Interview: Dermot O'Leary

Dermot O'Leary on Burns, bagpipes and Billy Connolly

Dermot O'Leary presents the National Television Awards on ITV on Wednesday at 7.30pm
Dermot O'Leary presents the National Television Awards on ITV on Wednesday at 7.30pm

This year’s National Television Awards take place on Burns Night says the PR, so would we like presenter Dermot O’Leary to do anything special for the photoshoot that goes with the interview? Now this is not something that’s asked very often, or in fact ever, and in my head I’m fantasising about suggesting he don a tartan suit and See You Jimmy hat when the PR trumps me with bagpipes. They’ve got Dermot a set.

This is the thing about O’Leary. The TV presenter and DJ is nothing if not amenable. A friendly everyman who shines at putting everyone at ease, from the eccentric to the nervous, and he’s more than happy to play along to publicise the awards.

So post shoot, he’s a little breathless, but willing to run with the Burns theme I have planned. First impressions are that he’s Duracell bunny enthusiastic and the effect of his undivided attention flatters.

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    “So sorry I didn’t get your name,” he says. “Janet! How’s it going Janet? Where are you calling from? Edinburgh? That’s a terrific city you’ve got yourself there.”

    Has he been?

    “Yeah! I love Edinburgh, I love the architecture, I like the people, I like the food, I like the fact that you’re so close to the sea. And I love the sense of history.”

    How did he get on with the pipes? Is this an instrument he’ll be taking up?

    “Oh God no. It sounded awful. They are so difficult. It’s a physical exertion isn’t it, that’s the thing. It’s tiring. You’ve got to pump it up with air, then you’ve got to play it. It’s like a giant recorder with legs on. And yet, when pipers play them properly they sound so beautiful. It’s such a skill.”

    O’Leary’s answers end in questions, draw out comments, elicit responses and before you know it you’re chatting. So now he’s interviewing me about bagpipes – do pipers have to start learning young? How many years do I think it would take to learn? Is there a specific part of Scotland they’re from?

    Well, he does speak to people for a living. O’Leary’s interest in connecting and skill at making it look effortless has seen him presenting The X Factor, ITV’s top rated Saturday night show since 2007, with a year out in 2015 when he was replaced by Olly Murs and Caroline Flack. He soon returned with his sharp suits and dad dancing when Simon Cowell saw the error of his ways and wooed him back with a reported £8m, four-year deal. Along with the NTAs he also fronts ITV’s annual Soccer Aid.

    And over on Radio 2 every Saturday afternoon he hosts an award-winning show that since 2002 has seen him introduce upwards of 1,000 bands into the studios, along with guests that have recently included Justin Timberlake and Meat Loaf, Jude Law and Madness. He’s met everyone from Oasis to David Cameron to Morrissey – although that was on honeymoon where the singer told him his marriage would never last.

    With his instant rapport and warmth, straight away you feel like he’s on your side.

    O’Leary’s appeal is his ability to take everyone – child, adult, animal, the nervous, the over-confident, the great British eccentric – at face value. There’s no laughing at them or in-jokes over their heads, something that stems with being completely at ease with himself. But you get a feeling he’d be like this anyway, even if it wasn’t for work. Has he always been the kind of person people would talk to at the bus stop?

    “No, I’ve always been the person that talks to people at the bus stop. I’m just interested in them,” says the 43-year-old.

    Born Seán Dermot Fintan O’Leary and raised in Colchester by Seán and Maria, who moved there from Ireland, he took Media Studies with Politics at Middlesex University, then began his career at Essex Radio as a DJ. He became a runner on Light Lunch with Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins before presenting on Channel 4, working on Big Brother for seven years, then joining The X Factor.

    Married to freelance TV and film producer Dee Koppang, who he met working at the same production company and married in 2012 after ten years together, today he lives in London’s Primrose Hill. With more X Factor and another NTA to look forward to, he’s in development on a project he can’t say anything about. “I’m not being secretive, but I just haven’t cemented it yet. I’m doing a bit of writing for it and I’m really looking forward to it.”

    But let’s press on with the Burns-themed questions. Has he ever been to a Burns Supper?

