It’s 5pm when Paddy McGuinness calls from his home in Cheshire. Surely it’s teatime for his kids, eight-year-old twins Leo and Penelope and five-year-old Felicity? “It is, yes! I’ve just snuck up to the bedroom with you.” A beat. “That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean.” Of course I do. He’s the king of innuendo, as seen when he presented the ridiculously successful dating show Take Me Out, which ran on ITV for nearly a decade until 2019 and was pretty much defined by its non-stop use of double entendre.
Whenever McGuinness is on the telly, he presents himself as the daft everyman, an entertainer of the masses who’s equally at home hosting Question of Sport or Top Gear alongside Freddie Flintoff and Chris Harris. Even early on in Phoenix Nights (2001) alongside his childhood friend Peter Kay, he played a nightclub bouncer called Paddy who was a serial flirt. It would be easy to assume that the 48-year-old is a bit of a lad, in it for the laughs and the ladies.
There is, however, a more serious side to him. In Paddy and Christine McGuinness: Our Family and Autism, he and his 33-year-old wife Christine, a former model, openly discuss their three children being diagnosed with autism. It’s a candid, moving documentary in which the couple invite us into their Cheshire mansion, talk about their respective responses to the diagnosis and explore how we might all better understand autism, especially since there has been a steep increase – mainly in girls – in the number of schoolchildren diagnosed with the condition.
McGuinness admits he wasn’t sold on the idea of “such a personal documentary” until lockdown happened and his kids had to be home-schooled – difficult for all pupils, but harder still for kids who rely on routine. “Our kids regressed and it made me think about families who might be in a similar, or worse, position to us. I was struggling, so I thought if we did the documentary, other families might not feel so alone or isolated.”
For the first two years of the twins’ lives, Paddy and Christine pretty much stayed at home because it was less traumatic than going anywhere. The twins’ boundaries were unpredictable, their sleep fractured, their meltdowns hard to control and their development slow. The twins were diagnosed with autism at four and, later, Felicity at three.
It’s a postcode lottery for most parents and McGuinness acknowledges that they were lucky. “One of the toughest things for parents is the wait for a diagnosis. At least then you can work out what triggers your kids. I don’t want to go into too much detail about my kids, but Penelope, for example, ‘masks’ – she does her best to fit into her environment and not draw attention to herself. Christine and I are constantly on watch, making sure the kids stay calm and happy as much as possible. But in some areas of the UK, the wait for a diagnosis doesn’t take weeks or months, but years. It needs to change. People need to be seen much faster.”
Although Christine was quicker to accept the diagnosis – she also recognises many of the kids’ traits in herself and scores highly on an AQ test for autism in the documentary – Paddy initially struggled. He says in the film that he saw a therapist and was diagnosed with depression. “Yeah,” he says now. “It’s all in my book.” He’s referring to his recently published autobiography My Lifey (a nod to the Take Me Out catchphrase “No likey, no lighty” that fans will get immediately) – but it feels more like a distracting tactic than self-promotion. Is he reluctant to discuss depression? “No, but it’s a tricky one. If I talk about any of these things – autism, depression, whatever – publicly, it’s always because I want to help other people talk about them more openly.”
I think he means he doesn’t want to become the poster boy for depression or autism, but if speaking up might help, he’ll do it. In the film he meets Paul Scholes, who talks about his teenage son who has non-verbal autism. The former Manchester Utd player admits he too struggled after his child’s diagnosis, but learnt to navigate his traits and now fully accepts and adores his son for who he is. It’s still – ridiculously – unusual for two men to talk so openly about their emotions on TV.
McGuinness laughs: “I come from a single parent, working-class, Northern background and I spent years before Phoenix Nights working on a building site. Men have traditionally struggled to open up more. We’re seen as hunter gatherers whose obligation it is never to be upset or weak. Even among our mates. But I still see the lads I used to work with and they actually ask each other how they are doing in a caring way. I’m talking about hairy-arsed builders. Men’s men. Things are slowly changing.”
Being brought up by a single mother who worked two jobs to support her son has left its mark on him. He doesn’t need to work non-stop any more – in 2006, his first stand-up tour, The Dark Side, earned a cool million – but he shows no sign of slowing down. It’s suggested in the documentary that he worked harder than ever to avoid facing the kids’ autism diagnoses, but now he says it was a practical rather than emotional response. “I just thought, ‘Right, I’ve got to work twice as hard because my kids might need to have more things put in place for them.’ That’s the reason. I didn’t go to work because I didn’t want to deal with the diagnosis. I was doing my best to help them.”
He has a thing about doing the right thing. Partly because, as he admits in My Lifey, he needs to be liked. He mentions, for example, the disappointment he felt when he met Steve Coogan years ago. “He’s a genius and I love all his characters, even the lesser-known ones, but when I met him back in the day, I thought, ‘If I make it big one day, I’ll never treat anyone like that.’ He taught me a lesson. If I meet someone on their way up, I’ll never make them feel like a spare part. Like they shouldn’t be in my company. Yeah, Coogan let me down a little bit.”
McGuinness, however, doesn’t want to let anyone down. He is paid to entertain, but more than anything he doesn’t want to let his kids down. “I know my mum loved me, but I can count on one hand the number of times she told me she loved me. I tell my kids all the time.” He laughs. “They’re probably sick of me by now!”
Paddy and Christine McGuinness: Our Family and Autism airs Wednesday at 9pm on BBC One – visit our Documentaries hub for more news and features, or find something to watch with our TV Guide. Visit our Big RT Interview hub for more conversations with the biggest stars in TV and film.