Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, aka Ant and Dec, are Britain’s most successful double act. While the history of popular entertainment is rife with double acts who couldn’t stand each other off stage, Ant and Dec are the closest of pals. For the past 20 years, they’ve lived in the same flat or next door to each other. Even now, they live in the same road. Both are likeable, warm, working-class, smarter and more ambitious than you might imagine.
They started out together 23 years ago as 14-year-olds on the BBC children’s TV series Byker Grove. Since then, they’ve reinvented themselves, first as pop stars PJ & Duncan, then as TV presenters. Now they’re responsible for three of the UK’s highest-profile shows: I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Britain’s Got Talent and Saturday Night Takeaway, which returns to ITV this week after a four-year absence. They’ve won the National Television Award for Best Entertainment Presenter for 12 years running.
Ant and Dec are a true phenomenon. Not least because so many people still can’t tell them apart. Often the two halves of a comedy double act are distinguishable by exaggerated physical features – let’s face it, few of us would confuse Morecambe with Wise or Laurel with Hardy. By contrast, Ant and Dec play on their similarities.
In Richard Curtis’s romantic comedy Love Actually, they appear as themselves and are repeatedly referred to individually as “Ant or Dec”. This is partly because they do look vaguely similar (dark hair, boyish, smiley, short) but mainly because they fit together seamlessly as a pair. They don’t have delineated roles; neither is the funny or straight man. They’re simply two halves of a brilliantly branded, understated whole.
But there are differences. Here for Radio Times, they’ve agreed to be interviewed separately about their relationship for the first time. Talking to them individually was fascinating. There are those moments when they had different recollections of their past (the football match they first went to together, and how they got on with each other initially) and there were times when different characteristics emerged. Dec is the more thoughtful and emotional in private.
But more than anything, what became apparent is the profound depth of their friendship. At one point in our conversation Dec talked about how they pledged to be friends for ever when they thought their career was over as teenagers. He began to weep.
Ant on Dec
We got on as soon as we met. We were both 14. We lived very close to each other in Newcastle. Our schools were just down the road from one another, so we had everything in common – music, girls, movies and football.
The first Christmas we knew each other, I sent him a Flintstones card saying, “Have a yabba dabba do Christmas.”. And I wrote “D’you fancy coming to the Grimsby game on Boxing Day?”
When our characters in Byker Grove, PJ and Duncan, shared a storyline, we became really close. We’d go out to the pictures, stay at each other’s houses, have parties when family members were away. I remember my mam going away to Turkey with my younger sisters and that was a big Byker Grove party. All the girls got dolled up, all the boys came round, there was a lot of Alcopops on the go.
At 18, we were written out of the series. There had been talk of a spin-off series with me and Dec, but the executive producer called us in to say the BBC had poo-pooed the idea. I was devastated.
We walked down this big staircase very glum, then the producer popped his head back round and said, “I’ve just had this record company on the phone from London, ” and we thought , “Whatever!” But we did sign the contract on my 19th birthday and then moved to London.
We never really said goodbye to our parents. We were supposed to be going for three weeks, but we just didn’t come back. We shared two flats in London, the first in Fulham, which was a pigsty. The record company paid for it and everything we couldn’t do back home, we did there. Takeaways every night. We’d come in, throw our coats down, get a beer out of the fridge: it was really men behaving badly – or boys behaving badly.
We then bought homes next to each other, and in 2006 I got married and Dec bought a house three doors down the road from my new marital home. He’s basically a stalker, but he’s very good at his job so I’ll keep him on.
There’s a rumour that we do every thing together and I’m holding off having kids till Dec finds himself Mrs Right. I love that idea, but I’m afraid it’s not true. Lisa and I would love to have kids. We’re trying. It’s tougher than you think when you get a bit older.
We’re insured against the other dying. It’s not for tens of millions but a fair chunk. If he does ever die in unfortunate circumstances, I’m going to be the first person the police come to because I’ve got a motive. Maybe when we’re 50 and not getting paid as we used to, I’ll knock him off.
The longest that we’ve been apart is a month. It was two years ago and we'd been incredibly busy throughout the year so we decided to take August off. I took my family away to a villa in Portugal and Dec went away with his family. We did text quite a lot, though, because August is a big football transfer time.
The biggest argument we’ve had was over the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire board game about ten years ago. I was Tarrant and the question was “Who wrote this novel?” and they give you four crime authors, Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie, another, and another. He took a 50–50 and said, “Well, it’s either that one or that one,” so I took out the two he didn’t know and left the two he’d said it was either. He swore a lot. Let’s be honest, he went mental, packed up the game and went home.
But we’ve never come close to splitting up. People find it hard to believe, but we’re friends first and foremost.
Among double acts, Morecambe and Wise are number one, definitely. But there’s a load of influences. Vic and Bob second – they were a huge influence when I was growing up and, being from the North East, I really loved them. For a double act to work, you shouldn’t have egos. You shouldn’t worry who gets the funny line, just that you’re being funny as a double act. With us, it flips all the time. There’s no real straight man or funny man.
Dec’s worst habit is that he’s always late. He fannies around. It’s not like he’s rushing from meeting to meeting, cos I’m in exactly the same meetings, so I don’t know what it is that always makes him 15 minutes later than he should be.
