We all now know that, on Sunday, TV presenter Ant McPartlin, over the legal alcohol limit, took the decision to drive his car home and, in doing so, almost ended the lives of an entire family. The question is, now we know those innocent victims are safe, will he have to surrender much of his own life as penance? Would career implosion and full breakdown be the rightful consequence of his terrible, immoral, selfish, dangerous and wildly irresponsible action?
Lorraine Kelly appears not to think so. She was criticised on social media for wishing McPartlin well while discussing the accident live on Monday’s Lorraine show. Kelly acknowledges that she was wrong – and she certainly was – not to extend the same courtesy to the family in the collision and prioritise their feelings ahead of her celebrity sometime colleague. “He’s not the victim here and deserves everything he gets” was the general consensus online, where people are frequently reduced to 140-character assassination. The anger is understandable, as are the accusations of double standards in a society that elevates celebrities, sometimes excluding them from the moral code imposed on the “civilian population”. But, while he may not be a direct victim in this accident caused by him and him alone, is it entirely fair that Ant McPartlin is denied any sympathy for the apparent personal breakdown – alcoholism, prescription addiction, divorce – that looks to have contributed to his crime?
Mental illness and, in particular, the condition of addiction simply don’t afford people the same level of forgiveness as more visible, physiological unwellness. Especially, it seems, when the afflicted person seems wanting for little else in life. How can someone worth an estimated £60m, who’s won 17 consecutive public-voted National Television Awards, whose working days involve 6-star Australian holiday resorts with their lifelong best pal, be depressed? From what hell could he be escaping through his drug and alcohol abuse?
One needn’t have illness or circumstance in common with McPartlin to understand that people rarely fall into one of two binary categories, either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’
While it’s certainly true that McPartlin’s wealth and access afford him more treatment options and time off than the vast majority of those struggling with mental illness, to presume an inextricable link between life circumstances and happiness is to fundamentally misunderstand the diseases of depression and addiction (I’ve been depressed when penniless and depressed when successful and solvent – I felt the same sense of hopelessness, anxiety and dread each time). And, besides, the implication that a man’s life (lived publicly since childhood) is some full-time picnic, when hundreds of jobs and the fortunes of an entire commercial terrestrial channel depend largely on the continued appeal of his unwavering good cheer and humour, is ill-considered to the point of ignorance. Mental illness, though often triggered by poverty and social disadvantage, is an equal-opportunities assailant, targeting one in four, regardless of their objective privilege.
It seems unlikely that viewers will remain furious long-term and Ant and Dec must hope that the public will prove forgiving. In their favour, we live in a culture of – albeit selective – redemption, where a remorseful wife-beater like Ozzy Osbourne can be reborn as a devoted, bumbling and hapless husband, where weather-beaten drug addicts like Robbie Williams or Russell Brand can speak candidly about their sometimes regrettable pasts to an accepting and affectionate public. One can reasonably predict that, next year, Ant will appear nose-to-brown-nose with Piers Morgan, firing questions at his weakest spots, in the hope of sprouting a leak of tears and contrition. But perhaps, right now, it’s in McPartlin’s interests to assume nothing but his urgent need to get better. Because, while sympathy may not be enough to save his career, ongoing addiction will certainly end it.
Most of us cannot empathise with McPartlin’s reckless and appalling decision to take the wheel in an inebriated state, nor the situation of crashing into an innocent family, sending a tiny child to hospital, who, by the grace of sheer luck, appears to have escaped with her life and only minor injuries. The alternative outcome is unimaginably horrible and would have been entirely the fault of one man. But surely, to some degree, we can empathise with having made the mother of all screw-ups, with knowing we may have ended life as we know it, with the feeling that our dearest and most important friendship hangs in the balance and with the grim realisation that the world thinks us a bad person for making one dreadful choice while we felt at our lowest possible ebb? One needn’t have illness or circumstance in common with McPartlin to imagine the thundering disappointment and self-loathing he has wrought on his own life, or to understand that people rarely fall into one of two binary categories, either “all good” or “all bad”. Mental illness makes victims of many, not least the person in its grip.
Ant McPartlin is the lesser victim in all this, but he is a victim all the same. One can despise someone’s voluntary, wholly avoidable and potentially lethal actions while still feeling sad that they allowed themselves to become so broken as to be reckless with all they hold dear. Addicts, if they’re lucky, reach their rock bottom without killing or being killed in the process. McPartlin is among the fortunate handed an opportunity to change before it’s too late. After devoting his entire life to entertaining us, there should surely be enough goodwill in the bank to buy our best wishes as he confronts the chaos he’s created.