Ant And Dec: ‘We Can’t Believe We’re Still Getting Away With It’

The Saturday Night Takeaway hosts talk David Walliams, Matt Hancock and SM:TV Live’s biggest divas.
Ant and Dec are returning with a brand new series of Saturday Night Takeaway
Ant and Dec are returning with a brand new series of Saturday Night Takeaway
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/ITV/Shutterstock

It almost all turned out very differently.

For the past two decades, Ant and Dec have been at the forefront of some of the biggest shows on British TV, from Pop Idol, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! and Britain’s Got Talent to their flagship variety show Saturday Night Takeaway, which is returning for its 19th series at the weekend.

Before all of that came along, though, there was SM:TV Live.

Now approaching its 25th anniversary, the chaotic Saturday morning show became essential weekend viewing for kids in the late 90s and early 2000s – and it didn’t take long before teenagers, students and anyone else who fancied it joined in the party.

“It was a really special time in our lives,” Declan Donnelly remembers of his and co-host Ant McPartlin’s SM:TV Live days.

“We’d come through a mildly successful pop career, and during that we’d done stuff on kids’ TV, and knew that was what we wanted to do.”

Although it’s now revered as a nostalgic classic, it’s fair to say SM:TV Live did not get off to the smoothest of beginnings.

Ant and Dec with SM:TV Live co-host Cat Deeley in 2000
Ant and Dec with SM:TV Live co-host Cat Deeley in 2000
Ken McKay/Shutterstock

“It started terrifically badly,” Dec continues. “The viewing figures were awful. We started at the end of August in 1998, and we’d been commissioned for a whole year, but there were rumours by the end of September that we weren’t going to be on by Christmas.”

Of course, the tide eventually began to turn, even if it was a gradual process.

“Slowly but surely, it kind of started to turn around,” Dec says. “We got the kids in, and the viewing figures started to go up, and we got a bit of confidence, and our relationship with Cat [Deeley, their co-host] grew. And then it absolutely flew – beyond all of our wildest expectations.”

Interestingly, it’s another A-lister from the North East that the Geordie duo credit with helping turn around SM:TV’s fortunes.

“The first kind of [big] guest we had on was Sting,” Ant explains. “I think he agreed to do it because we were Geordies. And as soon as we got him, other people started saying, ‘oh if Sting’s been in it, then I’ll do it’. And in the end, everybody who was anybody was on the show.”

“There were a few weeks where I think we had, in succession, Blur, U2, Paul McCartney,” Dec remembers. “We were sat interviewing Paul McCartney – and that was a proper ‘pinch me’ moment. We’d come from hardly anybody watching it, and there we were with a Beatle. I couldn’t believe it.”

After a bumpy start, SM:TV Live quickly became must-watch weekend viewing
After a bumpy start, SM:TV Live quickly became must-watch weekend viewing
Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Ant and Dec now look back on this period as a turning point for them not just professionally, but personally.

As Ant puts it: “We were in our 20s, we’d just moved to London, we were going out most nights. It was brilliant. It was the perfect show for that age. It was a wild three years.”

Still, despite the Saturday morning show’s early-morning time slot, Ant and Dec managed to keep it professional for its entire run. Well… almost.

“Every Friday we’d have a night in – we had good training from Byker Grove, ‘you’ve got to learn those scripts, you’ve got to be on time, and you’ve got to do your job’,” Ant insists. “The only time that wasn’t the case was when it was the millennium.”

He recalls: “It was originally meant to be a pre-recorded show, but then ITV said, ‘you’re the first show of the new millennium, and we want you to be live’. And we were like, ’well shit’, we’re going out to celebrate the New Year in Newcastle, we’re not cancelling that!’. So what we did was, we celebrated up there, hard, and then got in the car and got driven down to London, straight to the studios.

“I didn’t even have a kip, I think I had shut-eye in the car and then went on air. But it was fine, everybody was in the same boat – the viewers, the crew, Cat, we were all feeling it.”

“We opened the show, and then linked into the first cartoon, and then they brought out a Bucks Fizz for everyone,” Dec recalls.

