The National Television Awards have never been what one would call a subversive occasion. On 23rd January, the great and good of the small screen will gather at London’s O2 arena for the 23rd riotously good-natured annual celebration of British television.
Should the women be inspired by this year’s Golden Globes protest against sexual harassment, however, and show up all in black, no one would be more delighted than the host. “The spectacle at the Golden Globes this year was fantastic,” says Dermot O’Leary. “I’d be very happy if anything like that happened. I wouldn’t mind one jot.”
And if one of the winners delivered an Oprah-style barnstorming feminist speech? “Yeah! Absolutely.” Who might be a likely candidate? With a broad grin and no hesitation: “Holly [Willoughby]. Or maybe Davina [McCall].”
Hosting live awards is a notorious high-wire act. Viewers will never forget last year’s howler at the Oscars, when the wrong movie was declared best picture; or even the Brit Awards car crash presided over by Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood almost 30 years ago.
But O’Leary is so unfazed by the prospect that his favourite moments are when everything goes off piste. “God yes, I love stuff that goes wrong. In the grand final of The X Factor [in December], my autocue went down for the first five minutes. The doors opened and there was nothing there, just a blank screen.” That’s when he feels most alive? “Yeah!”
Dermot’s Pre-Title sequence for the NTAs 2017
Having presented the NTAs since 2010 and The X Factor since 2007, O’Leary is today the undisputed king of live TV entertainment. He has a remarkable gift for making the job look effortless, navigating the elusive line between authority and irreverence with quizzical glances and boy-next-door banter.
It all seems spontaneous and often belies a rigorous marathon of script writing and revision and relentless rehearsal. His mastery of the quizzical glance would rival the late great Terry Wogan’s, and when we meet in a north London restaurant he holds forth with the same easy intimacy we see on screen. Unguarded and quick to laugh, the 44-year-old is prone to ungovernably garrulous digressions that roam from literature to history, sport and current affairs.
Being an incurable X Factor addict, I could happily spend our entire time together quizzing him about the ITV talent show that made him a household name, but within minutes he’s asking me, “What do you think of the Carrie Gracie stuff? I mean, fair play to her, proper respect to her.”
Although a perennial fixture on the “Sexiest Man Alive” lists much loved by readers of glossy magazines, there is substantially more to O’Leary than a pretty face. Nonetheless, all the recent revelations of sexual harassment within the entertainment industry came as a big shock to the presenter.
“There’s obviously been something systemic for a long time. But most people I know who work in TV, I naturally assume the best of. I know them relatively well, and wouldn’t think they’d be capable of anything like that.
“So you would hope that if something did happen at the NTAs, it’s because we’re supporting a worldwide movement, as opposed to anything specific happening over here.”
Having studied politics at university, O’Leary admits on one level to enjoying our troubled political times. “Well, yes. Even though it sort of horrifies you. These are such interesting political times, because people are taking control of their own issues. It’s almost like politics at a micro level is reaching a macro level. As awful as the times we’re living in are, it’s great to see how people are reacting to it.”
A “totally apolitical” friend, for example, who used to work for Coldplay, now runs a charity called Help Refugees, not for ideological reasons but because it’s simply a “fundamental human issue”.
Katie Hopkins, I suggest, would dispute that helping refugees is fundamentally humane.
“Yeah. And she’s wrong. She’s wrong. I had this very weird experience with Katie Hopkins where I gave a eulogy about Terry Wogan at the Radio Academy, and she was in the green room and she goes, ‘Oh, do you know what I need? I need a Dermot hug.’ And I thought, ‘Urghhhhhh. What to do?’ And then I thought, ‘The hell with it. You know what? She probably does need a Dermot hug. Come on, come here.’”
He chuckles. “Maybe that’s the issue. She needs more hugs.” He laughs again. “So yes, I’d say I’m quite political.”
Before the 2010 election, O’Leary presented Young Voters’ Question Time for the BBC, and interviewed the main party leaders in a series called Dermot Meets…. Last year he was the only host of ITV’s late-night current affairs chat show, The Nightly Show, to be invited back behind the studio desk for a second week.
Could he see himself as the heir to David Dimbleby? He nods and frowns simultaneously. “It’s difficult because, when you do light entertainment, we do pigeonhole people. I did this show [in 2014] called Live From Space, which won an RTS award, broadcasting live from the International Space Station. And when I got the gig people were going” – he adopts a sniffy tone – “‘Oh, what’s he doing that for?’
“But actually, I think if you can hold two hours of live television, and you do the research and you know your stuff, then in broadcasting that’s what you do. If you’re an actor, you can go and play this role and that role. If you’re a broadcaster, you should be able to go, ‘I’m interested in this – and I’m also interested in that’. As long as you don’t sell people short, that’s sort of what the job should be.
“And then [in 2015] I presented two documentaries about the Battle of Britain, so I’d like to think that those kinds of show have built bridges enough for me to do something political. But a head of channel has to decide you’re right for the job.”
