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Dermot O'Leary: highly driven

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Through sheer force of friendliness, Dermot O’Leary’s takeover of TV land continues with his new car-themed game show. Andrew Dickens hops in his passenger seat

[Photography: Greg Williams]

Believe it or not, magazine interviews aren’t easy. There is actually an element of skill involved; to pick and position questions that will best elicit entertaining and informative words on a particular subject or subjects. Words that will then be turned into a marvellous piece of writing with structure and narrative. You might even win an award – or at least get a nice tweet. Occasionally, however, you simply have to take your hands off the wheel and go with the flow. And thus, Dermot O’Leary is talking about comics.

“I always remember The Beano being more subversive, while The Dandy was more gentle,” he says. “I was always a Beano guy. I remember my dad buying me the Beano and Warlord. Warlord was pretty racist. I didn’t know that from Adam when I was 10, but my dad casually glanced at this comic and said, ‘You can’t read this!’ To be fair, he kind of shielded me from it. He said he wasn’t happy because it had loads of guns in it."

I’m interviewing O’Leary over lunch at a busy Soho restaurant. Except I’m not really interviewing him. O’Leary tells me that, given the chance, he just likes to have a nice chat, to keep things organic. So far he’s succeeding; it’s a very nice chat. It’s also about very few of the topics I’d planned for. Before we’ve even ordered food, he’s given me wedding advice (not without reason – I’m getting married), writing honeymoon destinations on the back of my carefully prepared, soon-to-be-ignored notes and offering speech tips. We’ve discussed my and his respective memberships of the Ramblers and the Royal Geographical Society, which came from talk of keeping fit. Then there are the comics, which enter the fray when he asks who owns ShortList (A: DC Thompson, creators of The Beano and The Dandy). I could fight this bonhomie, this organic confabulation, and insist on wedging in my prescribed notions – but surely there’s enough fighting in the world.

CARS

The talk of rambling, conveniently, brings mention of his beloved Karmann Ghia (long story). It’s a car and therefore allows a natural segue to the one thing we really should discuss: his new Saturday night gameshow, The Getaway Car, which debuted on BBC One a couple of weeks ago. If you haven’t seen the show, it sees pairs of contestants – often couples – combine ‘wacky’ driving challenges with a smattering of trivia in an effort to win £10,000.

“I’m really glad it isn’t serious,” he says. “When they put it to me on paper, I didn’t know what to think. It could’ve gone either way: very car-driven and serious, or a really fun show about relationships. Then they showed me a five-minute taster tape of people driving blindfolded through bollards in Shepherd’s Bush and I knew I wanted to do the pilot. The nice thing about doing a new show is you get to set the tone from the very start.” That tone, I suggest, being a hugely entertaining lovechild of Total Wipeout and Bullseye.

“It does have that Bullseye dynamic. The non-driver gets so frustrated. In episode three, there’s this beautiful demure Indian girl and her husband. She’s a ball of energy who found him on Facebook. They had their first date in Kuwait airport KFC. She was so rude to him. You want to laugh at them and with them, but in the end you want it to be about love and friendship. She said at the end, ‘I’ve realised I’m a bit of a nightmare.’ She shouted at him from start to finish.”

Certain celebrities possess a natural aura of mateyness. These folk, so the cliché goes, seem like the kind of person you could have a pint with. Actually have one, as opposed to have one in the kind of scenario where the beer you’re drinking is squeezed by Beyoncé from a unicorn’s teat.

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MORE CARS

For some such celebs, this gift is a bonus. It doesn’t necessarily make them any better at their job, but it does make people like them – and perhaps forgive them more readily. Call it the ‘Andrew Flintoff Effect’. For others, it is the amiable foundation of their career. The ‘James Corden Effect’ or, as I prefer because it rhymes, the ‘O’Leary Theory’. He has it in spades. I don’t know if it’s natural or learned, but it’s completely without artifice. It’s why O’Leary is so enormously popular and can, to an extent, choose projects around his passions. He loves cars and people, so he does a show about cars and people. OK, it’s not that simple, but he’s a long way from having to present those late-night phone-in quiz shows, where the grins say ‘win’, but the eyes scream 'kill me'.

“I try to look at my career with an actor’s mentality,” he says. “Do a big blockbuster that gets you out there, tests you, but also gives you the opportunity to do smaller projects. Because I love my music so much, I got a lot of grief – not least from my own friends – for doing The X Factor. But I like where it went. It’s not hard to pick, as long as you can be passionate about it and it’s enjoyable. I don’t want to be worthy about it, but you get something out of it. [With cars] 

I’d call myself an enthusiast rather than a petrolhead. With my Karmann Ghia, I can tell what‘s gone wrong, but I can’t necessarily fix it. I’m not James May. I’m not going to get the gaffer tape out.”

He may not be James May, but as a much-loved presenter with a penchant for cars, he was mooted as one of May’s successors on Top Gear, before another master of mateyness – the Proto’leary – Chris Evans got the gig. The rumours, as often is the case, had all the substance of methane.

“I was never up for it,” he says. “It’s not the right show for me. They never got in touch and I never tried. I think Chris is a great choice. He’s passionate about cars and he knows how to make entertainment shows. I remember when he took over from Terry Wogan on Radio 2. It was like a revolution down there. Uproar. And now he’s got the most successful radio show in Europe. So he knows what he’s doing. I think it’ll be different, but following those three, it needs to be."