“That wouldn’t happen now!” Ant adds.

Once SM:TV started booking star guests, they just kept on coming – and almost all of them up for getting into the anarchic spirit of the show
Once SM:TV started booking star guests, they just kept on coming – and almost all of them up for getting into the anarchic spirit of the show
Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Once SM:TV was truly up and running, the show became synonymous with its anarchic and gloriously messy live broadcasts – and its many A-list guests were more than willing to get stuck in.

That being said, there were one or two who seemed less up for it.

Asked for a celebrity who was more reluctant to embrace the spirit of SM:TV, both Ant and Dec offer “Christina Aguilera”, almost in unison.

“She sat there in her shades, and wouldn’t take them off,” Ant says. “It was a pre-recorded interview, because she didn’t want to do it live. Everything pointed towards it being a bad interview. And it turned out to be a bad interview.

“To be fair, there weren’t many bad experiences with celebs,” Dec adds, insisting that even certain stars’ diva demands proved to be more amusing than annoying.

He continues: “I remember Jennifer Lopez coming down, and seeing that whole thing about having six dressing rooms and room temperature Evian – all the riders and stuff. And she was really lovely. But yeah, it was a big old stink around the studio, ‘she needs this, she needs that’.

“We had very few bad celebs, but we had a lot of entertaining riders and stuff.”

There was another infamous celebrity encounter for the pair, when Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash “dropped a couple of F-bombs live on the kids’ show”, which they observe would have no doubt played out very differently in 2023.

While Ant says the moment was “certainly talked about”, Dec points out: “But there was no social media! [Now] it would be on there in seconds.”

Ant agrees: “We were very lucky that it was on air in a time where we could learn our craft and make mistakes, and people might talk about it at school on Monday or when they’re playing out that Saturday afternoon. But the conversation wouldn’t gain momentum, and there wouldn’t be a pile-on and there wouldn’t be calls to be cancelled.”

“Thank god, because we wouldn’t be here now!” Dec jokes. “We’d have been cancelled 10 times over!”

Ant continues: “We learned how to do live television purely because of doing Saturday mornings. We got a chance to grow, and as a young professional in the industry, it’s the best training ground, and the best way to learn your craft.”

“And it’s sad that that training ground kind of isn’t there anymore,” Dec adds.

As for the much-loved show ever returning to our screens, Ant says they’d “love to bring it back in some form”, before clarifying: “Not necessarily with us hosting, but we’d love to do something with it, because I do feel there is space for it.”

Within a year of leaving SM:TV in 2001, Ant and Dec landed what has arguably become their flagship show, Saturday Night Takeaway.

Ant and Dec in an early promo shot for the very first series of Saturday Night Takeaway
Ant and Dec in an early promo shot for the very first series of Saturday Night Takeaway
ITV/Shutterstock

Running with the chaotic atmosphere and silly sense of humour that had made SM:TV – and Ant and Dec themselves – so popular, the new show quickly became a hit thanks to segments like “Little Ant And Dec”, “Win The Ads” and “Ant vs. Dec”, and it has now been on the air for two decades.

However, the Saturday Night Takeaway moments probably most ingrained in the public consciousness are the pair’s celebrity pranks, either in “Undercover” or “I’m A Celebrity, Get Out Me Ear!” segments.

Over the course of Saturday Night Takeaway’s 19 series, they’ve played jokes on everyone from Jeremy Clarkson, Lorraine Kelly and Amanda Holden to James Corden, Holly Willoughby and Gordon Ramsay – but it’s their very first Undercover prank that still stands out to them as the scariest and most difficult.

“We’d just done Pop Idol with Simon Cowell,” Dec begins. “He’d since become a huge star on American Idol, so we were like, ‘how funny would it be to fly to the States and audition for American Idol undercover?’. But there was no fast-track to the front, we had to queue and do the whole American Idol experience.

