Dermot O'Leary fell in love with cats and opened a new chapter on his career

The broadcaster and writer’s new children’s book champions wildcats and his love of Scotland

Wildcats are being bred for release at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park, where O'Leary has visited some of the cats and championed the work of the Saving Wildcats team. Pic:RZSS

Chatty and charming, Dermot O’Leary immediately puts you at your ease, relaxed and enthusiastic, all the while drinking from a mug and eating biscuits. No wonder he’s one of the nation’s favourite interviewers.

With two decades of TV and radio work he’s a familiar face from This Morning, 11 series of the X Factor, The National Television Awards, Big Brother’s Little Brother, Soccer Aid, the EE British Academy Film Awards, the Brit Awards, Reel Stories, and voice from his Saturday morning show on Radio 2 and his People, Just People podcast.

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But if you don’t have offspring of a certain age you might not know that O’Leary is also an author, with a series of children’s books to his name as the 48-year-old launches his fifth book, Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat. Based on Dermot’s real-life cats and aimed at six to nine year olds, the latest adventure sees the return of Toto and her brothers Silver and Socks, who live in a townhouse in London, but time round the action takes place in Scotland, a country very close to the Essex man’s heart, and showcases the country’s endangered wildcats.

“I love Scotland,” says O’Leary, over Zoom from London, where he lives with his wife TV director Dee Koppang (she’s currently working on series three of The Split with Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan), their toddler Kasper and two cats Toto and Socks.

“We were up every year with X Factor and I got to know Edinburgh and Glasgow really well and one of my best friends lives in Glasgow. I love the fact it’s a quick gateway to the north and west, which I fell in love with. I first fell in love with it when I presented a survival-style TV series in Aberfoyle 20 years ago, so it’s always somewhere I’ve wanted to set a book. Then when my friend’s dog Dudley was sent to an animal boot camp, I thought what a brilliant idea it would make for a Toto adventure,”

He and Dee rescued Toto and her brother Silver, strays in an olive grove in Italy, and brought them back to the UK, and he’s been a cat lover ever since.

“They change your life, animals. They definitely made us a family before we became a family if that makes sense. They become very much part of the family and the focal point of your world. We couldn’t live without them now.

Dermot with some of the Saving Wildcats team (R-L) Sandra Rainey, David Barclay and Estelle Morgan at the Highland Wildlife Park.

“Toto has been blind from birth, but we quickly realised she had ninja-like reactions,” says O’Leary, who was inspired by her to begin writing the books.

The Scottish adventure begins when Toto’s mischievous younger brothers Silver and Socks, and their friend Catface the Rat, cause them all to be sent to Glenview Correctional Camp for Naughty Animals in The Highlands. There all is not as it seems, and when they hear about the legend of a mighty wildcat destined to raise an army and take over all of Scotland, they are soon hot on the trail.

“One of my favourite things about writing these books is looking at history. Either the history of London, which I've done in a couple of the books, and with this one, the history of the clans which I spent whole days online researching. I love the idea of an animal hierarchy, and the wildcats would have been the last great chieftains of the clans in the animal world. The idea that there's this one wildcat that has a hold over the animal population I thought was really a lovely narrative.”

“And obviously wildcats have been persecuted and all but made extinct in this country, but now there are programmes to bring them back,” says O’Leary who was due to appear at an online event with the Scottish Book Trust as part of The Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland at Highland Wildlife Park, in conversation with Cressida Cowell and on location at the Park getting up close with the animals.

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat by Dermot O’Leary is out now in paperback from Hodder Children’s Books, illustrated by Nick East.

“I love the sense of wilderness in Scotland, the mystique around it and the majesty of that scenery combined with the accessibility of it. I would love to spend more time there. I did a show a few years ago called Into the Wild with Gordon Buchanan, the wildlife film-maker, who took me to Skye. Unbelievable. We saw everything; sea and golden eagles, otters, minke whales, went swimming with basking sharks, all off Skye and Rhum, stayed in a bothy, camped on Rhum, and it was one of the experiences of my life.”

“Then the night we were supposed to go back, we landed in Skye and were supposed to drive to Inverness to get a flight but my producer was really seasick, so the fisherman who took us out for the day said you can stay around ours tonight and go back tomorrow. So we did. And there's a unique type of shellfish that you can't export because it doesn't freeze well so it has to be sold locally or eaten, like a tiny little mini lobster snail bug kind of thing. Like a mini shrimp I guess,” he says, possibly referring to squat lobsters, known locally as ‘spineys’.

“Just delicious. I stayed up all night with this guy and his family and had a few drinks and this incredible dinner of local seafood - it was the best day of my life. Swimming with basking sharks and eating shrimps. Scotland always wins!” he shouts through a mouthful of biscuit.

Reading the Toto books, it’s clear that O’Leary is a big cat lover, one of those people with pictures of them on his phone, which he sends to illustrator Nick East, whose drawings add a fun element for readers.

