An emotional Dec more than holds his own as he hosts Saturday Night Takeaway without Ant
The programme was never going to be the same – but Dec proved himself a brilliant solo host, says Frances Taylor
When Declan Donnelly smiled and high-fived his way down the stairs and onto the stage for his first ever solo Saturday Night Takeaway, he could barely begin the show for the volume of applause from the audience.
"Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for that very, very warm welcome," he eventually managed to say. "I really appreciate it. Welcome – woah – once again, to your Saturday Night Takeaway."
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The 'woah' was Dec, presenting a television programme by himself for the first time in living memory, visibly catching both his breath and his emotions as he stood alone on a shiny floor. For such an accomplished and experienced broadcaster, those tentative first few minutes of the programme showed a genuine and rare moment of vulnerability.
Understandably, Dec's nerves about flying solo initially felt palpable. This was, after all, a huge moment not just culturally but also personally and professionally; stepping out on live TV without his literal and metaphorical right-hand man.
Ant McPartlin's arrest and subsequent charge for drink driving has been a mainstay in news headlines over the past few weeks. Last week's Saturday Night Takeaway was cancelled before the decision was made for Dec to host the final two episodes of the run by himself. It was, of course, a bold one – a decision that had been taken with, as Dec's statement read, "much discussion and careful consideration."
And it had fans and non-fans alike asking a plethora of questions. How would the show work? Would it be as entertaining without the pair's double-act chemistry? What would Dec even be like on his own?
The answer (at least to the last question) is that Dec was great. Excellent, actually. Considering the pressure and expectation heaped upon his shoulders, he led the whole 90-minute programme incredibly well without once dropping the ball – even if he did at one point strew his popcorn all over the floor, much to the audience's amusement.
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As you would expect, and given the circumstances around the show going ahead, there were fewer laughs to be had. We had the usual mainstays – family surprises, huge audience giveaways and feel good segments – but it was a more emotional, strait-laced and less anarchic episode of Takeaway than usual. In places it did feel a little flat and the lack of Ant was certainly felt, most keenly by Dec. After 30 years, what is no doubt a subconscious tic was visible as he frequently leaned and turned slightly to his right when speaking to the audience or down the camera.
To heap more sentiment onto the whole thing (not that it was needed) this was the final ever episode from The London Studios. Dec emerging from a vacant studio explaining that it's where he filmed SM:TV Live with Ant and Cat Deeley felt charged with nostalgia and tinged with sadness.
However, the frequent and light-hearted references to this Ant-less Saturday Night Takeaway helped diminish the sadness. There were a few comedic skits with music guest Paloma Faith that didn't land too well, but it was the back and forth between Dec and guest announcer Stephen Merchant that was spot on.
It was hard to tell whether or not Merchant was deviating from the script when he made quips such as "sorry mate, I was just trying to fill some time for you" or saying to Dec "that other bloke was good. You should do more stuff with him," after seeing Ant in pre-recorded segment Saturday Knight Takeaway.
Either way, thank goodness for Merchant. He kept poking the elephant in the room, and perhaps this encouraged Dec to do the same later on when he joked that "for some of us, [the news this week] has been unavoidable".
But make no mistake – this was Dec's episode. Ant did feature in the opening credits and in Saturday Knight Takeaway, but all of the sponsorship idents and competitions were voiced by Dec and Dec alone. There were moments when he was joined on stage by The Script, Paloma, audience members and co-hosts Stephen Mulhern and Scarlett Moffatt, but there was no mistaking this was Dec's show.
Of course the programme wasn't the same. It was never going to be, and Dec wasn't going to be as sparky as he is when he's got Ant by his side. It's their unique alchemy that has kept the pair at the top of their game for all this time.
But by bravely stepping out solo onto the shiny floor, Dec has more than proved what we hoped all along – that he's an engaging, charismatic and brilliant presenter all by himself.