Dermot O'Leary on secret off-air chat he had with This Morning co-host Alison Hammond after awkward gaffe

WHEN it comes to summing up the last 15 months in the life and times of Dermot O’Leary, “eventful” doesn’t quite cover it.

Because as if becoming a father, starting a high-profile new job on This Morning, saying goodbye to an old one (RIP, X Factor), and writing his fifth kids’ book in as many years wasn’t enough, he’s just thrown a house move into the mix.

He’s currently in the midst of unpacking a lifetime’s worth of boxes.

Dermot, 48, and TV and film director wife Dee Koppang, 42, had been in their previous North London home for several years, and he often spoke about how firmly rooted in the local community they were.

But, he explains, they “didn’t really have a garden,” and the arrival of baby Kasper last June meant they needed somewhere with more outdoor space.

“It’s gone so quickly,” he says of the first year of parenthood. “I thought that little froglet period went on for about six months, but it doesn’t – it only lasts for, like, four weeks, and then it’s gone!

And now he’s almost walking and every day is a little journey and an adventure, and every day you find out something new.” 

Life now involves an awful lot of planning.

Painstaking co-ordination of diaries with Dee, who is working on season three of BBC series The Split, has become second nature, although Dermot jokes that getting home for bath time is often a challenge “when you’re an Irish timekeeper” like himself.

But there are, tellingly, no moans about the juggling, the sleep deprivation or the loss of freedom.

Dermot has been open about the fact that he and Dee, who married in 2012, waited a long time for Kasper, now 14 months old.

“I always thought we’d be parents one way or another,” he says. “But it was a journey for us to get there and I will always have sympathy with people who choose not to, or can’t, have children.

Societally, we tend to view [parenthood] like it completes you, which is a really dangerous way of looking at it.

It sends a message that people who can’t have or don’t want children are not valuable members of society – and I think it’s really reductive. 

“Obviously he’s our most important thing in the world, but he’s not the most important thing in the world – and he will grow up knowing that.

“But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t alter your perspective, because of course it does. It certainly makes you softer.” 

Dermot has dedicated his new book, Toto The Ninja Cat And The Legend Of The Wildcat, to Kasper.

“Without wanting to get too mushy, I guess I’m writing for him now as well. And I’m mindful that I want him to eventually read it and hopefully like it.”

Societally, we tend to view [parenthood] like it completes you, which is a really dangerous way of looking at it

As of last week, there was another commitment to factor into the busy schedule as Dermot returned to the This Morning sofa, following a summer break from the regular Friday slot he shares with co-host Alison Hammond, 46.

Their pairing came as a surprise – not least to Dermot and Alison themselves – when it was announced in January, and they have both since admitted that being thrown together with no time to prepare was a baptism of fire.

The first few months were decidedly tricky as they struggled to click – he says it was little wonder the chemistry took time.

“We never got to pilot, we’d never read a script through, we didn’t even have lunch together.

We literally met for the first time in 15 years or so and that morning we presented two-and-a-half hours of live television together.

“The idea that there wouldn’t be a period of getting to know each other is insane.

If we’d just gone on air and pretended that we knew each other really well and were bosom buddies, people wouldn’t have bought that.”

About two months in, things came to a head.

After an awkward on-air moment (he can’t pinpoint exactly what it was now), the two of them had a very frank exchange – once the cameras stopped rolling – which proved to be a turning point. 

“We both did something that the other didn’t like – nothing major – but after it happened we looked at each other, and I said: ‘You didn’t like it when I did that, did you?’ And she said no, she didn’t. 

And I said: ‘OK, well I didn’t like it when you did that thing.’

“And we both laughed, because now we knew. The most important thing is to find out what annoys the other and make sure you don’t do it again.

If you’re doing live telly with someone you don’t trust, it doesn’t work. 

“Now she’s like a sister to me and we’ve got each other’s backs. We both know our own strengths and what we need from the other, we know each other’s beats and nuances and it just feels really natural and warm, so I’m glad that it went that way.”

That wasn’t the only teething problem Dermot and Alison had to contend with.

Their hiring effectively ousted This Morning stalwarts Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford, who had hosted the Friday edition for 14 years – and there was some backlash from viewers as a result. 

If we’d just gone on air and pretended that we knew each other really well and were bosom buddies, people wouldn’t have bought that.

Was Dermot aware of the ill feeling or was it a case of focusing on the job in hand and ignoring the noise?

“A bit of both, to be honest. That’s part and parcel of the job, and we’ve worked in the industry a long time now.

"Unless you start a brand-new show, you’ll always do someone else’s job and someone will always end up doing yours.

"That’s no one’s fault – that’s just the industry.

“Obviously you’re aware of the broader story, and people are entitled to their opinions.

"But I think some of it was quite thinly veiled in its criticism of Alison – and you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see something slightly more unsavoury, which I really take umbrage with.

“So yes, you’re aware of it, but you put it to one side because you can’t please everyone. You can only be authentic and if people like it, that’s great.”

He tends not to Google his name. He’ll occasionally dip into the reviews for his books (which are overwhelmingly positive) but it “doesn’t keep him up at night” if he sees something that stings.