THE BBC AND FISH

O’Leary, of course, knows what it’s like ‘down there’. Radio 2, that is. Dermot’s Saturday Club has run for nearly 12 years, bringing something that wasn’t traditionally part of the station’s brand: new music. Sharing air with Wogan, Ken Bruce and Brian Matthew, he must have felt like a sapling among some gnarled old oaks. 

“We utterly failed,” he says. “Our remit was to get a younger audience for Radio 2. The average age for the station is 52; the average for our show is 54 [laughs]. But Radio 2 is the most successful radio channel in Europe, which says to me that it’s doing something very right. There’s some really diverse stuff there and these old legends have such knowledge and expertise.

“It does everything it needs to under a public service remit, and I think part of that remit is not to get knocked down when you’re successful. The BBC as a whole spends half its time justifying itself, even justifying being successful. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I really feel for them. No wonder [former Director of BBC Television] Danny Cohen left. Every day he must’ve got up and thought, ‘I’ve got to justify that today.’ I don’t think anyone thinks the licence fee is bad value for money. I think it should be means tested. I’m happy to pay more.”

Lunch has arrived. We’re each having smoked haddock and black pudding, with a kipper frittata, and some greens on the side. The parsley potatoes are late. I’d wanted to talk to O’Leary about politics – primarily, as a Labour supporter and proud socialist, his views on Jeremy Corbyn. I hear the muffled, imploring screams of my notes, now upturned and stained with butter: “Ask him, aaask him.” But I have relinquished control of the conversation and it is liberating. I cover the notes with a napkin and instead we talk about guacamole, fishing and deep-sea diving.

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UP THE ARSENAL

Talk does, however, move naturally on to another grey-haired grandee of Islington: Arsene Wenger. A few weeks ago, when ShortList joined O’Leary at the old Brooklands race track in Surrey for the photoshoot you see around these words, we’d spoken about this mutual hero. It had not been forgotten by either of us. I ask if he’s a Wengerite or Wenger Out?

“In. I just don’t get some fans’ logic,” he says. “People are blind to circumstance. They’ll just go, ‘He hasn’t done this or that.’ I get really frustrated. We’ve had a stadium to pay off, he’s been let down by a lot of greedy young men that haven’t waited around. He’s been working against two artificial models [in Manchester City and Chelsea] for years. He does have this beautiful project. It’s not a perfect model, but I think we’ve got a really good shot this year, and next year and maybe the year after. If we win it, even if we come second, it’ll set us up long term. We can absolutely win the league from here.”

So, if Guardiola said tomorrow that he’d like the job at the end of the season…

“No. It’s Wenger’s job. If Wenger turns round and says, ‘I’ll go upstairs and be an active director of football, oversee youth policy, help you get the players you want to get…’ OK. Because Guardiola is a perfect fit for Arsenal. So you’d like to think that, when Wenger goes, we’d like to get a Guardiola-type or Guardiola himself.”

The parsley potatoes arrive. 

We won’t be charged for them, says the waiter. We thank him and move on to the topic any Dermot O’Leary interview/casual chat wouldn’t be complete without: The X Factor, the show that made him Mr Saturday Night, propelling him to national fame. The primetime behemoth in which his departure in March last year carved a thus-far unfilled hole. When it comes to charm, presence and that magical mateyness, the equation reads (Flack+Murs) < O’Leary.

TUNES AND WHISTLES

“[Leaving any show] has never been conscious,” he says, when I ask if synchronicity of his departure and the show’s current nadir is coincidence. “I’ve never seen the curve. It’s just always felt the right time for me to go. I wasn’t learning anything on The X Factor any more, so eight years felt like the right time to go. I miss the live shows dreadfully and I want to get back doing live television as quickly as possible.”

The X Factor also helped him indulge in yet another passion: clothes. A mainstay of best-dressed lists, if O’Leary didn’t help shift millions of pounds’ worth of suits during his eight years on that stage, I’ll eat his shoes. 

“I’ve always liked my clothes,” he says, “but the problem with a 15-year career in television is that there are lots of pictures of when you first started. That was fashionable then! It’s was probably The X Factor, actually [when I started taking clothes really seriously]; when someone said, ‘Here’s a wardrobe budget, go and buy yourself some suits.'

I remember the first suit I had made, at Thom Sweeney. You feel like a king when you go to a tailor and get a suit made. I miss wearing a suit. I look at my wardrobe of suits now and they’re begging me to be worn. You should definitely get a suit made for your wedding…”

And with that opportune circling back to our opening exchanges, coffees are served, alongside prunes coated with dark chocolate. Stretching for a metaphor and grasping a handful of tenuousness, they’re quite the unusual sweet, blending two ingredients that you wouldn’t think work together; a bit like a slightly anal, preconceiving journalist with his neatly typed notes, and an interview-cum-chinwag with little semblance of form or control.

And yet both combinations turned out to be highly enjoyable. Perhaps I’ll try them again.

The Getaway Car is on BBC One, 6.50pm on Saturdays

[Images: Greg Williams, BBC]

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