“Then, Paula Abdul turned up with a camera crew, and she pointed to me and asked me to do an interview. I was thinking, ‘for fuck’s sake, I’m not real! I’m here from England’ – so, I had to do a whole interview, in character, for Paula Abdul’s Access Hollywood thing. I was like, ‘this has gone so far down a wormhole’.”

Ant continues: “We’d spent all this money on flights, accommodation, prosthetics – and half of the prosthetics didn’t even turn up because they got stopped at customs. So, it just ended up being wigs, beards and teeth. All the cheeks, foreheads and contact lenses had gone! So we were like, ‘damn’.

“We were nervous about not being able to do the accent for too long, we thought as soon as we walk in we might not even get to the song, Simon might just go, ‘I know it’s you two’.”

Dec agrees: “It didn’t help our nerves when, the night before we were due to fly, the executive producer rang us up and left a message on our answer phones at home, and said, ‘don’t forget, this cost 25 grand, so don’t balls it up, byeeeee’.”

As it turned out, when Ant and Dec finally made it into the audition room, it seemed the fates were smiling down on them.

“Apparently he’d had a massive row with Paula Abdul that morning, and he was in a foul mood, so he wasn’t really paying attention,” Ant gleefully recounts, revealing this is what “helped us get through two verses and a chorus of Opposites Attract”.

In the 18 seasons of Saturday Night Takeaway that have followed, Ant and Dec have not been rumbled once yet – although there have been a couple of near-misses.

Saturday Night Takeaway is now into its 19th series
Saturday Night Takeaway is now into its 19th series
Kieron McCarron/Shutterstock

“Most people go, ‘oh my god this is an Ant and Dec wind-up, this’,” Ant says. “The first couple of times we heard that we were like, ‘shit, we’ve been rumbled, let’s call it off’, but we stayed in character and stayed with it. Now we realise, ‘that’s just something people say’. They don’t mean it – it’s just a phrase.”

He teases: “We’ve done one for the new series with Rylan, where he thinks he’s hosting this YouTube Eurovision thing, and that he’s unveiling the new Albanian entry, when actually it’s us.

“There were a couple of points where he said, ‘god this is like an Ant and Dec wind-up’, but we spoke to him afterwards and said, ‘did you actually think it was us?’, and he said, ‘I never thought it was you, I just say it whenever something goes wrong’.”

Another Saturday Night Takeaway feature that’s become a staple in more recent series is the so-called “End Of The Show Show”, where the duo close out each episode with a completely different act.

This section has seen them celebrating the career of Kylie Minogue with a bit of help from the pop legend herself, paying tribute to SM:TV with former co-host Cat Deeley and even leaping back into the pop charts thanks to a reprise of their 90s hit Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble.

An “End Of The Show Show” from 2022 saw Ant and Dec make headlines, when the pair teamed up with RuPaul and three former Drag Race UK champions to unveil their own drag personas, Lady Antoinette and Miss Donna Lee.

The elaborate performance went down a storm with viewers at the time, and even the hosts themselves were taken aback by the response they received.

“We knew it would get some reaction, because it was such a transformation,” Dec says. “But honestly, the response we got was actually really moving. And not just online and on social media, but in the street and in restaurants and going out for a drink, people would come up to us and thank us for doing it!

“We talked about it, and we just said, ‘if we need to do it, we need to do it right’. We didn’t want to do it ‘comedically’, and look like Hinge and Bracket. It was like, ‘if we’re going to do this, I want to look fabulous’.”

“Yeah,” Ant agrees. “If I’m gonna dress as a woman, I wanna look like a fit woman!”

Still, the pair freely admit that drag is not something that came easily to either of them.

Ant and Dec were truly unrecognisable as their drag alter-egos
Ant and Dec were truly unrecognisable as their drag alter-egos
Kieron McCarron/ITV/Shutterstock

“Gee whizz, I’ve got a new-found respect for all women, and men, and whoever, who stays in heels for more than five minutes at a time,” Dec says.

“We tried rehearsing in heels, but they just hurt,” Ant continues (“I’m just going to take them off, I’m just going to put my trainers on for this rehearsal”, Dec recalls telling the queens behind the scenes). “But for me, it was the nails. You can’t do anything,” Ant says.

