Ant and Dec: ‘I wanted to punch and hug him at the same time’

Interview: A year after Ant McPartlin’s drunken car crash, the double-act talk failure and friendship

‘You have to put your hand up and say, I messed up, I’m sorry.’ Photograph: David Vintiner/The Guardian

‘You have to put your hand up and say, I messed up, I’m sorry.’ Photograph: David Vintiner/The Guardian

 

Ant and Dec stand nose-to-nose, waltz, tie each other’s ties and josh as if they’ve never been apart. Then, photos done, they sit down to talk, and within five minutes Declan Donnelly is in tears.

This is the first interview the pair have given since announcing their comeback last December. More significantly, it’s their first interview since they stopped performing as a team in March last year, after Anthony McPartlin smashed into two cars in south-west London while under the influence of alcohol.

A number of people were treated for minor injuries at the scene, and one child passenger was taken to hospital for a checkup.

The day after the crash, Ant announced he was withdrawing from all television commitments and checking into rehab. Two days later, he was charged with drink-driving; it turned out he had been more than twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty, was fined £86,000 (a sum believed to be Britain’s highest-ever drink-driving penalty) and given a 20-month driving ban.

It wasn’t the first time Ant had been to rehab; a year earlier, he had admitted he was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, and sought treatment.

I ask Dec if he contemplated forging a solo career after the crash, because his professional partner had become a liability.

He answers from the heart. “I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Of course I thought about it. Ant went away, and he had a lot of work to do on himself. He had a lot of thinking to do. Equally, I did. I thought about every eventuality and every permutation.

“Ultimately, the number one thing I wanted to happen was that Ant came back and he was healthy and happy, and we got our relationship back on track and we carried on. That’s the thing that makes me the happiest, working together.”

He wipes his eyes and apologises. “I might get a bit emotional.”

“Don’t start, cos I’ve cried too many tears in the last year,” Ant says.

I last spoke to them for the Guardian in 2005, and nearly 14 years on they seem the same but different. Both are still boyish, neither has grey hair (Dec admits to dyeing his), but they look more worldly-wise and weary – Dec particularly.

Dec doesn’t try to conceal what the past year has taken out of him. Occasionally he wears a “Why me?” or disappointed dad expression, while Ant just looks lovingly at him, like an apologetic puppy.

***

It was around 4pm on March 18th last year that Ant lost control of his Mini Cooper, crashing into another Mini and a BMW coming in the other direction. His mother was a passenger in the car.

Although nobody suffered serious injuries, the driver of the BMW, Dr Audrey Ng, gave a victim impact statement to the court last April, saying that her nine-year-old son had screamed, “I am dying, Mummy, I am dying!”

Ng said Ant had come around the corner “like a rocket” and she was “horrified that someone could drive so dangerously”. A month after the crash, she had been unable to return to work. The other driver said in a statement that his family thought they were going to die “as a result of Mr McPartlin’s reckless driving”.

Until then, nothing really bad had ever happened to Ant and Dec. They were the Teflon entertainers, beloved by the nation. True, Ant had gone to rehab in 2017, but even then he was treated sympathetically – despite revealing that he was taking an outrageous, and potentially deadly, cocktail of pills: OxyContin (known as “hillbilly heroin” because it is a cheap alternative), tramadol and morphine, temazepam and diazepam.

But he owned up, took two months off, got treated, and was welcomed back. Yes, the Sun splashed with its exclusive “Ant: drug binge nearly killed me” but it also commended his “brave” honesty.

The drink-driving conviction looked more like the end of Ant’s career. And what would Dec be without Ant? The two were umbilically linked.

Actually, Dec says, their career was the last thing he was thinking about when he heard the news. “Everything else pales into insignificance,” he says. “We always said our career was built on our friendship and that our friendship was the secret of our success. The career just happened by accident.”

Until last year, he says, that friendship had never been put to the test. “Then everything else disappeared and we went back to being friends again, looking out for one another. And missing each other and appreciating each other.”

Ant puts it more simply. “I always wanted to be back with my friend. We love each other. So everything else goes out of the window. You want to laugh again. You want to enjoy your time together.”