“It’s like anything – when someone writes something nice about you, you can’t help but go: ‘Oh that’s quite nice!’ But when someone writes something horrible, it hurts a little bit.

"I don’t think you’re ever going to fully be free from the shackles of that, so you’ve got to accept them.

"As long as most people get where you’re coming from, you’re on the right track.”

His fifth book, inspired by his own cats Toto and Socks, is out this month and sees the ninja cat and her pals transported to animal borstal in the wilds of Scotland.

The inspiration for the story came when a friend of Dermot’s mentioned he’d sent his naughty Parson terrier, Dudley, to a doggie boot camp in Wales. Apparently, Dudley had been doing rather well until the final “test”, when he failed to walk through a chicken coop without losing his mind.

“The idea of all these animals going to a kind of behavioural camp in the middle of nowhere really made me laugh.”

He says the best compliments are from parents who tell him that their child doesn’t like reading but loves the Toto books.

“That’s the thing that stops me in my tracks – I never expected that.”

He’s now working on a sixth kids’ book, which will be a departure from the Toto series, and he also recently completed a bumper 20-episode run of the third season of his Audible podcast People, Just People.

A new series, The Pet Show, which he will host alongside Gavin & Stacey star Joanna Page (“she’s the dream”), launches on ITV this autumn.

However, it was confirmed in July that The X Factor, which Dermot fronted for 11 series, won’t be returning following the break it took last year – although he was amazed it came as news to anyone.

“It wasn’t really a surprise. The story came out and anyone who worked on it just went: ‘Er, yeah, we know.’

I’m really anti-lockdown, which is why I’m pro-vax!

"I think we all felt that when we did the celeb version [in 2019]. At the end, we thought it’s been a lovely run, but it needed to rest for a few years. 

“And I thought that even if it did come back, the chances are they’d want someone younger to host or I’d have moved on to do something else. So I’d sort of made my peace with that a while ago.”

Dermot is as engaging and charismatic as ever.

He’s perpetually good-humoured, is always knowledgeable and thoughtful with his answers and talks about everything he does with passion and drive.

However, he’s long grown tired of the darker elements that can come with the job these days – thanks, largely, to the growth of social media.

When a fairly heated discussion on This Morning with guest Beverley Turner about the Covid vaccination made headlines and then hit Twitter recently, it transformed into something toxic. 

“A lot of it was taken wildly out of context – I don’t think either of us were being absolutist in what we were saying.

"I don’t for one minute think that the virus stops spreading because you take the vaccine, I was just making the point that if you do take it, you’re less likely to end up in hospital and less likely to die.

“I like Bev a lot and we’ve known each other a long time. And I think she’s a really important guest because she knows her onions – and when you actually hear what she says, she’s not particularly anti-vaccine at all, she’s just pro-choice and anti-lockdown. I’m really anti-lockdown, which is why I’m pro-vax!

“She’s actually asking really pertinent questions, like: ‘Do we need to be giving our children the vaccine?’

"That’s an important debate to have, but it gets hijacked by people online and everyone seems to get defined by whether they are one thing or another, and if you’re this, then you can’t also be that, which is a nonsense.”

He finds debate on Twitter too binary and with no room for nuance and it’s why, once a keen Tweeter, he’s fallen out of love with social media and now rarely posts at all unless it’s work-related.

“I think we all got a bit drunk on Twitter to start with,” he says. “We thought everyone wanted to hear our opinions about everything.

"Actually, no one needs to hear your opinion about X or Y – it’s perfectly acceptable to keep that to yourself.

"Try to make the world a better place through everyday actions rather than going online and talking about it.” 

Our society and our language are evolving very quickly and so we do need to allow people to make mistakes if it’s done with the best of intentions and they then learn from those mistakes

Does he worry, as a respected broadcaster and children’s author, about cancel culture and the potential now to be piled on and hounded out for a momentary slip of the tongue?

“There are causes I believe in and that I’d be happy to die on a hill for, but I rarely [do that] online now.

"Not necessarily out of fear of being cancelled, but because I don’t have the energy or the time. 

“It’s good that when people say unacceptable things, they’re called out about it.

"But at the same time, people are allowed to have opinions and they shouldn’t be scared of sharing them, as long as those opinions aren’t harmful on the grounds of race, sexuality or gender.

"So I’m kind of in two minds about it.” 

But who deems what’s harmful? That, he says, is the real debate. And he advocates more forgiveness when, inevitably in a changing world, people trip up.

“We need to accept context because in 20 years’ time, the language that we’re using now will be antiquated. And so what gets cancelled in 20 years’ time? 

“I cheered when [slave trader] Edward Colston’s statue was toppled [during the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol last year], but there’s no point putting him in the river – stick him in a museum and give it some context, otherwise we don’t learn anything.

“So much change has happened in the last couple of years and most of it good.

“Our society and our language are evolving very quickly and so we do need to allow people to make mistakes if it’s done with the best of intentions and they then learn from those mistakes.”

He adds: “We live in a world where we need to be more empathetic to everyone.” 

● Toto The Ninja Cat And The Legend Of The Wildcat by Dermot O’Leary (£9.99, Hodder Children’s Books) is out Thursday.

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