“I was stabbing myself loads, going to the toilet was very difficult, I couldn’t text anyone…”

In these secret rehearsals, Ant and Dec struggled to get into their characters, but there was no danger of that when they finally got into drag.

“We would be rehearsing the song, and the producers that we worked with would be like, ‘will you give it more [energy] on the day?’, and we were like, ‘yeah, this is just rehearsal’,” Ant says. “But there’s something about putting the wig and the frock and the heels on, that just instantly gets you in your drag persona.

“I don’t know what it is, as soon as you look in the mirror, you’re like, ‘that’s it, I’m a right bitch, and I’m comin’ for ya’.”

Overall, 2022 was a huge year for Ant and Dec, with them not only celebrating the return of studio audiences to shows like Saturday Night Takeaway and Britain’s Got Talent after the pandemic, but also introducing their new game show, Limitless Win.

Ant and Dec returned to Australia in 2022 for the latest series of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!
Ant and Dec returned to Australia in 2022 for the latest series of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!
ITV/Joel Anderson/Shutterstock

It was also the year that I’m A Celebrity finally returned to the Australian jungle after two years in Wales – but that wasn’t the only reason the reality show dominated the headlines towards the end of last year.

No, that was down to the shock inclusion of a certain former health secretary on the line-up, which generated plenty of conversation both in and out of camp.

Since the series ended, several of Matt Hancock’s former campmates have admitted they struggled – at least initially – with sharing a living space with him, and many had to put their own personal feelings about him aside in order to get along with the MP.

As they look back on the latest series of I’m A Celebrity, and Hancock’s time in the jungle, it seems Ant and Dec found themselves in a similar position while they were tasked with interviewing him.

“I think it’s very difficult not to [feel that way],” Dec begins. “We were all affected by decisions that he made and situations he created, so it was very, very difficult.

“But we tried incredibly hard to be impartial and to put that to one side. And I hope we did it.”

“Everybody comes to Australia with baggage,” Ant points out. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Boy George did. Matt Hancock did. Probably all of the campmates this year came with a history. But once they’re in there, they’re campmates, so we have to treat them like campmates, and let them tell their stories.

“And obviously we take the piss, mercilessly… but we do that with all of them. And we didn’t want to single him out, either, or give him too much airtime, because that would be unfair to the other campmates. We tried to be as fair, and as even, as possible to all of them.”

Ant and Dec with Matt Hancock during a Bushtucker Trial
Ant and Dec with Matt Hancock during a Bushtucker Trial
ITV/Shutterstock

So, what would they say to those critics who felt it was inappropriate for Hancock to have been invited to take part in I’m A Celebrity all?

“Well,” Dec says. “That is a really interesting point of view. And, of course, [it] has some validity.

“I think it was interesting to allow him his say and to hear things from his point of view. Like I say, it was a situation that we all lived through, and he was at the centre of it.

“I kind of wanted to hear – now that he’s no longer a politician, and wasn’t doing his pivots in interviews – his side of the story, and his point of view.”

He adds: “I personally thought it was a really really interesting booking. And I was interested in hearing what he was like, and what things were like from his point of view.”

At the time of our conversation, Ant and Dec are in Manchester, where auditions for the 16th series of Britain’s Got Talent have been underway.

For the first time in over a decade, BGT is welcoming a new judge into the fold this season, with Bruno Tonioli taking over the space on the panel previously occupied by David Walliams.

Reports towards the end of last year claimed that the former Little Britain comedian would not be returning, after recordings of him making explicit and disparaging remarks about auditionees on set in 2020 were leaked in the press, for which he later issued an apology.

When the subject of how Bruno is settling into an existing tight-knit group is raised, the duo are quick to sing his predecessor David’s praises, with Dec insisting they’re “still good friends” and Ant stating they “love” and “miss him”.

