All the references made to Ant McPartlin’s absence from Saturday Night Takeaway

Declan Donnelly fronted the ITV show by himself – but couldn't resist alluding to recent events

Ant McPartlin, Getty, SL

Declan Donnelly hosted Saturday Night Takeaway solo for the very first time this weekend, thanks to his co-presenter Ant McPartlin’s decision to seek treatment following his arrest and charge for drink driving.

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Ant still showed up in the pre-recorded segment Saturday Knight Takeaway, but the live portion of the show was anchored by Dec with a little help from Stephen Mulhern, Scarlett Moffatt and star guest announcer Stephen Merchant.

Hosting for the first time without his long-term collaborator, Dec used his opening comments to quip: “We have got a jam-packed show this week. We have lots to cram in and I’ve got twice the amount of work to do.”

He didn’t mention Ant by name, but if you thought the show would make its reference and then shy away from its presenter’s absence, you’d be wrong. The shift in line-up was alluded to a number of times during the broadcast, thanks in large part to Merchant who offered to exit his lofty recording booth and join Dec in front of the audience: “I can’t help but notice a little bit of space on the stage there. Any chance I should come down and maybe announce from down there?”

Dec then took the opportunity to bid farewell to The London Studios, home to Saturday Night Takeaway since 2002, and wandered the corridors of the soon-to-close Southbank building where he and Ant also filmed SM:TV Live.

Pictures from ITV’s kids breakfast show – which the pair fronted with Cat Deeley from 1998-2003 – adorned the walls of the studio’s corridor before Dec met up with performer Paloma Faith and again joked he’d have to orchestrate her End of the Show Show performance himself,  “like everything else around here this week”

And later he asked student Billie – who played Win the Ads – if she’d been paying attention to this week’s news. When she answered no, he fired back, “for some of us it’s been unavoidable!”

But if Dec was forthright with references to his partner’s absence, Merchant was persistently playful. “That other bloke was good – you should do some more stuff with him,” he joked after Ant made an appearance in Saturday Knight Takeaway.

And referencing Dec’s first solo effort, he assured him: “I don’t care what the producers are saying back here – I think you’re doing a great job.”

He was right. Dec did do a remarkably good job of holding the format together for its 90-minute broadcast. And with a relieved look on his face – and slightly out of breath, following an energetic End of the Show Show with Paloma Faith – he closed the episode by lining up alongside Merchant and sighing “Just hold me, Stephen” before thanking the audience “for all the support”.

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Saturday Night Takeaway will return next weekend for its final episode with Dec hosting solo once again as the production moves to Orlando, Florida, with a plane-load of fans.