Dec without Ant felt deeply strange. The ubiquitous Geordie duo always appear in the same formation: Ant on the left and Dec on the right, as viewers look at their screens. Tonight there was a void where Ant usually stands. It was like Morecambe without Wise or fish without chips. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking their television was on the blink.
This historic live episode saw Declan Donnelly host Saturday Night Takeaway (ITV) without partner Anthony McPartlin, who has returned to rehab following his recent drink-driving charge. ITV pulled last week’s instalment in response but decided the last two shows of the series would go ahead, with Donnelly helming them solo.
Without his best buddy - with whom he’s enjoyed a three-decade bromance, much of it on-screen - it was impossible not to root for Donnelly. He duly delivered. This was an efficient entertainment machine, skilfully steered, and likely to pull in even higher ratings than the show’s usual 7m average due to the curiosity factor.
Donnelly looked a little lonely as he came down the studio stairs on his own and was palpably nervous during his opening link. The nation wanted to reach into their TV screens and give him an encouraging hug. Seeming to realise how much the audience were willing him on, he soon settled down.
No explicit mention was made of McPartlin’s troubles. Donnelly instead nodded to them with jokey asides: “I’ve got twice the amount of work to do", “I have to do it myself, like everything else around here this week” and “Have you been keeping up with the news? For some of us, it’s been unavoidable.”
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Viewers were intrigued to see how he’d cope without McPartlin as his foil but they need not have worried. We were in the capable hands of a consummate pro. Donnelly worked well with the studio audience, radiating warmth, and even dropped a carton of popcorn at one point, as if to remind us this was live TV.
Comedian-cum-beanpole Stephen Merchant was on duty as Star Guest Announcer. His near-the-knuckle humour added a frisson of unpredictability as he riffed on reading out the Ts&Cs, cracked height-based gags and crowbarred in a plug for his ropy-looking new film Sherlock Gnomes.
Merchant made cheeky reference to McPartlin, telling Donnelly: “That other bloke was good, you should do more stuff with him” and, “I don’t care what the producers back here are saying, I think you’re doing a great job." He also congratulated Donnelly on his upcoming baby, which drew a warm round of applause.
Oompa-Loompa lookalike Stephen Mulhern, who ITV seem bafflingly determined to turn into a star despite public indifference, hit the streets of Warrington for the latest round of In For a Penny In For a Grand. Gogglebox alumnus Scarlett Moffatt helped compensate for McPartlin’s absence and kept up the Tyneside accent quota.
This penultimate episode featured a farewell to the show’s London Studios home, which is being closed for renovation. There were plenty of surprises as the last few Places On The Plane to Florida for next week’s series finale were given away and another audience member got the chance to Win The Ads. Sadly, student Billie answered the crucial question wrongly and went home with just Takeaway toilet paper.
Davina McCall appeared for a mini-edition of her transformation series This Time Next Year - a fusion of Surprise Surprise and Long Lost Family. Diana Polson from Dundee watched her son Kevin sing live with the cast of Jersey Boys and daughter Katie overcome her fear of flying. The emotional crescendo came when Polson was reunited with her half-sister Carol-Ann, who she’d spent 27 years trying to track down. Manipulative but mighty effective.
McPartlin wasn’t entirely absent, appearing on the title sequence as usual and popping up in pre-recorded form for spoof whodunit skit “Saturday Knight Takeaway”, co-starring Joanna Lumley and Emilia Fox. It acted as a reminder of the pair’s fizzing comedic chemistry.
There were two musical guests. Beige Irish rockers The Script led Singalong Live and pop-soul chipmunk Paloma Faith opened the show with her stompy new single ’Til I’m Done, apparently dressed as the strawberry cream from a tin of Quality Street.
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Faith later returned for the climactic End Of The Show Show, during which clever technical trickery allowed Donnelly to dance on the ceiling as she sang. He then bade farewell, wished us a Happy Easter and thanked everyone for their support.
If one of Ant or Dec had to go solo, Donnelly was the better bet. A bouncy Easter bunny of a man, he’s the more chipper and cuddly of the duo - a Dermot O’Leary-ish blend of boyish good looks, slick patter and twinkling mischief. The 42-year-old wouldn’t want to go it alone permanently but on this evidence, he would thrive if he did.
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This was an old-fashioned feast of variety in the vein of The Generation Game, which happens to be returning tomorrow. Mel, Sue and the BBC could do a lot worse than learning from Saturday Night Takeaway - a deceptively smart format which has crowd-pleasing, family-friendly entertainment down to a tee, with or without half its frontmen.
At least this uproarious 90-minute romp settled that perennial question of which one’s Ant and which one’s Dec. Ant was the one who wasn’t there. Dec was the one who now needs a lie-down after a job well done.