Glory Days: meet Dermot O’Leary
Dermot conquered British television with a winning combination of charm, grace and good humour. THE RAKE’s Editor-in-Chief, TOM CHAMBERLIN, caught up with his former X Factor colleague...
I am rather jealous of Dermot O’Leary. As someone who seems to punctuate every other word with an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ whenever I converse in public, it’s infuriating to interview someone who speaks so fluently and at length. Britain’s most ebullient presenter has always lifted spirits, on our television screens and the wireless, by being sharp, witty, effervescent and kindly. I have always been a fan, though I should also declare a bit of an interest: Dermot and I are former colleagues.
In 2009, when Dermot hosted what was then the largest television show in the U.K. — The X Factor, with its peak audience of 19m — I was there. I was a runner, in my early twenties, freshly graduated and with very little idea as to where life’s twists and turns would take me. Dermot, too, began his career as a runner; his skillset and talent for presenting was recognised only when he had the courage to ask for a screen test. Perhaps my career could have taken a similar turn? Not quite: I made a move into publishing, and in my first week of employment at The Rake I was reunited with my former colleague at what was then known as London Collections: Men.
Since then, of course, O’Leary’s face and voice have become known and beloved by the entire nation, from BBC Radio to ITV’s This Morning. His ascent has — as he describes it, and in keeping with his reputation for decency — “come through serendipity, not from me scheming and planning; it’s not my nature”. He adds: “Don’t get me wrong, I hustle and work hard, and have as much enthusiasm for my job as I have ever done, but I am not a chess player, certainly not at anyone’s expense.”
Dermot has always had a terrific eye for the sartorial arts. He and I would natter away at The X Factor’s live shows about Gieves & Hawkes, Thom Sweeney and the wonderful heritage behind Savile Row. He is always immaculate, and has been a great supporter of the industry. It seemed appropriate that when I saw him again we picked up where we left off... In fact, it is something of a travesty that it has taken this long for him to be featured in these pages. An apology was owed to him, which felt like the right way to kick off our interview.
Still, amends making was not the motivation for our chat; rather, a new book that Dermot has written. He is not unfamiliar with authorship, having released several books that feature a ninja cat called Toto. “My cat is blind but shows these seemingly ninja-like tendencies,” he says. This latest addition to his canon — called Wings of Glory — continues to anthropomorphise animals, but in this case, it concerns two plucky birds who join the ‘Royal Bird Force’ to fight alongside the RAF during the Battle of Britain. “I like my birds, and I am a bit of a twitcher,” he tells me, “and my sweet spot in history is the second world war. The interest for me is twofold: I am fascinated by extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. I was born 30 years after the second world war, and when I was 30 I kept thinking that the idea that [the war] had happened only 30 years before I was born was absolutely fascinating. It is history and yet it is so tangible.”
I was excited that Wings of Glory would allow me to introduce to my two children the concept of the second world war, a subject that, like Dermot, I also have a soft spot for. It was a time, he says, that “brought out the best in Britain”, and subsequent generations can learn so much from it. Yet as the years pass we move further away from it, which leaves the responsibility of preserving its message with this generation of enthusiasts, and Wings of Glory puts things into measured relief. The language and storyline are captivating, droll, and at points, as war is, tragic. “I thought long and hard about [death] when I was writing it,” O’Leary says. “I was thinking, What would I want the writer to do if I was seven? I always loved stuff that was kind of subversive and that treated me not like an adult but like I had some intelligence. You don’t want to lay it on too heavy but it is a war, therefore people will die.”
Unintentionally (at least, that’s my guess), the main character, a swift called Linus, mirrors the personality of the author. He is able to disarm through charm, and exhibits plenty of curiosity and empathy, two traits that Dermot cites as vital in the presenting work he does. The world Dermot invites children into is one that distinguishes between the old morals of good and evil without trying to claim that a happy ending is guaranteed.
Increasingly, a priority in my life is to keep close uplifting, loving and sensitive people. Dermot’s presence in the magazine adheres to that principle, and his mission of bringing stories to children — who are too often subjected to the dangers and ills of the internet — by drawing upon a time when duty, sacrifice and teamwork conquered great evil is a noble one, and has earned my respect and admiration.
Read the full story on Issue 90, available now.