Ant and Dec on their double act and Saturday Night Takeaway stunts: ‘I genuinely thought he was a goner’

The pair reminisce on their greatest pranks and guests  (ITV)
The pair reminisce on their greatest pranks and guests (ITV)

Saturday Night Takeaway is the show that’s closest to Ant and Dec’s hearts. It’s also the one that very nearly killed them.

“Remember the ‘White Helmets’ motorcycle display team who were always on Blue Peter?” asks Anthony McPartlin, sitting forward and raising his expressive eyebrows. “They trained us to jump through a ring of fire on motorbikes. Dec went first, while I was put in a soundproof booth so I couldn’t see his leap distance. I waited and waited. Eventually I thought, ‘Something’s gone wrong here.’ I came out to see that all the White Helmets had formed a ring around Dec, who was lying on the ground. I was like, ‘Oh my God! It’s going to end like this?’ For a split second, I genuinely thought he was a goner. Thankfully he was OK.”

Speaking over video call from their production company Mitre Studios – named after the fictional youth club in Byker Grove, the teen soap on which they met way back in 1990 – the duo are exactly like you’d expect. No put-on personas here. No sad clown syndrome or diva behaviour. What you see on screen – the beloved pair who bestride primetime, winning the Best Presenter prize at the viewer-voted NTAs for an incredible 22 years running – truly is the real Ant and Dec.

They finish each other’s sentences. They mercilessly tease each other. They’re as warm and quick-witted as they are on TV. They even sit in their trademark positions (Ant on the left of the screen, Dec on the right). “Always helping out,” says Declan Donnelly. “Just in case you’re still not sure after all this time!”

It would feel like the world had stopped turning if they weren’t side by side on our TVs. So exactly how close did the unthinkable come? “Well, I broke my arm, my thumb, and suffered a concussion,” says Dec. “But I wasn’t dead.” “He’d come off the bike, flown through the air and landed badly,” continues Ant. “They hadn’t formed a circle out of respect for a fallen comrade. It was to hide him from any lurking paparazzi.”

The stunt was for their “Ant vs Dec” slot, where the pair compete in themed challenges. “I tend to lose, which is deeply annoying,” laughs Ant. “But I definitely wouldn’t have lost any more if he’d died.” “By default, my death would mean you’d won,” nods Dec. “Unluckily for you, I’m still here.”

The inseparable 48-year-olds – only apart for nine months in 2018 after Ant returned to rehab following a drink-driving conviction – might be all over our screens, hosting ITV juggernauts from Britain’s Got Talent to I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, but Saturday Night Takeaway is their “baby”, says Ant. “We conceived it, we co-produce it, and it’s our names on the door.” The multiple-Bafta-winning show, which tonight reaches its milestone 20th series, perfectly showcases their magical alchemy as a double act. It blends the anarchy of their beloved late-Nineties kids’ show SMTV Live (Wonkey Donkey, anyone?) with the shiny-floored variety extravaganzas they adored growing up.

“We loved Noel’s House Party,” says Ant. “We loved Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, Game for a Laugh and Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. The stunts and sketches, games and guests. The way the viewers and studio audience got involved. We put all those elements into Takeaway.” “It’s the show we always wanted to make,” agrees Dec. “Before the launch episode, I remember us watching them putting the set up, marvelling that we’d got there.”

Ant and Dec have been fronting the shiny-floored show since 2002 (Kieron McCarron/ITV/Shutterstock)
Ant and Dec have been fronting the shiny-floored show since 2002 (Kieron McCarron/ITV/Shutterstock)

“We were only 26,” recalls Ant. The pair were born just two months apart in 1975, with Dec marginally older. “To have our own show, with our names in the title, in the heart of primetime felt like a huge feat for two lads from Newcastle.” “It was beyond our wildest dreams,” says Dec. “The fact that it’s been running this long is almost unimaginable. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for families to sit down together and have a good laugh at the telly. I think that’s a tradition worth hanging on to. We love being in everyone’s living rooms with such a silly, cheeky show. It feels very British.”

Tonight, it’s back for its 20th and final series. Or at least, the last for a while – but more on that later. For now, the excitable pair are far too busy enjoying a stroll down light entertainment memory lane. They don’t need much prodding to reminisce about their top Takeaway moments – starting with the pranks they’ve pulled in the “Ant & Dec Undercover” segment. They cheerfully admit that disguising themselves as Mexican handymen to wind up Gordon Ramsay was the closest they’ve come to tipping a target over the edge. “Physical abuse was a real possibility,” says Dec. “I thought he was going to punch me.”