    “Yes, I have. I love it. I like haggis, I like neeps, I like tatties and I love whisky. Oh and the gravy the haggis is served with, I love that. Haggis reminds me of white pudding, which is what I grew up with, coming from an Irish family. And I’m lucky enough to have a couple of Scottish mates down here so I’ve been to a few Burns Nights which are brilliant.”

    OK, so does he know any lines of Burns he can recite at such suppers?

    “I know ‘the master of the pudding race’, the Address to a Haggis, but that’s about it. It’s a brilliant poem though, isn’t it? I think the Scots and the Irish are quite similar. We don’t have a huge population so our famous figures in literature are lauded. In Ireland you’ve got your Becketts and your Joyces and your Yeatses, that’s what you’re brought up with, so even if you don’t know all of it, you have a favourite Yeats poem and I guess it’s the same in Scotland with Burns.

    “My favourite Yeats poem is An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, but when I read one on Bloomsday at the Irish ambassador’s breakfast I didn’t feel it was the right tone for a celebration so I did The Stolen Child. Well, that’s relatively sad too, but it’s one of the only poems I know off by heart.”

    So does he know what a wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie is?

    “Oh wow, say that again!” he says. I comply. “No, I don’t.”

    After a bit of translation of wee (small), sleekit (smooth), cow’rin (cowering) and tim’rous (timid) beastie, O’Leary guesses at a rat.

    We’ll let him have that one.

    So speaking of To A Mouse, written by the Bard in 1785 and containing the line, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”, has O’Leary ever had a disaster at the National Television Awards in his five years of presenting them, anything along the lines of a Judy Finnigan wardrobe malfunction?

    “It used to be in the Albert Hall and over the night people were emboldened to be a bit cheekier, but the O2 is far more intimidating; 15,000 people and a very big stage. It’s more people doing stuff behind the scenes and muggins here holding the whole lot together,” he says.

    O’Leary himself isn’t intimidated or nervous, but he does get a buzz out of meeting some of his heroes at the awards.

    “Thierry Henry came on and I’d not met him before. Now I know him well enough to say have a drink with him, but then I didn’t, so that was a nice moment. Dustin Hoffman... and Billy Connolly coming on to get his award last year. You’re not starstruck, but there are definite moments where it’s a pleasure to be in the room. It’s a humbling moment.

    “Billy Connolly was such a nice man, and so proud to get that award and he was brilliant. It’s great having a titan like that. My dad had a lovely folky tape when I was a kid, with a Connolly song, Sergeant, Where’s Mine [from his 1974 album Cop Yer Whack For This] on it. It was the first song I ever learnt to sing. So I told him that and sang it and his eyes lit up and he ended the song with me. You walk away from that moment pinching yourself. Because it reaches right back into your childhood.“

    Time for more Burns and “There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.” Who did O’Leary think would win The X Factor this time?

    “Well that quote answers the question. You can never tell. A lot of it is song choice. If you pick a song that really resonates, that’s popular. But Saara Aalto connected with the public, then the 
Five After Midnight Boys had moments, and Honey G…”

    As far as O’Leary is concerned it’s the uncertainty that makes The X Factor popular.

    “You never know who’s going to turn up. You never know that someone like Honey G is going to resonate with an audience, where the great singers are going to come from. That surprises us every year, and if it surprises us then it surprises people back home. That’s the beauty of it. We try to make a really good entertainment show and there’s nowt so queer as folk.”

    How about the rumoured £8m and a four-year deal that O’Leary was supposedly offered by Simon Cowell to get him back on the show? Is that true?

    “Do you know what? It was weird but… when we talked money was never really discussed. It was just more about the feel and the vibe and what we wanted to do to try and make it a fun entertainment show again, and we are a family. It’s actually a really nice happy place to be, a warm show for the most part for people to be on. So it’s quite hard to put that stuff in a contract, it’s more about wanting that vibe back, that was the most important thing.

    “I know that sounds like a very flippant way of looking at it, but if you’re just contract chasing, money chasing, that’s not the right way to make a decision.”

