Grace under pressure

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

As usual, on the way home from work last night I stopped off at the petrol station before the Hammersmith Flyover for sitcom research, getting there at about 3am.

I usually stay for a coffee and a bite to eat, but this time I decided not to linger as the place was full and quite rowdy. In the coffee area was a noisy group of homeward-bound clubbers aged in their late 20s, mostly men. They were at that level of drunkenness which could easily swing either way – jolly exuberance or aggressive hostility – but were currently on the right side of it.

What they were shouting wasn't terribly coherent, but it seemed to include the word 'Dec' a lot and they were shouting it in my direction. It was at this point that I realised I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who bore an extraordinary resemblance to Declan Donnelly.

For those who don't hail from this side of the Atlantic, Declan Donnelly is one half of Ant and Dec, a couple of likely lads from Newcastle (which has bequeathed them Geordie accents as thick as treacle) who began their careers in a kids' soap, migrated to the pop charts, and then became TV presenters. Now both aged about 30, they've made the transition to programmes for grown-ups and are among the hottest properties in British TV.

Naturally, this seemingly-unstoppable rise to light entertainment stardom, combined with their squeaky-clean, cheeky-chappie images, has generated a bit of an anti-Ant and Dec backlash, and this poor look-alike was getting it in the neck last night. He was ignoring the cat-calls, but looked sick to the stomach of it and deathly tired.

Just at the point my tired brain had finished processing all this the shouts changed to “Ant”, and I turned around to see the spitting image of Ant McPartlin standing near the shop doorway, holding a filled roll and looking quizzically at the Dec-alike.

I had a moment of thinking “huh?” and then I finally caught on.

Not lookalikes, then.

Like Dec, Ant was ignoring the attention – although it was harder in his case as a starstruck-looking blonde girl was pretty much right in his face. Unlike Dec, who seemed to be barely coping, Ant seemed equal to the situation and his face stayed impassive. He collected his colleague and they scooted outside, a chorus of attention-seeking shouts following them through the door.

I paid for my teabags and Jaffa Cakes and followed, in time to see them disappear into a black people carrier with tinted windows. They had an entourage with them, including a bodyguard / bouncer type who might have been more use inside the shop, but there was no fussing – they seemed like a group of mates rather than two celebs and their hangers-on.

As they drove off, it looked very much like Dec had his head in his hands.

There's a phrase “tired and emotional”, which is used as a euphemism for “drunk” when there's danger of getting sued by the person so labelled. In Dec's case, the phrase looked literally true, with no alcohol involved.

The whole episode, brief as it was, made me think a bit about celebrity. We criticise the famous for living in bubbles, blocking out the real world, and surrounding themselves with flunkies to fetch and carry for them. And then, when they do something normal like stop off at a 24-hour garage for snacks on the way home from their Saturday night broadcast, we treat them like zoo animals and shout inanities in an attempt to get them to turn their heads towards us and react to our existence.

Seems like they can't win.

I hadn't particularly had much of an opinion about Ant and Dec before last night – on TV a bit too much at the moment and therefore verging on the irritating, but undoubtedly good at what they do, was probably as far as it went.

Now I have a view.

They're alright by me, and if I ever encounter them in a service station again I'll leave them in peace and not tell them so.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.