Ant (in yellow) and Dec as Byker Grove’s PJ and Duncan in 1996. Photograph: Rex
Ant (in yellow) and Dec as Byker Grove’s PJ and Duncan in 1996. Photograph: Rex

They admit now that, for some time before the crash, they had stopped enjoying being together, but that it hadn’t really registered. Everything had become about work. The pair lived on the same road in Chiswick, a well-to-do district of west London; they spent their entire working lives together; and yet they had stopped talking about the things that mattered.

“We’d got to a point where we took our relationship for granted. We just assumed it would always be there. We took our eye off the ball a bit,” Dec says.

“I did, especially,” Ant says. “I mean, we lived three doors apart, we’d get in the car, go to work, and the work on screen never suffered. But you get to a point where you’re with each other every day, and you don’t talk as much.”

It was only after Ant stopped working that they began to reconnect. “For the first time in many years, all we talked about were deep things like how we felt and what the future held, and where we were, and all the chaos that has come along, especially for me,” Ant says.

“We are blokes in our early 40s and things change.” He looks at Dec. “You have a family. I’ve got divorced. So things happen in life that change you as a person. And we talked about life.”

***

Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly grew up working-class boys in Newcastle. They are both 43 – Dec is older by a couple of months – and first met on the children’s television series Byker Grove, aged 13. They went on to have hit records as their Byker Grove characters PJ and Duncan (they weren’t that special as pop stars) and by 1994, not yet 20, were co-presenting a Saturday morning children’s show, Gimme 5.

A year later they were given their own eponymous show and, apart from this past year, have never been off our screens or separated since. In total, they have won 39 National Television awards and a Guinness World Record for most consecutive best presenter wins. Make no mistake, Ant and Dec are exceptionally popular.

To a degree, the two are jacks of all trades; they’ve done a bit of singing, performed sketches, dabbled in acting; they can make us laugh. Their heroes are Morecambe and Wise, but they probably won’t go down in history as a classic comedy double act themselves. For starters, many people still can’t tell them apart. (Ant is taller with a higher forehead and always stands on Dec’s right.)

Their timing is spot-on and Ant has a definite touch of Eric Morecambe about him – the face, the loud voice, the staccato delivery and comic gangliness – but neither would claim to share their heroes’ comedic genius.

Instead, what made them special is their ordinariness: if you and your best mate had struck lucky, you might have been Ant and Dec. They transcended class and appealed to all ages – the polite, safe, funny boys who brought a reliable dose of Saturday night escapism to the nation’s screens. You knew where you stood with Ant and Dec. And then Ant went off on one.

Ant says there wasn’t a single reason why he went off the rails, but there are obvious contributory factors: the end of his 12-year marriage to Lisa Armstrong (they divorced last October); a relentless work schedule; a botched knee operation that led to the pain-killing opioids. He was also drinking too much.

There were warning signs, he says, and he ignored them. All that mattered was the work. “We hurtled along, it was nonstop. Bullet-train speed. We’d go from one project to another. Having a great time, but like Dec says, other things take second place.

“It takes something big to happen, like becoming a father, or what’s happened to me, to make you stop and put things in perspective.”

Dec says: “Sometimes life has to tell you a little more forcefully: ‘Slow down or change direction’.”

And if you don’t listen, Ant adds, “It’s like, right, I’m going to kick your arse now.”

Even in confessional mode, the pair have perfect timing, picking up from each other’s sentences without missing a beat.

***

At his lowest, Ant says he didn’t recognise himself. “I was confused, unsure of who I was, what made me happy, what made me tick. You have to strip everything back – almost lose your job, lose your identity, to regain your identity.”

How much was he drinking? “I’d gone to a couple of rehabs, so I’d addressed my alcohol problem. It wasn’t a case of wake up and start drinking. I’d gone through a process, and you just slip. I hadn’t quite got a proper handle on it and when testing situations happen, or you’re going through emotional heartache, turmoil, you resort back to your default setting – which is just to drink on it.”

Did he take other drugs, such as cocaine? “I wasn’t really that way inclined.” He preferred prescription opiates.

I ask Dec if he thought Ant was fine after he came out of rehab in 2017. “No,” he says. He knew there was still a problem.

The week before the crash, Ant says, “I remember saying to Dec, ‘I don’t feel right’ and that wasn’t an alcohol-related thing. I just felt off kilter, weird.”

