Just how has ‘Teflon’ Ant McPartlin survived a string of scandals to sign a new £30m TV deal, writes KATIE HIND
Huddled in the corner of a central London bar, a fresh-faced Ant McPartlin was giggling away with best friend Declan ‘Dec’ Donnelly and their former co-presenter, Cat Deeley.
The three television stars were laughing their heads off.
The handsomely paid trio were guests of honour at a reunion for the staff of SM:TV, the now-defunct children’s programme that catapulted them to fame almost 25 years ago.
But while others partied on until the early hours at the bash last April, Ant — who, observers insisted, stuck to sparkling water — left early, taking a taxi back to the £6 million mansion he shares with his wife of two years, Anne-Marie Corbett.
Settled: Ant McPartlin (right) with second wife Anne-Marie (left) in 2021
Ant with his first wife Lisa at their 2006 wedding
Such behaviour represented quite a change for the 47-year-old star. Just five years ago, Ant would have been carousing into the early hours.
In those days, his boozy antics were legendary even by the standards of the drink-sodden TV industry. Most people who have worked with him over the years will, if pressed, reveal a fund of shocking anecdotes about his hell-raising lifestyle.
But then, in June 2017, Ant finally admitted to being addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs, and went into rehab. Some called him ‘brave’ — others thought his career was finished.
His problems only worsened when, a year later, he crashed his car head-on into another vehicle while drunk.
But what a difference a few years can make. There was no mention at all of Ant’s travails when corks popped last week at ITV to celebrate the duo’s decision to sign to the network for another three years — in a ‘golden handcuffs’ deal worth an astonishing £30 million.
Nor was it spoken of during the negotiations, I am told.
ITV bosses are said to be ‘ecstatic’ at having managed to fend off streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime and keep their most prized possessions.
Kevin Lygo, the broadcaster’s head of programming, welcomed the deal, saying: ‘The world of television and streaming is always a much brighter place with Ant and Dec at the centre of it.’
The £30 million bonanza is proof, if needed, that in the long run, nothing seems to touch Ant — for all his much-publicised mistakes.
In fact, sources at the network say no one mentions Ant’s previous scrapes — ever. ‘It’s as good as banned,’ says one. ‘It’s the unmentionable within the organisation, it’s like it never happened. Ant has so much unwavering support from ITV’s higher echelons.’
From national pariah to being welcomed back as a much-loved stalwart of our TV screens in just a few years. How did he do it?
To answer that question, we must go back to that terrible moment in March 2018 when an intoxicated Ant crashed his black Mini into an oncoming car near his house in Mortlake, South-West London. His mother, Christine Woodall, was in the passenger seat.
Ant & Dec’s latest TV project, Ant And Dec’s Limitless Win (pictured) , launched with an impressive six million viewers
He was arrested and found to be twice over the drink-drive limit. Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court later heard that in the other car — another Mini Cooper — a nine-year-old boy screamed to his mother, who was driving: ‘I’m dying, Mummy, I’m dying!’
The ugly episode would surely have spelled career death for any other TV star.
Ant was fined £86,000 and disqualified from driving for 20 months. He apologised profusely, announced he was off to rehab yet again and pulled out all of his TV commitments for the rest of the year, including ITV’s I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here. Dec was left to host the final episode of that season’s Saturday Night Takeaway, as well as the Britain’s Got Talent finals, alone.
Many people in showbusiness thought Ant was finished. But his rock-solid network of powerful friends had other ideas.
Ant — with Dec, of course — was essential to the ITV brand. Bosses at the station felt that they had to do anything to support him.
Ant’s all-powerful management team is the London-based YMU — widely believed to have significant sway over ITV thanks to its roster of celebrity clients, who include Claudia Winkleman, Davina McCall and Phillip Schofield. They went in to bat for him — hard. Meanwhile, Ant’s super-loyal PR man, Simon Jones, defended him throughout his troubles. Dec also stood by his best friend of 30 years (they met aged 13, working on the children’s TV series Byker Grove).