“Gordon’s quite a volatile character and he did exactly what we hoped,” recalls Diego Rincón, the show’s long-time executive producer. “He was effing, blinding, and definitely ready to go at them. When the boys revealed themselves, Dec almost recoiled, as if to say ‘Please don’t hit me.’”

“In his defence, he did think you’d taken a massive dump in his dressing room toilet,” says Ant. “Then you left a greasy burrito on his mobile and asked for a selfie.” “He was having none of it,” says Dec. “Every time I’ve eaten in a Ramsay restaurant since, I check the food before putting it in my mouth. He vowed to get us back. Knowing Gordon, he will.”

‘Gordon’s quite a volatile character and he did exactly what we hoped’ (ITV/Shutterstock)
‘Gordon’s quite a volatile character and he did exactly what we hoped’ (ITV/Shutterstock)

They list Bear Grylls, Bradley Walsh and James Corden as other victims who’ve vowed vengeance. For the new series, their “I’m a Celebrity... Get Out of Me Ear!” prank will be played in reverse, giving celebrities a chance to turn the tables. “We phoned up all the people we’ve pranked and asked if they want to be in our earpieces, telling us what to do for a day.” “Everyone we contacted said yes!” laughs Ant. “Absolutely everyone! Louis Walsh is probably waiting outside right now.” “You’re quite looking forward to it,” says Dec. “I’m dreading it. Is it too late to pull it?” “Yes,” says Ant firmly.

Former X Factor judge Walsh was first to volunteer for the original earpiece treatment in 2013, with the gleeful, giggling Ant and Dec as his audio puppeteers. “We shot it as a pilot and didn’t intend to air it,” says Ant. “We thought, we’ll film Louis, see what happens – and then we’ll get a proper celebrity!” “Luckily, Louis was absolutely priceless,” says Dec. “When he pretended to use a banana as a phone and called Dannii Minogue, we totally lost it. It was similar with Richard Madeley.”

They made the daytime TV legend audition photographers for a fake calendar and ask if “full-frontal Madeley” would shift copies. They also got him to swap footwear with one baffled snapper. “When Richard tried the poor guy’s shoes on, then dipped his foot in the swimming pool to check the temperature, I lost the plot,” says Dec. “I couldn’t breathe.” “You know when you laugh so hard, the back of your head hurts?” says Ant. “That’s what it was like.”

“Nearly a decade on, people still mention that segment to me,” chuckles Madeley. “It was surrealism meets slapstick and incredibly difficult to keep a straight face. At one point, I dissolved into silent laughter, which I pretended was a coughing fit. I still don’t know how much of what Ant and Dec told me to do was scripted and how much was inspired ad-libbing.”

“The crew lost it too,” says Rincón. “Because we were all laughing so hard, nobody spoke into Richard’s earpiece for several minutes. But he kept it going and was phenomenally funny. Another highlight was Eamonn [Holmes]. We told him: ‘Go outside, there’s an outfit for you.’ He trotted off and there was a leprechaun costume waiting. We just heard him go ‘F*** off, I’m not putting that on!’”

Richard Madeley, who went on the show in 2015, still has fans approach him about it now (Shutterstock)
Richard Madeley, who went on the show in 2015, still has fans approach him about it now (Shutterstock)

Simon Cowell was their first ever Undercover target, with Ant and Dec posing as rappers for an American Idol audition. In a full-circle moment, Cowell will also be their last. “This time we’re faceless magicians on America’s Got Talent,” says Ant. “Simon wasn’t happy about getting pranked for a second time until we said, ‘We started with you, so this is the only way we could end.’ We appealed to his ego and it was fine.”

‘When you’re live, you can’t hide’

Declan Donnelly

They’ve also filmed one for the new series, with Lorraine Kelly shopping in John Lewis. “She was the most recognised person we’ve ever filmed in public,” says Ant. “Lorraine stopped and chatted to everybody. Took selfies with them.” “We thought we’d never get the thing shot,” adds Dec. “It took hours. Hours!”

Their favourite moments are often those that involve treating members of the public. “The audience is at the heart of everything we do,” says Ant. “Officiating at a live wedding was lovely. We gave away a house, which we were delighted to be a part of. ‘The Happiest Minute of the Week’, where we give holidays to deserving people, is just out-and-out joy.”

Another beloved feature is the duo’s mischievous mini-mes, Little Ant and Dec – two young look-and-soundalikes. “We’d get invited to premieres and junkets,” recalls Dec. “We’d always say, ‘We’re too busy, but imagine if we could send doppelgangers.’ Someone on the production team said, ‘Why don’t you send little versions of yourselves instead?’ So we did. They interviewed Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and asked Victoria Beckham about the birds and the bees.”