Did he know he was way over the limit when he got into that car? No, he says, he was out of control. “I was gone. I wasn’t in a good place at all.”

Dec says when he heard about the crash, he refused to believe Ant had been so irresponsible. “It felt like a nightmare, that there’d been a mistake. ‘Of course he didn’t do that.’”

But the following day Ant told him it was all true. “We had a heart-to-heart. I said, ‘Look, forget everything – TV, the partnership – you’ve just got to go and get well.’ I think I said I’d give everything up if he could just be happy again.” His voice falters, before he pulls himself together.

Then he got angry. “How could he do that? I wanted to punch him and hug him at the same time – and I didn’t know which one I wanted to do first.”

Ant says the horror took a while to sink in. “It wasn’t until I’d gone away and rested that it kicked in. I was having sleepless nights. The shame and guilt were horrendous. Whatever state I’m in, drink-driving is an inexcusable act.”

“It’s indefensible,” Dec says, quietly and unforgivingly. He has always seemed the calmer and more mature of the two; now he comes across as a kind of father figure.

The boy in the BMW told his mother he was going to die, I say to Ant. “Yes.” He winces and turns away. Does he have nightmares about that? “I’ve constantly relived the incident. I know how serious that could have been and I am doing things on a daily basis to be a better man.”

Perhaps surprisingly, he was not charged with dangerous driving, which might have led to a custodial sentence. Does he think he got off lightly? “I thank God every night that nobody was seriously hurt. I constantly think about it.”

***

I’m a Celebrity, 2005
I’m a Celebrity, 2005

Last year it was estimated that, together, the presenters were worth around £62m each, but there has been commercial fallout since the crash. The car maker Suzuki withdrew its sponsorship of the pair’s Saturday Night Takeaway, a deal reported to be worth £20m.

A few years ago, Dec said they were insured against each other’s death for £2m. That insurance must have gone through the roof, I say. Dec roars with laughter – more through relief, you sense, that we’ve changed the subject. Will he have to pay the premium? “Not likely!”

“Good luck paying for my premium!” Ant says.

“But to be serious,” Dec says, “with addicts, a lot of it is about the devastation they leave in their wake – their families, their loved ones. Anyone who’s ever had a loved one go through addiction will know just how devastating it can be and how tough it is for those around them, as much as it is for the addict.”

Did they think it was the end of their career? “Mine, certainly,” Ant says. “I’ve got great belief in Dec’s talent, so I knew that he would be OK. There might have been a point where we said, ‘We’ve had great fun, but can we recapture what we had?’ We’ve talked very honestly about it.”

He looks at Dec. “If you’d said to me you wanted to go away and do something different, I would have completely understood.” Then he looks back at me. “All I care about is his happiness.”

You can understand why, in the past, their wives and girlfriends may have struggled to work out exactly where they fitted into this relationship. (Tellingly, their long-term relationships have tended to be with people they work with: Lisa Armstrong was the makeup artist on many of their shows, while Ant’s current partner, Anne-Marie Corbett, is his former PA; Ali Astall, Dec’s wife, used to be the pair’s manager.)

In 2005, Dec told me Ant could be a miserable bastard at times. They laugh when I mention it – again, you sense, with relief. I ask Ant whether that might have been an early sign of his as yet undiagnosed depression.

“I think I’m quite up and down, I’m quite hyper. Either hyper up or down. Not bipolar, but I lean towards manicness and then lowness. I’m just one of those people who happens to be all or nothing. A lot of people can be middle. I’m not.” What about Dec? “He’s more middle.”

***

While Ant was in hospital last year, he was diagnosed with ADHD. “A lot of my behaviour over my teens, my early 20s, with alcohol, all that impulsiveness I’ve had over the years, started to make sense. In our job, it’s been beneficial to me to act that way and do live telly, but in my personal life it’s been chaos. And now it all makes sense.”

What kind of impulsiveness? “For example, drinking, jumping at really bad decisions rational people would probably take more time over.”

He gives an example. “I was renting a house and I sent a picture to someone of me on the roof, and they were like, ‘Why are you on the roof?’ And I said, ‘Cos the window’s open and it seemed like a good idea.’ But that’s not a good idea. That could be a very bad decision.” When was this? “Last year.”