Wildcats are being bred for release at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park, where O'Leary has visited some of the cats and championed the work of the Saving Wildcats team. Pic: RZSS

As he talks about them it’s obvious he has a special soft spot for Toto, his original cat.

“I know this sounds ridiculous, because she’s a cat, but she is a very kind soul. If anyone is in any pain in the house, she’s the first living presence that will be there. She has this incredibly kind nature and she’s very good around Kasper. I think part of her blindness is she always wants to be part of where you are.

“She is incredibly attuned and fearless and it’s really interesting living with a blind cat, because you see the world, excuse the pun, through their eyes. You can't just leave the bike in the middle of the hall because they'll run into it, so it definitely gives you awareness.

“There’s a lot made about dogs being pack animals but cats are really sociable too… just on their own terms. Yeah they’re happy to sleep for nine hours at a stretch, but when you’re watching TV or reading, your cat will come and find you and go ‘great, I’ll come and hang out with you for a while’. They’re a lot more social than people give them credit for.”

With a feline foothold established in the O’Leary household, after Silver’s early demise it was only a matter of time before fresh company for Toto arrived.

“We were devastated. Then a few months later, being rescue fanatics we were on the Battersea website. We missed one cat but they said ‘What do you think about this little fellow?’ and sent a picture of Socks. That was it. A small tabby and white kitten looking a little bit forlorn with all these adult tom cats around him, but he’d just tucked his little legs underneath theirs and shut his eyes. He looked fearless. And I thought that’s the guy for us. He's been with us five years. He’s a little smasher!”

Dermot O'Leary and wife Dee Koppang at the Earthshot Prize awards ceremony in London, October 2021.

It’s no surprise that O’Leary has taken to writing as he’s always loved books and reading, from listening to his Irish dad’s telling of the tales of Oisin, Finn MacCool and the Fianna - “I never got bored with those stories” - to being taken to Colchester library as a kid.

“That is the lovely thing about being brought up with words. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy poetry or books because you have working class Irish parents. And I think the Celts punch above their weight a little bit more.”

While Kasper is still too young to get his hands on the Toto series, which is aimed at six to nine year olds - “these pages aren't sturdy enough for his hands yet let me tell you” - O’Leary and his wife read to him a lot - current favourites being Hairy Maclary and the Good Night series (also illustrated by Nick East), Kes Gray’s Oi! Frog and the That's Not my series. “I'm so happy he likes reading,” he says.

For O’Leary, the best thing about his job is the variety involved, although whatever the medium, it all boils down to his love of people and stories.

“I love doing live TV, it’s wonderful. I'm over the moon doing This Morning, working with Alison. The radio I adore because I love music and chatting to people, and I love doing a podcast because it's long form and you can luxuriate in an interview. Audible are brilliant about giving me real free rein about who to get on. I just try to find the most interesting people, find out about their lives. I get to go down a rabbit hole and really, properly create worlds, and it's one of the things I feel very - I don't want to sound like a beauty queen - but I feel very privileged.”

As for favourite podcast interviewees, straight off he names: “Andrew Scott and Olivia Coleman. I LOVE actors, especially those who don't wear their craft too heavily on their shoulders. Those two are such good actors and yet there’s a humility there. They don't then take it to bed with them. They love doing their job, but they're not tortured by it.”

For the future O’Leary would like to interview Paul McCartney again, “maybe off the back of Get Back, because we never did a proper career retrospective. And then even though I've done him, my musical hero, Springsteen. And Shane MacGowan maybe. The Pogues were the first band I ever saw live on my own and that was life changing. Before that it was with my parents - I saw Ray Charles in an amphitheatre in Turkey with my mum and dad. That was so cool. ”

Another highlight for O’Leary on the podcast was speaking to Rod Stewart.

“You forget what an incredible career and life he’s had. And also Rod’s so open, there’s no side to him so he gives you chapter and verse. Brought up in Archway [London], he’s someone that’s very proud of his Scottish heritage. We talked about Long John Baldry who was his mentor, and he also told a great story about moving to LA.

“When they got there his manager said ‘you can’t go home for a year now’ and he said ‘what do you mean?’. ‘You can’t go home now, you’re a tax exile,’ he told him, so he stayed, but he said ‘I was really sad cos I missed my mum and dad and my friends’. And then he paused and went… ‘but I WAS going out with Britt Ekland so it wasn’t all bad!” O’Leary laughs. “Yeah, Rod was brilliant to interview.”

Chatting to O’Leary time flies, partly because he completely engages in a two-way conversation and as a people person, is genuinely interested in others.

“I don’t want gossip, or to know about their private lives. I want to find out about THEM. And if you’re not doing it cynically, you’re doing it because you’re interested, then people open up. And you do your research, so you don’t run out of questions, but really, I’ve got no B game if charm doesn’t work.”

B game? He doesn’t need one.

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Legend of the Wildcat by Dermot O’Leary is out now in paperback from Hodder Children’s Books, illustrated by Nick East.

You can find Dermot on Twitter @radioleary and Instagram @dermotoleary

Find out more about the wildcats at https://www.highlandwildlifepark.org.uk/

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