When Dermot O’Leary was asked to dance outside BBC Broadcasting House for 24 hours for Comic Relief, he thought he might make a hundred grand. In the end, he raised over £1m for the charity, as people across the nation kept pressing the red button, utterly intoxicated by the sight of him bouncing along, in a cheery sort of trance. “Someone asked me how I was feeling and I said, “Oh I’m really fucked” – I swore a few times, my producer had to come and have a word.” He says he had given his team a list of 500 songs that make him happy, to ensure the visiting celebrity DJs would play at least some of them. “They played three. In 24 hours. Everybody decided disco would keep me going instead – if I have to hear Boogie Wonderland again, I’m not joking …”
When we meet, in a spare studio at the Radio 2 building, I am instantly struck by the fact that Dermot O’Leary is exactly the same in real life as he is on the telly, and how great it must be to have a job where you just put your whole cheery, chatty self out there. After talking to him for an hour, and realising how much more is going on, I’m left wondering how peculiar it must be to have a job where you hold so much of yourself back.
Of course, O’Leary, 41, is most famous for presenting The X Factor, the talent show dominated by judges who long to play god and contestants who long to be stars, and on which he has always been the gentler, human bridge between them all, never taking himself as seriously. Personally, I hate X Factor so much that being cajoled into watching it always makes me feel unwell – but I love him on it. “You hate X Factor?” he says. “REALLY?” he adds, looking a bit surprised.
“Why? It’s odd, because … I don’t usually get on with people who don’t like it,” he adds. Ah. I thought he might secretly be pleased, given that he recently quit the show after eight years. He says he just woke up with a gut feeling one day that it was time to go, that he had had the best of it now, that he should move on. “But I’ll never say anything bad about it because it bought me my house. And I did enjoy it – the trust they put in me. I just wanted to make a good TV show, I wasn’t bothered if we found the next superstar.” Now he has lots of free time to think up new TV shows and do things like celebrating James Joyce day by giving a reading at the Irish embassy.
“Though we’re not really a Joycean family – the O’Learys are all big readers but Joyce is so modernistic and we were raised on slightly more romantic stuff, like Yeats. There’s a strange thing in Ireland – and it’s similar in Norway, where my wife’s from – when you’re a small country and you punch above your weight literarily, then that literature permeates.”
His Irish parents, who raised him in a village in Essex, had céilís in their front room on Sunday nights, and instilled a sense of social justice and Irish history in their children, as you discover reading his 2014 memoir, The Soundtrack To My Life. “1798,” he says proudly, the very second I mention the Wexford rebellion. The book is also a bit of a love letter to his inspiration: Terry Wogan, the man who gave him his best radio advice ever, which was “Don’t be afraid of the silences.” I ask him what Terry’s response to such humble adulation has been. “Er, I don’t think he’s aware of its existence,” he admits, laughing at himself again. “When I did the danceathon I did the Floral Dance with him, and about two thirds of the way through he couldn’t be arsed any more and he literally gave up. So I’m there with Morris dancers, Wogan’s just walked off and I KNOW there’s another verse still to come. I’m like, you’re only here for ONE SONG Terry, where are you going?”
After passing only two GCSEs, “the biggest wake-up call of my life”, O’Leary resat them, then did A-levels (getting an A in politics) and went to Middlesex University in London. He didn’t spend his time there on girlfriends and raves, but on going to see politicians from both sides of the house speak: Tony Benn, Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, Robin Cook. The more we talk, the more I wonder if his long-term television goal is really to move towards Westminster – to be more of a Paxman than an Ant or Dec. He says no, he likes doing a bit of everything, but when I ask him to name the Labour party leadership candidates he doesn’t miss a beat, can tell me all of their individual policies, and becomes truly animated when discussing what went wrong for Ed Miliband.
“I did the party leadership interviews last time. Clegg came across as a decent human being. Gordon Brown came across as a decent human being with the weight of the world on his shoulders. But Cameron walked in and you just went, yeah, he’s the prime minister. Now this is literally my back-of-the-fag-packet theory here, but we trust an old Etonian in this country. We just do – even if we don’t know we’re doing it. It’s bred into us that they can run the country.” Not that that means other people should pretend to be such – O’Leary says the current Labour leadership debates are awful to watch, because people are already speaking in their campaign spiels, rather than just showing us who they are.
“And Ed was obviously an honourable guy, but I just wanted to media-train him to be fallible – none of this ‘hell yeah’ posturing.
“It’s like when Gordon Brown said he liked the Arctic Monkeys. No! He should have just said, ‘I like my kids and I like maths and I like politics and that’s it.’ Why I love Arsène Wenger is because he’s honest. He once said: ‘I only like football and a certain Alsatian wine, and if you put me two blocks from my house I won’t be able to get home.’ People do respond to that sort of honesty.”
When you work for the BBC you aren’t supposed to reveal your political allegiances – something that O’Leary admits can be a struggle. He’s happy to say that he identifies as centre-left; he once called himself a socialist, but now says there are certain Tories he might have voted for, and says he thinks it’s “more about politicians than it is about politics”. He’s been invited to go on Question Time, and would love to accept. But the powers that be at Radio 2 aren’t keen on him doing it. “And everyone’s convinced the BBC is Trotskyite anyway, so people are terrified here. I don’t know. It’s that weird thing, even with sport, the guys on Five Live tell me they won’t say publicly which team they support. I love this place so much but it’s funny that the Reithian principles that still govern the BBC were decided by one man and when you find out about him, he was pretty bonkers.”
We are actually here to talk about Dermot O’Leary: The Saturday Sessions 2015, his latest compilation album from his Radio 2 afternoon show – it’s largely cover versions. I put the CD on, thinking the tracklisting of Sam Smith and Elbow and Morcheeba looked nice enough and wouldn’t have any surprises, but then Will Young came on singing Take My Breath Away at a stark, slowed-down tempo and, anyway, there must have been something in my eye. “I’m never making a compilation album without Will on it,” agrees O’Leary. “Have you heard him doing Hanging on the Telephone?” he says, before whipping his phone out and playing an extraordinary cover version of Blondie. The album also includes The Levellers covering ABBA, which was not a combination anyone ever saw coming. But then neither was O’Leary presenting Newsnight, and after an hour in his company that’s starting to seem like the obvious pairing too. He has an infectious way of making life itself seem like an extraordinarily good idea. Perhaps this is exactly what British politics needs.