While Ant recuperated, Dec just had to get on with the work, fulfilling their contractual obligations. Less than two weeks after the crash, he presented Saturday Night Takeaway solo. He didn’t address Ant’s absence directly, only saying, “I have twice the amount of work to do, so we’re going to crack on.” He received a standing ovation.

In August, it was announced that Holly Willoughby would replace Ant as Dec’s co-presenter on the 18th series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. It aired in November and December, with its best-ever ratings (an average 12.14 million viewers watched the 22 shows).

How did Ant feel watching Dec with Willoughby, who got great reviews and is an old friend?

“I couldn’t watch,” he says. Why not? “It’s like watching him with another man!” He says it with utter sincerity, and Dec starts laughing.

“You can understand why I couldn’t watch,” Ant says, more to Dec than me. “It was too hard. But I wasn’t not watching it in a jealous or angry way. We’d seen a lot of each other before he flew away and I wished him nothing but the best, and I wanted the show to succeed because…”

“You’re coming back next year!” Dec interrupts.

Did he enjoy working with Willoughby? “I did, yeah.”

Did you think, forget Ant, I’m sticking with Holly? “Nooooah. She was brilliant. I loved it. But it was nice, it was one night…”

He stumbles over his words, Freudian-slipping his way through the sentence. “It was a one-night-stand!”

He giggles and recovers. “I apologise. One series only.”

Astonishingly, in January, Ant and Dec won the National Television award for best presenter for the 18th consecutive time, despite the fact that Ant had spent most of the year off screen. When they received the award, they looked shocked. Was Ant embarrassed?

For the first time, he sounds defensive. “I certainly didn’t feel embarrassed, because you’ve got to remember Dec still worked on all the shows, and we’d done a lot of audition shows for Britain’s Got Talent which aired [before the crash]. We’d done the majority of the Saturday Night Takeaways which aired. There wasn’t an embarrassment factor, just great relief and thanks.

“I almost couldn’t accept it. It was down to Dec’s hard work. I’ve already given the trophy to him.”

Dec puts his hand up in the air, like a boy in school. “I worked my bollocks off, as well,” he says. Perhaps more than anything, the award was a message from the public: we’re rooting for you both, we’re glad to have you back.

Dec nods. “That’s what I’ve felt while Ant’s been away, a huge amount of goodwill, on social media, in the street, people writing to us, going, ‘We’re still with you.’”

“It’s a testament to us having been around so long and people having grown up with us that they’ve allowed us – well, allowed me – to come back,” Ant says. “And they’ve allowed me time to sort myself out, because I don’t think they would have been as forgiving to a lot of other people.”

Dec agrees. “Part of it is, you have to be seen to have put your hand up and say, ‘I messed up, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to try to be a better person.’ You’ve got to come clean.”

I remind them that, before Ant went into rehab in 2017, their biggest scandal came 16 years ago when Dec got drunk in a lapdancing club and went home with a dancer. Dec grins: “Yes, he’s really upped the stakes here, hasn’t he?”

Presenting with Holly Willoughby, 2018
Presenting with Holly Willoughby, 2018

These days, their lives are constant tabloid fodder. In December, the Sun revealed that Ant and his ex-wife were fighting for custody of their chocolate labrador; earlier this month it was front-page news when Ant and his girlfriend went for a stroll with their new maltipoo puppies, Milo and Bumble.

I show them our interview from 2005 and they start reading it. Dec laughs at the fact that, back then, he dreaded turning 30 and becoming a has-been.

“God, I used to smoke! I smoked Regal cigarettes!” Ant says, as if he’s talking about another life. He doesn’t smoke now? “I daren’t.”

He says he’s teetotal and drug-free. So who can you go out for a drink with, I ask Dec.

“Well, the baby’s still too young!” His daughter Isla is just six months old. “Our lives have changed a bit. I go for a sensible dinner with the wife when I can.”

And if he goes out with Ant? “We just go out for dinner,” Dec says.

“We went out last night, actually,” Ant adds.

What’s their favourite meal? “Ribs,” he says instantly. “Dirty old ribs.”

I ask Ant how long it took him to laugh again after the crash. “A long time,” he says. “It doesn’t get much more serious than that, you know. I think it will be the turning point in my life.” In a good way? “In a good way, yeah.”

