IT’S no longer funny. As Ant McPartlin emerged from court, his forehead furrowed with stress, who could fail to feel sorry for him. Telling the cameras how repentant he was, he looked like a convict approaching the scaffold. There was no sign of the cheeky chappie chutzpah with which he made his name. This half of the comic pair Ant and Dec had the demeanour of an undertaker, not an all-time favourite talent show host whose raised eyebrow can convey more meaning than a book.

Summing up, the judge said she wanted him to feel financial pain like any other culprit. As she imposed an £86,000 fine, thought to be the biggest ever awarded for a drink-driving offence, his weekly income was broadcast to the world. As a result, we are all now as familiar with his bank balance as our own.

WATCH: Ant McPartlin ‘ashamed and mortified’ by drink-drive crash

If the judge’s intention was to humiliate, she succeeded. Of course, nobody can deny the gravity of the offence. In the grip of addiction, Ant was recklessly foolish, and lucky not to have harmed anyone in his head-on collision. The 20-month driving ban he was handed is the least he could have expected.

But while you would never suggest leniency because of someone’s fame, it is unsettling that the crime he committed can partly be traced to his status as a national treasure. Rather than feed the gossip-hungry press and his voracious fans by disclosing his wealth, the judge would have done better to give him an unsensational fine, and a considerably longer ban. For someone in Ant’s position, the inconvenience of not being able to drive, as well as the financial cost, would certainly hurt. And if her aim is pour encourager les autres, the prospect that drink-driving could lead to being stripped of your licence for a long period is surely the best possible deterrent.

There are other factors at play here too. For the past couple of years, following a botched knee operation, Ant has been struggling with addiction, first to painkillers and then alcohol. When he checked himself into a rehab clinic last year, it was headline news. So too when he and his wife separated. And when he crashed his car, there he was again, on the front pages. No surprise, then, that following his court appearance, his distressed face was plastered all over newspapers and websites. It was like watching an animal in a zoo, unable to escape the cameras, while people gawped and poked their fingers through the bars.

It might not be the law’s place to take a wider perspective on an offence whose consequences could have been fatal, yet the entertainer’s psychological history is relevant to his case. Ant is clearly suffering. If he were an ordinary citizen, he’d be able to get help and back on his feet without a spotlight on his every move. For someone in his public position, the coverage of every development in his life, the weekly showbiz calibration of his latest performance, the paparazzi outside his front door, and the deluge of social media posts, must make it nigh on impossible to find normality.

How ironic that the irrepressible wit and practised skill that brought him and his co-star Dec universal acclaim could now prove to be his downfall. Not since Morecambe and Wise has there been a more beloved duo, taken so warmly to the country’s hearts. Emerging from Newcastle roots to become the most popular TV personalities of our times, they are Peter Pan figures, retaining the boyish charm that blessed their early careers, and expected to be perennially carefree, youthful and fun. Like latter-day Likely Lads, they have perfected their schtick of knowing innocence. But with such enormous expectations comes unforgiving pressure. Facing millions on live TV every week would make the most balanced of us reach for the betablockers. Bad enough to be exposed to constant scrutiny and the demand to keep up audience figures without also being required to be insouciantly funny, topical, irreverent yet kindly, all while delivering one-liners.

WATCH: Ant McPartlin ‘ashamed and mortified’ by drink-drive crash

In this perilous high-wire act, Ant lies in a long line of superb comedians of unpretentious origins – the likes of Ken Dodd, Tony Hancock, and Ronnie Barker and Corbett. His natural comedic ability has its roots in his persona as the amiable bloke next door. But now, elevated on a pedestal as high as Nelson’s column, like all his professional forebears he must, at the flick of a switch, entertain royally, while also keeping his feet on the ground.

You can only imagine the strain. It’s no surprise there is a long documented link between comedy and mental ill-health. It’s this that makes Ant’s situation especially troubling. The demands of performing have turned many to drink or drugs. In Hancock’s case, it killed him. The affection in which Ant is deservedly held means we all want him to recover, but for that he needs privacy and peace. If he continues to be treated not as an entertainer but as a source of crowd-pleasing entertainment, the consequences will be no laughing matter.