The original tykes outgrew the role. “Eventually they were taller than us,” says Ant. “Suddenly we were Little Ant and Dec, so we had to send them on their merry way. But we couldn’t do a 20th series without bringing them back, so we’ve recast them. We’ve found some more six-year-old cheeky Geordies to harass famous people and wreak havoc.”

However, the new versions nearly caused a diplomatic incident in their native North East. “We found one who was great but he turned out to be from Sunderland,” says Rincón. “The boys were like, ‘Er, no. We love him but we’ll get slaughtered if one of the Littles is a Mackem. Please find a Geordie instead.’”

The pair have learnt to embrace the mishaps that inevitably occur. “When we did a live finale at Disney World in Florida, the boys played this game inside massive balloons,” recalls Rincón. “One of them popped, leaving Dec there in his tighty whiteys. Somehow the force of the balloon had pulled his trousers down. We were mortified, but the audience loved it.”

“When you’re live, you can’t hide,” shrugs Dec ruefully. “We always laugh about the time we cut to a lady’s living room and she was so overjoyed, she whipped her wig off and swung it around. You couldn’t script it. That’s the beauty of the show. Viewers relish it when it goes a bit wrong.”

Who stands out from their gallery of A-list guests? “Michael Bublé,” says Ant. “He’s got a brilliant sense of humour.” “Hugh Jackman was great,” says Dec. “Such a lovely fella.” “I got starstruck when Mark Hamill came on,” says Ant. “I couldn’t stop thinking ‘It’s Luke Skywalker!’ In the early days, a lot of the American stars just didn’t get it. Will Smith couldn’t understand what was going on.” “I’m surprised he didn’t give us a slap in the face!” laughs Dec.

“Richard E Grant was a good ’un,” adds Rincón. “He was like, ‘You do this every Saturday? Is it always this noisy?’ He ended up leading a conga line during Sam Fender’s set. Camila Cabello really threw herself into it. Toni Collette loved the show so much, she offered to fly back over to do a ‘Get Out of Me Ear’. Ed Sheeran was game for anything, too. He arrived as we were filming a sketch with the boys dressed as superheroes and said, ‘Can I be in this?’ We were like, ‘Of course! But we don’t have an outfit for you.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’ll wear whatever.’ We ended up finding him a random pair of gold shorts.”

‘Toni Collette loved the show so much, she offered to fly back over to do a Get Out of Me Ear’ (Kieron McCarron/ITV/Shutterstock)
‘Toni Collette loved the show so much, she offered to fly back over to do a Get Out of Me Ear’ (Kieron McCarron/ITV/Shutterstock)

As for a dream booking, they immediately name Elton John. “We’d love Sir Elton to open the show behind the piano, banging out ‘Saturday, Saturday!’” says Dec. “We’ve asked a few times and he’s always busy. Or that’s what he tells us! But you never know, the last episode might appeal. Watch this space.”

Ah yes, the last episode. It was a tough decision to put Takeaway on hiatus, but they were on the same page. “Twenty series just feels like a natural point to pause,” says Dec. “We don’t want to say we’ll never do it again. But we’ve both got families now. Our lives have changed dramatically. We want to step off the hamster wheel, catch our breath and decide what’s next.” “It will be bittersweet, with lots of tears, but it feels like the right thing,” adds Ant.

Over the next seven Saturdays, they promise to “go out with a proper bang”. The series will surprise viewers with new elements while harking back to past highlights. Raiding the archives has proved eye-opening. “The ever-changing hairstyles!” laughs Dec. “The ever-changing weights!” adds Ant.

Fortunately, thanks to their teen pop days as PJ & Duncan (using the names of their Byker Grove characters), they’re effectively embarrassment-proof. “Before Christmas, there was a clip going around of us singing ‘Eternal Love’ on This Morning 30 years ago,” says Ant. “Now that’s embarrassing! When you’ve had a pop career, nothing will ever top that for cringe factor.”

In April, festivities will reach fever pitch for the grand finale. “We’re throwing everything at the last show,” reveals Rincón. “It’s an extended two-hour special with a second stage and outdoor audience. We might do something on the roof of Television Centre. Bags of celebs will be joining in the fun.”

Takeaway has gone off-air before, with a hiatus from 2009 to 2013, so this might merely be a temporary break. “When we paused it last time, the show came back rejuvenated,” says Rincón. “I can’t see us being away for ever.” As Madeley says: “It’s a great format with great hosts. I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t return some day – with Ant and Dec whispering in a lot more ears.”

“We’ve grown up on this show,” says Ant wistfully. “It’s been an eventful 20 years. So much has happened. It feels like we’ve been doing it since we were in short trousers.” “Oi!” says Dec. “All my trousers are short.”

‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway’ returns to ITV1 at 7pm tonight