We’ve talked a lot about the future this year. We love I’m a Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent, Saturday Night Takeway, but they’re all live shows. The difference between doing a live show and a sitcom is that a sitcom can live on. If you do it well, it can leave a legacy, whereas most of our live work never gets repeated because it’s final, it’s done, you start again.
So we’re developing a silent comedy idea at the moment. It will take a couple of years and we might never get there, but it’s the way we’d like to go.
We probably will try our luck in America again. It never really worked because the network didn’t get behind us; it would need to be the right show. I think we’ve got one big push left in us, and we’d have to make sure it’s worth it. If it happens, it happens, but because everything is going so well over here, we’re not dying to break America.
Over the years Dec and I have got closer. Unfortunately, it tends to be because of bad things, like when Dec’s dad passed away a couple of years ago. At times like that, any kind of business goes out of the window and you just realise our friendship comes first.
Dec on Ant
We didn’t get on instantly. I was in the first series of Byker Grove and Ant was in the second. So there was a little bit of “Who are these new kids?” when he joined. I remember Ant coming in and sitting in the corner by himself, and I thought he looked really miserable.
Then about two months later, the new set of scripts came out and our characters became friends. That’s when we started talking. The first meaningful friendship moment we had was when Ant sent me a Fred Flintstone Christmas card and it said, ‘To Dec from Ant, have a yabba dabba do Christmas.” At the bottom it said, “PS fancy going to the Swindon game on Boxing Day?”
We met at Gray’s monument in the middle of Newcastle at 2pm, got a Gregg’s pasty, walked up to the Gallagher end, and that was the start of our bromance. From then on, we’d go and stay at each other’s houses, play football, go to the pictures every week.
Ant and Dec seemed a natural name for us – it was just how people referred to us, cos we were always together. I’ve never resented the fact that his name comes first. It’s only relatively recently, the last ten years, we’ve stood with Ant on the left and me on the right. They call it the 180-degree rule.
A few years ago somebody did a survey and found out that 70 per cent of the British public don’t know which one’s which. I’m used to being confused for someone else. l’ve got three brothers and three sisters, and I grew up being called Eamonn-Martin-Dermott-Declan because I was the youngest of the boys and Mum would go through all their names first before she got to mine.
I’m not sure how much Ant and I are insured against each other. I’ve heard it’s a couple of million. However much it is, it would never be compensation for losing your best mate. I’ve never wanted to work alone since we started together. All the ideas we have are for the pair of us. There might come a time when we want to do something individually, but I think it’s a long way off.
We’ve only really had two arguments; one was over the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? board game and the other was when we were drunk in a lift in Spain. I can’t even remember what it was about, we were so drunk. I knocked his cap off and he punched me in the chest. He would win in a fight.
Soon after Ant got married and moved into his home with Lisa, I found a plot of land I fancied developing on their road. First of all I thought they’re going to build a family and I didn’t want to feel I was some sort of cling-on, some limpet. So I told Ant – he was like whoopee! But he said, “You’ve got to speak to Lisa.” I asked if he’d do it and he went, “No no no no, you’ve got to do it, I’ll come with you.”
We both stood there like naughty schoolboys and she went, “What? What’s happened?” Ant went, “Dec’s got something to tell you.” She just started laughing and went, “Bloody hell, typical.” She said, “People are going to think this is really weird,” and I’m like, “I know, I know…”
People often ask why I haven’t settled down yet. Perhaps I’m incredibly fussy. The last long-term relationship was a couple of years back with [Sky Sports presenter] Georgie Thompson. But that’s not the last relationship I had. You just don’t hear about them, thankfully.
I think Ant and I were ambitious because of where we come from. Both of us are from working-class families on council estates in Newcastle. Growing up in the 80s, there weren’t many opportunities. It was tough – how it is today economically and socially is reminiscent of those days. We were so lucky that opportunity came along in the early 90s, and we didn’t let it go. That’s driven us for the last 20 years.
I don’t want to go back to how things were. I think I fear that more than Ant. I still have that feeling that we’re going to get a knock on the door and somebody will say, “It wasn’t supposed to be you, it was supposed to be somebody else. It’s time to hand it all back.”
If it all ended tomorrow, as long as we still had our friendship with each other, I could deal with it. When we were 17, I got my first car, a Mini Metro. We’d been told we were being written out of Byker Grove, and we had nothing. We got in the car and drove down to the quayside in Newcastle before it was all redeveloped, and we sat with a bag of crisps and a bottle of pop, looking at the Tyne bridge, going, “God what are we going to do now?” We were both bricking it because we didn’t know what was coming next and we loved what we did.
We pledged then whatever happens we’ll always remain friends. [He starts to cry.] I’m getting a bit emotional talking about it. I am more emotional than Ant. I appreciate our relationship even more since I lost my dad. We’ve both matured and realised there’s life outside work as we approach 40. You’ve got to stop and smell the roses every now and then. For a long time we were always striving for the next thing. You do take stock and value things a bit more.
People often ask what the secret of our success is, and I used to put it down to just something that happened, but reflecting on it, I think it’s friendship. Ours is a career built on a friendship, not a friendship built on a career.
Find out how well Ant and Dec really know each other as they take our quickfire quiz
Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway begins on Saturday at 7:00pm on ITV