Asked whether he had considered going solo, Dec admitted: ‘I’d be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Ant had a lot of work to do on himself. He had a lot of thinking to do. Equally, I did. Ultimately, the number one thing I wanted was that Ant came back healthy and happy and we got our relationship back on track.’
All well and good. But the problem for Ant was not the loyalty of his friends or his paid allies. The problem was the British public. And they were not so enthralled by the antics of the one-time family favourite.
Social media was aflame with people who were furious that Ant hadn’t been cast out. ‘I still can’t believe how much support this garbage of a human being is getting,’ said one. Others vowed never to watch him again.
ITV was worried. It had spent more than a decade prioritising its ‘golden four’: Ant, Dec, Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby.
‘When Ant’s drink-driving incident happened, ITV thought they were well and truly screwed,’ says a source. ‘Dec is adored but he couldn’t do it on his own, they are a double act, the Morecambe and Wise of their time.’
Ant McPartlin shame-faced after drink-drive crash where he crashed into two other cars
Some 18 months later — in December 2019 — ITV’s Caroline Flack was charged with attacking her boyfriend Lewis Burton. But instead of being handled with kid-gloves, Flack was sacked.
She was devastated and would regularly ask her friends why ITV stood by Ant while they hung her out to dry — although ITV insisted it ‘made it clear the door was left open for her to return’. Tragically, Flack took her own life in August 2020, after which ITV said, ‘we will all miss her very much’.
Meanwhile, one can imagine the relief at ITV — and within Team Ant — that the star’s former wife, Lisa Armstrong, has remained silent about his behaviour. ITV insiders tell me they believe this has been the most important factor in Ant’s continued popularity.
Their marriage ended in early 2018 — 12 years after they wed at Cliveden House Hotel in Berkshire — by which time Ant was seeing Anne-Marie, his and Lisa’s assistant. (Ant and Anne-Marie have always maintained their relationship began after the breakdown of their previous marriages.)
Lisa, an award-winning make-up artist, has never shared what went on at their £5 million mansion in Chiswick, West London. And she assures friends she never will.
One told the Daily Mail: ‘Ant and Lisa went through a lot. She gave him 23 years of her life and then he walked away with their personal assistant. She was absolutely devastated.
‘If she gave her side of events, it could have made things uncomfortable for Ant. There are definitely some details he’d prefer not to be out there.’
In the couple’s long divorce battle, the custody of their chocolate Labrador, Hurley, loomed large. Eventually, they agreed to share access, with Dec often acting as go-between.
Armstrong was handed £31 million in the divorce settlement. It was reported that Ant wanted her to sign a gagging order, but she refused. Lisa, too, had a fractious relationship with Ant’s hard-nosed PR man Jones — who oversaw the successful campaign to rehabilitate his client’s reputation.
Jones, who has a reputation among showbiz journalists for being abrasive, was not shy about involving Ant’s lawyers when things became dicey.
Meanwhile, Ant made a new home with mother-of-two Anne-Marie in Wimbledon. After a flurry of interviews with The Sun, Ant began to live under the radar.
Lisa kept the marital home which meant, for the first time in 20 years, Ant and Dec didn’t live on the same road.
The move also meant an end to his bleary pub crawls along Chiswick High Road. Instead, tea became his drink of choice and he began to exercise regularly, swimming and jogging.
In August 2021, Ant married Anne-Marie at St Michael’s Church in Heckfield, Hampshire. During his groom’s speech, he revealed his remarkable closeness her two daughters, reportedly saying: ‘They are amazing girls and I’m grateful they call me ‘Dad’.’
Today, he and Anne-Marie live a quiet life, rarely making public appearances.
This low-key approach is another factor in the rehabilitation of his reputation.
Having just signed their lucrative new ITV deal, Ant and Dec are about to embark on their busiest year yet.
Their latest TV project, Ant And Dec’s Limitless Win, launched with an impressive six million viewers and they will also present I’m A Celebrity All Stars from South Africa later this year, featuring a line-up of past contestants.
Their bigger roles at ITV raise the question among some employees of just what Ant would ever have to do to lose his job. ‘We are sure to be seeing Ant on telly for some years to come yet,’ said one. ‘He is absolute Teflon.’
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