirely sympathetic headline, declining to shed light on what those other ‘substances’ might be (Walkers crisps? Chocolate?)

The paper also claims to have an inside track on what was said at the “hastily arranged summit” with TV partner Declan Donnelly and life partner, Lisa Armstrong, recounting how McPartlin was in tears; Donnelly was shocked but supportive.

If it is the case that the Sun was threatening to out McPartlin, perhaps the only real surprise is that it took so long.

In this age of smartphones and social media, managing to conceal an addiction takes an awful lot of work for anyone in the public eye. For a pair of former child stars, who have done all of their growing up in public, it’s frankly impressive that, prior to this, the only dirt the tabloids ever had on them was a drunken night involving Donnelly and a lap dancer.

(Tellingly, when they were once asked who would have been the more likely to self-destruct, both immediately agreed it would be McPartlin.)

McPartlin reportedly managed to keep a lid on his problems by becoming a “virtual recluse”, after a botched knee operation left him addicted to the painkiller Tramadol. “Friends” told the Sun that he’d leave the house only to go to work, “because of the total agony he was in, becoming dependent on medication over months and months. In the last few weeks it got worse and he wouldn’t even leave the house to go to the shops”.

As McPartlin readies himself for two months of rehab, and a five-month break from TV, the concern for the people behind “brand Ant & Dec” now will be the damage these revelations could do to the their wholesome, cheeky-chappy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, image.

It’s true that the picture emerging of a drug-addled, depressed recluse doesn’t sit well with the image of TV’s loveable messers; the watch-it-with-your granny package that has always been the essence of their formula.

A few things will help to counterbalance the negatives, though. His upfront, contrite and emotional confession, all-round likeability, and the fact that his addiction started with drugs he was prescribed for crippling pain will invoke public sympathy.

Already, celebs have been racing to tweet their support. First out of the gate was, of course, Dec, with a message from their joint account. (Of course they share a Twitter account.)

The fact that he has gone straight into rehab, and that there are no damaging images circulating, will also help him to move on from the story in the future.

Ultimately, the brand may even benefit. The Ant & Dec double act has always been just that bit too wholesome to be entirely credible. They were teenage best friends and emerged together as Byker Grove child stars in 1989.

In their single days, they lived together – now, they own houses three doors apart. They share a Twitter account. They were each other’s best man.

Their careers are so intertwined that they have reportedly taken out insurance policies against each other’s death for stg£1million. When Donnelly got married in 2016, it was to the duo’s talent manager for the past decade, Ali Astall, rather than someone who might have put a wedge between them.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what their appeal is, beyond their inseparability and relatability. They are safe, as opposed to anarchic. They’re not natural comedians but they are funny, in the way that watching your brothers slag one another across the dinner table is funny. Ultimately, they’re two average blokes. And perhaps that’s at the heart of their brand.

In this sense, McPartlin’s claim that he would like to help others may, for once, actually come to pass. It can be genuinely comforting to people going through mental-health problems to know that they are not alone, that even someone as fortunate, wealthy and apparently cheery as McPartlin struggles.

His difficulties are said to have been caused in part by infertility, something often discussed in the context of the pain it causes women. Far less often considered is the pain it can cause to men – despite the fact that male infertility is responsible for one in three cases; despite the fact that men are just as capable of longing for children.

McPartlin has been married for 11 years to his wife, Lisa Armstrong, a make-up artist, and in a relationship with her for over 20. As long ago as 2010, he was telling journalists “we’ve wanted children for a while but we’re both busy”. He referred to the subject again in 2014, in an interview with the Radio Times. Three years on, the couple have yet to have any children, something the Sun says is causing him “anxiety” and putting “a strain” on his marriage.

One US study of 200 couples found that half of the women, and 15 per cent of the men, said that infertility was the most upsetting experience of their lives. “Men are in fact equally affected by the unfulfilled desire for a child but are less open about their feelings,” says a 2008 article on the male experience of infertility in the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology.

McPartlin may never have sought this attention – his wife certainly didn’t. But if any good is to come out of this humiliating public undoing of the loveable messer image, it will be in opening the door to a long overdue conversation about men, mental health and infertility.

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