Do they know he would want the job? He nods towards my tape recorder and laughs. “Well, they do now.”
The son of working-class Irish parents, O’Leary grew up in Essex and began his career as a runner on Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins’s Light Lunch in the late 90s. His on-screen break came in 1998 with Channel 4’s Saturday morning youth show T4, and three years later he took over Big Brother’s Little Brother, presenting the programme for six years before replacing Kate Thornton as host of The X Factor.
When he quit in 2015, frustrated by stalled contractual negotiations, viewers’ surprise quickly turned to dismay as his replacements, co-hosts Olly Murs and Caroline Flack, transpired to be catastrophically out of their depth.
Was it gratifying, I ask, or dismaying, to see them bomb? “It’s weird,” he offers uneasily, “because those two people are my friends. So then it’s very difficult. You see your friends, um,” and he slows to pick his words with uncharacteristic caution, “not do, er, what they, um, would probably hope the show does. ‘He said, struggling for words,’” he adds, laughing at his own discomfort. “So I felt for them. They’re both good broadcasters.”
Is the simple explanation for their disastrous performance that the job’s a lot harder than it looks? “I’d like to think that, but it’s not really for me to say. And it’s ungracious of me to dance on its grave.”
He was, he maintains, both flattered and surprised when Simon Cowell asked him to come back. “Well, I didn’t think it was going to happen. When I left, I assumed I was gone. It’s funny. My agent said, ‘I think it’s going to come back.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, of course it’s not going to come back, we’re done. Move on.’”
If seeing the show hosted by others was a bit like watching someone else have sex with one’s wife – “A bit like that, yes. Awful, and yet at the same time you can’t look away” – coming back felt like returning home.
“What isn’t stressed enough is what a family show it feels like for the team. You know, my producer used to be my runner. We do have a great family feel, and I wish that came across more on telly. Everyone goes on about Strictly, and I’m sure Strictly’s a wonderful experience. But when they go on The X Factor, such a small proportion of people come off saying, ‘That was a terrible experience.’ Most people come off saying, ‘That was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’”
I think I detect a protective tone in his voice, and he agrees, “Oh yeah, definitely I feel protective about the show.”
The two shows were once neck and neck in the ratings, but now Strictly has pulled ahead to leave The X Factor for dust, the BBC juggernaut routinely pulling in ten million viewers in the last series while its rival struggled to reach half that figure. “Does it hurt? Um, I’d love to get back up to eight million again. You want to rate well, of course you do.”
For several years now, critics have been predicting The X Factor’s demise, but O’Leary thinks it could last another decade. “As long as the talent keeps coming, yeah. And the talent keeps showing up.”
The calibre of contestants in the latest series was conspicuously higher than recent years, so much so that O’Leary jokes, “I was really annoyed with some of the people this year, cos I was like, ‘Why didn’t you audition last year?’”
That several candidates wrote and performed original material is a source of evident pride. “When I first started people would turn up and say, ‘Tell me who you want me to be.’ Now you get people going, ‘Here’s my first album, here’s my YouTube channel,’ and the show’s become a facilitator for that, and that’s a good thing.”
We are interrupted by the arrival of my two sons, who have hared here straight from school to meet their idol, only to freeze in starstruck wonderment. O’Leary disarms them with headlocks and jokes, signs my six-year-old’s copy of Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, the children’s book he wrote during his X Factor sabbatical, and talks him through the plot of the sequel he’ll begin writing next month – The Incredible Cheese Heist, about a baddie cat called Arch Duke Ferdicat.
O’Leary is busier than one might guess from his easy manner. He has produced lines of men’s fragrances and grooming products and owned two fish restaurants, supports several charities and hosts a Radio 2 Saturday morning show. He throws in for good measure, “If I had my time again, I would have been a theatre actor.”
In 2012 he married his long-term partner, producer and director Dee Koppang, and is just getting into a chat with my kids about football (he’s a lifelong Arsenal fan) when the poor PR has to intervene: “Can we get back to talking about the NTAs?”
O’Leary grins. “It’s carnage in there. It’s the first awards show of the season. It’s the end of dry January. A lot of people haven’t seen each other for months, they’ve been drinking all day, and you look down and it’s like the fall of Saigon with people trying to get on a helicopter – people are clambering over each other to say hello to each other.
“So there’s this weird thing where the members of the general public are well behaved, and all the people who are supposed to be well behaved are… Well, it’s a lot of fun.”
When he began presenting live TV he used to literally vomit from stage fright, but nowadays, “As long as I’m prepped, I’m just excited.”
The X Factor will be up against Strictly in the talent category at the NTAs – who does he tip to win? “Do you know, I’ve never actually watched Strictly.” I think he must be joking. “No, seriously.”
Why not? “Because I’m always on air when it’s on.”
There’s this thing called iPlayer, I point out. Doesn’t he want to check out his rival? He shakes his head firmly. “No. That would be a sense of betrayal.”
The National Television Awards is on Tuesday 7.30pm ITV