ANT and Dec’s glittering career spanning more than two decades began with a Saturday morning TV show that nearly bombed.
SM:TV Live seemed dull — until the Geordie duo took the daring decision to SEX UP the kids’ programme.
The cheeky sketches and madcap humour brought in scores of new viewers, including parents and students.
But a new documentary reveals how the programme that led to the pair presenting Britain’s Got Talent, I’m A Celebrity and Saturday Night Takeaway could have spelled financial ruin for them.
On new ITV documentary The Story Of SM:TV Live, Ant McPartlin, 45, explains: “We are the presenters we are today because of that show.
“We learned how to do it there — and there’s no better breeding ground than Saturday morning television.
“But it wasn’t great for the first couple of months. There was no atmosphere. We got it wrong initially.
‘Chums sketch got bigger ratings than Friends’
“People were putting pressure on ITV. Other production companies were saying, ‘Look, they’re not doing it ratings-wise, it’s not great. You should replace it with one of our shows’.”
Declan Donnelly, also 45, adds: “It had been going fairly badly for a long enough time that people were starting to ask questions. ‘Should this show be on air?’
“I thought, ‘If they pull this I’m gonna lose my house. I’ll have to go back to Newcastle and live with my parents again’. We were like, ‘Oh boy, this is bad!’”
As teenagers, the pair starred in children’s drama Byker Grove before launching a pop career in 1994 as PJ & Duncan — the names of their characters in the BBC1 show.
SM:TV Live, which launched on August 29, 1998, was the first time they had been presenters full-time — and they ploughed everything into setting up their own production company to make the show.
So when the ratings nosedived they had to launch a drastic revamp by filling the studio with an audience of children and adding lashings of saucy comedy.
The formula, which would never be allowed in today’s woke world, helped boost viewing figures by entertaining youngsters while attracting a broader audience.
Dec added: “That was always in the back of our mind when we were coming up with ideas — there was a bit for everybody.
“And it got to a point where it was not difficult to book the show because everybody wanted to come down.”
Co-host Cat Deeley, 44, embraced the show’s cheekiness by pretending to run Cat’s Chats — a sex phone line.
In the documentary Cat, Ant and Dec are reunited in the London studio where they made the show.
She recalls: “It was a carefree, world-is-your-oyster moment.”
An incredible variety of guests took part in the fun — including Spice Girl Victoria Beckham appearing to draw a pair of boobs on herself in a Star Trek spoof.
They even enlisted diva Mariah Carey to take part in a skit where Dec tries to snog her.
And in one sketch Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, now 52, starts to take her clothes off because, she claims, Ant has told her that’s what women have to do to present TV in the UK.
Kylie says in the documentary: “There was no other show like SM:TV. When I watch some of the clips back, there’s the nostalgia for sure and there’s a bit of, ‘Wow, you can’t do that now!’
“But I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying the sketches, because it didn’t matter how bad you were or how wrong things went, it was funny.”
The likes of Graham Norton, Sir Tom Jones and Sting willingly took part — and the hosts never patronised their audience.
In the Wonky Donkey quiz segment, Dec would scream at viewers who phoned in and got the answer wrong, while Ant revelled in triumphing over children who tried to outsmart him in Challenge Ant.
It was a stark contrast with its main competitor, Live & Kicking on BBC1, which was hosted by Zoe Ball. Suddenly that looked boring by comparison and it was axed in 2001.
‘NO OTHER SHOW LIVE SM:TV’
Ant and Dec’s close pal Stephen Mulhern, who would eventually go on to host SM:TV, said: “It was, without question, the last kids’ TV show that will ever happen that wasn’t safe.” One of their favourite sketches was the two “Biggles-esque”
RAF pilots — one who liked wearing women’s underwear, the other who frequented saunas in Soho.
In the documentary, Westlife singer Brian McFadden admits he cracked up when the band went on and saw Dec dragged up as a hysterical female fan wearing a T-shirt with the singer’s face on the front.
Brian said: “I don’t think we’re ever going to have a show for kids on a Saturday morning as good as SM:TV — and not just for kids. Everybody loved SM:TV and that’s the only Saturday morning show that’s ever done that.”
The weekly highlight was Chums, which featured Ant living with wannabe lovebirds Dec and Cat. The will-they-won’t-they storyline had the nation hooked as much as the show it was spoofing — US sitcom Friends.
Dec said: “We never got to kiss until the day of our wedding, which was our last show.”
Ant said: “It got to the point where we did a Chums Christmas special one year and that part of the show got bigger ratings than Friends did. It was the perfect way to end it. We’d reached the pinnacle.”
When Ant and Dec left in 2001, presenting duties were taken over by a variety of presenters, including Tess Daly, who would go on to front BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.
The show ended in 2003. Cat went on to be a huge TV star in the US, while Ant and Dec have become two of Britain’s best-loved TV presenters, hosting the Brits three times and winning a staggering 34 National Television Awards.
The second stage of their presenting career began in 2001 with a reality talent show that was a forerunner of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.
‘GUT-WRENCHING TO LEAVE’
Ant said: “ITV came to us and said, ‘We’ve got this new show called Pop Idol’. We knew that the plans were to make this show huge, and we knew we couldn’t do both.
“You could never have imagined it turned into what it turned into. You don’t see anything like it any more. I miss it.”
Dec added: “It was gut-wrenching to leave because we loved the show. It was part of our lives and we’d spent three years on it.
“We’d worked on it from the conception of the show up until the very last day. Even now I’m like, ‘Oh God, I hate the thought of us having left’.
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“It was joyous, it was magical. It was the best time of our lives.”
The Story Of SM:TV Live is on Boxing Day on ITV at 9.25am.