The cost of being a National Treasure

In uncertain times we need our national treasures to offer hope, reassurance and continuity. So how do we react when their lives fall apart? 

Ant and Dec collage
Images @itvtakeaway

When news broke on March 19 of Ant McPartlin’s arrest for drink driving the nation took a collective gasp. Almost immediately images of the troubled TV presenter filled homepages from the BBC and The Guardian to The Daily Mail, as the story of his dramatic fall from grace made breaking news. 

Up until this point everyone had believed that McPartlin must be ‘fixed’ after checking himself into rehab in June 2017 for an addiction to prescription painkillers and alcohol. Really it’s not just that everyone thought he was better; we needed him to be better.

This is Ant McPartlin we’re talking about, one half of TV’s golden duo who have graced our screens for over twenty years. Beyond being just a safe pair of hands, Ant and Dec possess that unique ability of being almost universally adored by people of all ages, classes and backgrounds.

Even the most cynical members of the British public have a soft spot for the Geordie duo who have become a permanent fixture of Saturday night TV. Whatever the format they are thrown into, Ant and Dec fizz with humour and good spirits. This has been the case ever since the early days of SMTV Live in the late 1990s through to Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and of course the multi-award winning Saturday Night Takeaway.

Rather than feeling corny in this age of disappointment and uncertainty, Ant and Dec beam like a beacon of hope through a gathering storm.

But surely all of the pressures we feel so keenly are also exerting the same force on a national treasure like Ant McPartlin? Why should he be immune to issues with mental health and addiction just because he smiles every time we see him on TV?

When McPartlin first spoke about his problems with addiction in June the country was shocked but supportive, especially given that the news coincided with the breakdown of his 23-year relationship with wife Lisa Armstrong.

Ant & Dec are ready! Are you? #SaturdayNightTakeaway

A post shared by Saturday Night Takeaway (@itvtakeaway) on

Tears were shed during the National Television Awards in January when Ant and Dec won the Best TV Presenter award for the 17th year running. It was one of three awards the duo claimed on the night, including winning the inaugural Bruce Forsyth Entertainment Award for Saturday Night Takeaway and the Best Challenge Award for I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

During the ceremony McPartlin addressed the audience of millions at home, acknowledging that it had been a “tough year” for him personally, before asking “can I have a lie down now?”

This is the crux of the issue. The nation has always needed its national treasures to never miss a beat even when uncertain times hit and to keep the ship on course, despite the fact they are people too. No two national treasures have been better at holding it all together with cheery, wide-eyed grins than Ant and Dec.

As soon as the news broke of McPartlin’s arrest for drink driving, a crime for which he could face up to six months in prison, people panicked that their usual fix of Saturday Night Takeaway would be off the menu. After all this was meant to be the redemptive series where Ant proved to us that he had shaken off his pesky addictions and was back fighting fit for a stint of seamless live TV.

Since then ITV has had to issue a statement confirming it will not be axing Ant and Dec from presenting duties on the next series of I’m a Celebrity, despite the lurid newspaper headlines. McPartlin is responsible for holding together a whole ecosystem of programmes, formats and brand partnerships that ITV relies on extremely heavily. 

It is fair to say that the adoration, and with it the expectations, for McPartlin go well beyond the normal. When Wayne Rooney pleaded guilty to drink driving in September after being caught three times over the limit, driving a woman home who wasn’t his pregnant wife, the public were critical but not outraged. A footballer caught in the midst of another misdemeanour, and Wayne Rooney at that? Seen it before.

Whatever his illustrious football career Rooney does not hold the same social currency as Ant McPartlin who is in the strangely unenviable position of being culturally important, ridiculously successful and universally likeable. So when he falls, we all fall.

Saturday Night Takeaway will continue next weekend while McPartlin takes an unspecified leave of absence from ITV to attend rehab.

On March 21 Declan Donnelly, who had previously said he would not perform without his co-star, released a statement saying that the remaining two Saturday Night Takeaway shows of the series would continue, particularly as they had promised to take prize winners to Florida to watch the finale.

The disruption caused by Ant McPartlin’s fall from grace will no doubt have given ITV some headaches, but being supportive of its on-screen talent is the least the broadcaster can do after having relied on Ant and Dec to add their much needed sparkle to nearly every high profile format it has produced over the past two decades.

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