    O’Leary feels that the show definitely has its vibe back and says there never was any bad blood between him and Cowell.

    “I hate to say it because it kind of validates his decision – even though I sort of left on my own terms – but it feels like being away for a year energised us and actually, we probably have a closer relationship now. He gave me a job for eight years and it’s not in my make-up to air my stuff publicly.”

    “But to see her was to love her, love but her, and love forever.” Ae Fond Kiss, 1791. What is it about his wife Dee that he loves?

    “This is lovely by the way,” says O’Leary. “You keep quoting poetry to me. It’s really lovely.” He laughs. “Aw…. she’s warm, she’s kind, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s my best friend.”

    For someone who’s constantly on air and in the public eye and having to watch what he says, O’Leary values having Dee to just let rip with away from the cameras. As to whether they’d like to have children as 
O’Leary has been quoted as saying, now he favours a more discreet: 
“Oh, I don’t want to answer that, is that all right?”

    OK, more Burns, and how about “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” Man was Made to Mourn (1784), which brings us to O’Leary’s charity work.

    “God he was good, wasn’t he?” says O’Leary. “Well it’s definitely a responsibility when you do well in life, to help others who haven’t been as fortunate and as lucky to have the opportunity you’ve had. That seems like a no-brainer to me. I’ve led a very privileged life, albeit I’ve worked hard for it, but I’m very lucky in the serendipity I’ve had so if you can go out of your way to try and help, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t.

    “But what’s important is to try and pick seven or eight charities you really care about and reluctantly say no to a lot of other stuff otherwise your message gets diluted.”

    For O’Leary this is Children in Need, Soccer Aid, Unicef, breast cancer charity CoppaFeel, the Young Person’s Trust for the Environment, he’s patron of his local Irish centre and runs his own trust that gets youngsters work experience in television.

    “A lot of big charities don’t need your help, it’s not going to make a massive amount of difference, whereas for a small charity it will.”

    “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” To a Louse, (1786). How does O’Leary think people see him?

    “Christ knows. As soon as I start going down that route… I think to be on the telly you’ve got to be pretty comfortable in your own skin. When people come on the show, and they might be characters and they might get a NO, but you want to try and make sure that the day they’re having is still a great day. When you do this gig you’ve got to be interested in people, love people. Not all people are going to be great, but the show for me is a celebration of great British eccentricity and we want to embrace that.”

    Time’s running out so we wind things up with Auld Lang Syne, (1788).

    Which friendships and past events does O’Leary think of when he’s belting it out at the bells?

    “People I haven’t seen for a while. There’s a great line in the Divine Comedy song Tonight We Fly, ‘Oh the friends we have known and now know, and those who are yet to be’. Life is transitory, it moves on so sometimes you don’t see the people you used to. That doesn’t make them any less important to you, it’s just life. It’s a great funeral song.”

    Aw no.

    “No, it’s a nice funeral song,” he insists.

    Would it be one of his?

    “It would be one of them, yeah. Although my funeral’s going to last about two hours with the amount of songs I want to play.”

    We can’t finish on this funereal note, it’s time to turn to Burns and his optimistic:

    “For a’ that an’ a’ that, it’s coming yet for a’ that, that man to man, the world o’er shall brothers be for a’ that”. Does he think this is likely?

    “I do think that the world we’re living in at the moment is quite an uncertain and dark place but the most important thing is that you engage. If you don’t debate, irrespective of what side you’re on, if you just dismiss people as nutcases, left wing nutjobs or right wing nutjobs, you’re never going to find common ground. I always get amazed when people say ‘why do you follow that person on Twitter ‘cos they’re x or they’re y?’ I think ‘yeah, I know, that’s the point’. Otherwise social media may as well just be an echo of your own opinion and where does that get you?”

    He’s got to go, he’s “getting daggers” from the PR, but there’s time for one more blast of Dermot charm. “Thanks for doing the interview this way,” he says. “It was really good, and an interesting way of doing it, the poetry. Thanks a lot.”

    Watch Dermot O’Leary host the National Television Awards on Wednesday from 7:30pm, only on ITV. Don’t forget to vote for your favourites at www.national