It's been a while since Charles Darwin drew his famous picture of a fish becoming a leggy fish becoming a lizard thing becoming a monkey yoke becoming Les Dawson becoming Bruce Forsyth becoming Ant and Dec. Its spin-off programme, Ant & Dec's DNA Journey, only aired a year ago on ITV. Sadly, thanks to the partition that saw us lose six counties and, apparently, UTV, viewers in the Republic are only getting to see it now, on RTÉ One (Tuesday).
Let us regard Ant and Dec. Their death grip on the throat of light entertainment hasn’t loosened in almost two decades. You can’t have a televised talent show now without that duo chortling from the sidelines, and you can’t celebrate a hereditary royal without including their deferential high jinks. They basically host “Britain”. I expect it will be their smiling faces that the British people see guiding them to the pods when it comes time to escape that benighted land.
Celebrities are endlessly surprised to find that their ancestors are from the past. They always seem so shocked discovering their progenitors were pike-wielding, scurvy-riddled wretches and not Google employees
For now the Ant and Dec industrial complex is sucking in other formats, bending them to their twinkling whims. Ant & Dec’s DNA journey is their own self-branded version of Who Do You Think You Are? – a question to which they answer, brightly, “Ant and Dec!” Though ITV has added a sciency DNA element to the format, presumably because it’s hoping to grow clones of the pair to work in its light-entertainment mines.
Shows like this function largely because celebrities are endlessly surprised to find that their ancestors are from the past. They always seem so shocked discovering their progenitors were pike-wielding, scurvy-riddled wretches and not Google employees with Nissan Micras and Instagram pages.
Such shock revelations usually prompt tears, tears being the secret sauce of both modern television and most of my meals. It’s strange to me that for the first half of my life people’s public response to terrible tragedy was impassive repression and the second half was soundtracked by continuous televised weeping. Nowadays, I can only recognise human emotion in other people if it’s gushing from their eye holes like a plumbing emergency. Rest assured, there is weeping on Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey.
What is the upsetting past at which they gaze? Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey doesn’t, as I’d hoped, track the light-entertainment funnymen all the way back to some chortling primordial ooze. No, they content themselves with going just four or five generations, stopping short of ancestors with tails, scales or functioning appendixes.
Dec gets one rich lady from the United States and Ant gets 120 people in a pub in Drumkeerin – or, as we know them here in the motherland, dependants
And although the show’s innovation is to allow Ant and Dec to meet some distant relatives revealed by the DNA tests, none of these distant relatives are lemurs or fish or frogspawn. Instead, they’re Irish. I mean, the clue was in their names if you think about it – Donnelly and McPartlin. They couldn’t be more Irish if they were drinking red lemonade from an old Tayto bag while tipping off Revenue about a neighbour’s tax irregularities.
So, in the first episode, the DNA test reveals that Dec has a distant cousin who is a rich wrestler from Irish America. Sadly, they do not wrestle. But then the boffins, using a special marker in Ant's DNA, discover that Ant is related to 120 people from the village of Drumkeerin in Co Leitrim. So Dec gets one rich lady from the United States and Ant gets 120 people in a pub in Drumkeerin – or, as we know them here in the motherland, dependants.
The duo go there and find a room filled with Ant McPartlin-shaped heads. It’s almost as though they’re mocking him but they’re not. They welcome him with open arms, and he pays for a round for everyone that costs £600 while a local lady sings an old traditional song. This was filmed a few years ago, so I assume there’s an Ant McPartlin Plaza in Drumkeerin by now. And I’m guessing at this stage you can’t open a cupboard in Ant and Dec’s production-company offices without a McPartlin falling out like a tribble.
Ten minutes before the end of this programme they explain why there's a big time jump between episode one and episode two by addressing Ant's substance-abuse problem head on. It's quite affecting, to be honest
Look, Ant and Dec are always warm, likeable and entertaining. That’s their job. But what’s most interesting about Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey is not these qualities applied to an ancestry-chasing concept. It’s the thing that happened after filming began and how they deal with it in the show. A few years ago Ant was revealed to have a serious substance-abuse problem and ended up going to rehab. The bulk of this week’s episode was filmed just before that; then production came to a halt for two years. Ten minutes before the end of this programme they explain why there’s a big time jump between episode one and next Tuesday’s episode two by addressing the issue head on. It’s quite affecting, to be honest.
Dec talks about the anger he felt at the time, and Ant talks about his sorrow for how his actions affected his friend, and they both say how much they care about each other. In fact, even before this, all the really interesting things in this show are about their immediate lives, not those of their ancestors – Dec's family connections to Tyneside Irish Centre, the fact that Ant has a troubled relationship with his absentee father, the pair of them walking their dogs.
It made me realise that what I'd really like to see is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about being Ant and Dec. I mean, forget all those olden daysers in the horrible past. What's it like to be an umbilically attached light-entertainment duo who must glide frictionlessly over the surface of life with quips and japes? What's that really like? Sadly, we'll probably only know when their far future descendants, Robot Ant and Dec, go on their own DNA journey.
This week I also bingewatched The Chair (Netflix, from today) a six-part miniseries featuring the brilliant Sandra Oh as the first woman head of an American university English department, appointed just in time to deal with a disastrous social-media controversy. This is the synopsis, which makes it sound terrible, but The Chair actually manages to be a complex, moving and funny show about how individuals deal with the complicated crosscurrents of race, gender, age and identity in an age of reckoning. It's all about how the past leaves fingerprints not only on our DNA but on our institutions as well. It's very good.