The new-look Britain's Got Talent family, as of 2023
The new-look Britain's Got Talent family, as of 2023
Dymond/Thames/Shutterstock

“We text a lot, we see him socially, so we were really kind of apprehensive about starting this new series,” Ant shares. “But on the first day of auditions, we thought, ‘we’ve got to just treat Bruno like the new guy and be kind to him’. And he was really nervous.

“We spoke to him just before, and he said, ‘I can’t tell you just how nervous I am’, which surprised us because he’d done Strictly, he’s on Dancing With The Stars in America still... he’s no stranger to big TV shows.

“So I felt sorry for him, but I thought it showed real humility. And we were just kind to him. We laughed at him when he made mistakes, but tried to show him the ropes a bit.”

Well… sort of.

You see, although the new series of BGT doesn’t start until April, long-time Strictly Come Dancing fans will be familiar with Bruno’s unique brand of chaos, which he’s already bringing to his new home on the ITV talent search.

After his first few days of filming, it was quickly reported that Bruno had gone against the BGT rules by pressing his golden buzzer on two consecutive days – with Dec admitting there’s a little more to the story.

Ant and Dec arriving at this year's BGT auditions in London last month
Ant and Dec arriving at this year's BGT auditions in London last month
Shane Anthony Sinclair via Getty Images

He pressed it on the first session of the first day, and it didn’t help that I told him, ‘it’s fine, you get another one tomorrow’,” he confesses, while Ant adds they have been enjoying “winding him up”.

Still, despite the odd mishap, Bruno has apparently more than proved himself as a worthy addition to the BGT panel.

“He’s good energy!” Ant insists. “He’s great energy on the panel, and he certainly knows his stuff, which is the first thing you need if you’re a judge.”

Dec agrees: “He’s been offering great constructive criticism to all of the auditionees.”

In addition to Saturday Night Takeaway and BGT, Ant and Dec’s 2023 is already stacked, with an all-star series of I’m A Celebrity and a one-off behind-the-scenes documentary about Takeaway already coming later this year.

Still, despite their hectic schedules, there’s still plenty the record-breaking presenters feel they have left to accomplish.

“Contemporary dance? We’re massive fans,” Ant jokes. “We keep saying it but we never find time, but we will do it at some point, we’d love to do some more acting again.

“We’d love to try our hand at a comedy-drama, or a sitcom, not necessarily in the traditional sense but some version of a drama. And we’d love to act again, because that’s where we started.”

Ant and Dec have now been working together for over 30 years
Ant and Dec have now been working together for over 30 years
ITV/Shutterstock

Each year, Saturday Night Takeaway includes a recurring parody drama, usually featuring a host of familiar faces, which they happily say was introduced as a way of flexing their acting muscles, having first risen to prominence on the 90s teen drama Byker Grove.

“It’s always an itch that we have that we like to scratch every now and again,” Dec says. “Like Ant says, we’d love to do a sitcom or a comedy drama. We’ve even talked about doing some theatre at some point – maybe a short run of something.

“We’re always having little ideas and things we’re working on, but our big problem is time, because all of the shows are doing so well, and they’re all back-to-back. But we’ll find time at some point.”

After over 30 years of working alongside one another and living in each other’s pockets (they famously lived in the same London street until just last year), the pair are insistent they’re always on the same page when it comes to work, and have “never really fallen out about anything”.

“I don’t think there’s been a project that’s like, ‘I really want to do this and Ant doesn’t, how are we going to resolve this?’,” Dec says.

“It’s more about we sit down and discuss things and go through everything, we’re very balanced about it.”

Ant then jokes: “Does that mean you want to do the contemporary dance thing?”

And even with diaries as jam-packed as theirs, they’re in no rush to hang up their microphones for good any time soon.

“We are very busy, so there will come a stage where we’ll probably take it easier,” Ant offers. “But… we just love it. We’re very lucky, and very very grateful to be doing what we’re doing.”

Dec concurs: “In some ways, we kind of can’t quite believe it. We still kind of have that feeling... we could be cancelled by Christmas. But we’re still going, still getting away with it, and we still kind of can’t believe how well it’s gone.”

Ant And Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway returns for its 19th series on Saturday 25 February.

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