Perhaps I should have asked Dec how long it took him to laugh again. In a way, it feels the impact has been even greater on him.

“The week after the crash was horrific,” Dec says. “I looked out of my house and there were paparazzi everywhere. And they’re all chasing me down the street. And this guy walks towards me. I’ve never seen him before or since, and he stops about six foot in front of me. Irish guy, and he goes, ‘How’s Ant?’ And I say, ‘He’s not great, if I’m honest, but we’re hoping he’ll sort it out.’ And he went, ‘Sure, we all get shat on. It’s just his turn.’ And then he walked on.” He smiles. “It really helped me. ‘Shit happens to people everywhere. And it’s his turn.’”

Has he ever needed to get help himself? “Oh God, yeah.” And for once he loses his words and stutters, “Yeah, for sure, God I… I… I’ve definitely…”

It feels as if he’s holding something back. When has he struggled? “Throughout the years. Erm, but, most recently, I’m not too proud to say I sought help when Ant was away. It’s the most destabilising thing that has ever happened to me. I had some counselling, and I still do.”

Is he on medication? “No, just counselling. Therapy. It helps to talk to somebody independent, who doesn’t watch or care about TV. We just sit and talk for an hour.”

***

Over the past year, both have reassessed the importance of work and say they are determined to put family and friends first. After a messy and very public divorce, Ant started dating Anne-Marie, who has two daughters. They are now living together, and he has moved away from Dec to be with them. “It’s a wonderful change to my life, a wonderful addition,” he says.

There has been another seismic change. Ant’s father, Ray, who walked out on the family when Ant was 10, has come back into his life – having not seen his son for 32 years. It came about as a result of a (severely disrupted) programme Ant and Dec have been making over the past couple of years, tracing their DNA.

“My dad and I didn’t speak for a long time, but we’re talking again now, which is great,” Ant says. What’s he like? “He’s good, he’s funny. I’m slowly getting to know him again.”

I ask if he thinks it is to his father’s credit that he didn’t try to get in touch before, when he might have milked his son’s celebrity. “Massively, and I respect him a lot for it. He’s a proud man, a worker, a plumber. I’m thrilled that I’m back in touch.”

As for Dec, he says he loves being a dad. He takes out his phone and proudly shows me a photo of Isla with broccoli all over her mouth. Blimey, I say, six months is young to be eating broccoli. “I know. It wasn’t me, was it? Mind you, she had scrambled egg and avocado this morning. Very Chiswick!”

The pair’s own relationship has changed profoundly over the past year, they both acknowledge. You seem very protective towards Ant, I say to Dec.

“I am…” Again he wells up. “Yeah, I am.”

Was it always like that? “No. When you’re younger you feel more invincible – that nothing is ever going to get you down or beat you. When you get a bit older, you realise the fragility of things, how easy it is to get caught out by things – and Ant did.”

Was Dec always the more emotional of the two? “No!” Ant shouts. “He was never the crier. I’ll cry at a Battersea Dogs Home advert.”

So Dec has softened? “Yeah, because he was quite hard. He was quite driven. I mean we were both very driven, don’t get me wrong.” But Dec was tougher? “Yeah.”

What’s been the biggest change in Ant? “That impulsiveness and manicness is less severe,” Dec says. “Those swings are less severe. But more than that, there is a gratitude and a humility about him. It’s not that it wasn’t there, but it wasn’t as pronounced.”

“I was lost,” Ant says. “Life just swallowed me up for a few years.”

Our time is nearly up, and the pair look drained. Dec admits he was anxious about this interview. “I’ve never spoken about all this. I was nervous.”

“We don’t need therapy tonight,” Ant chips in.

“You’ve saved us a bit of money,” Dec says.

“Aye,” Ant adds, “you’ve saved us 250 quid.”

Ant’s been thinking about the story Dec told, about the fella who walked up to him and said: “Shit happens”. He says something similar happened to him.

“When I was in Newcastle at Christmas, a massive bloke came over to me and I thought, I’m not quite sure how this is going to go. He was a big butch Geordie guy, and he got hold of my hands and he said, ‘Good to see you’re not crackers any more, son!’”

He grins. “I thought, that’s great, I’ll take that. Brilliant. Welcome home.” – Guardian

Britain’s Got Talent returns to ITV on April 6th

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