Dermot OLeary – If Ive opened up one child to history, Ive done my job

Avid reader Dermot O’Leary admits that he’s never far away from his latest page-turner. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I haven’t had a book by my bedside,” says the 50-year-old TV and radio presenter. “I’ve got mates of mine who say, ‘I read The Da Vinci Code in 2008 and nothing since’ and I find that baffling. I can’t imagine not reading books – I don’t think I could go to sleep without one.”

Dermot’s love of reading kicked off in childhood, growing up in Colchester, Essex, with his Irish parents, mum Maria and dad Sean, and his big sister Nicky.

“It was a house of reading. My dad would read the paper every day, and come back from work and tell me Irish stories before bed,” he recalls.

“On Saturdays we would go to the library in town, and we had a mobile library too that would come round where we lived.

“I was really into comics like The Beano, which I loved. There was an inappropriate comic too, called Warlord, which my dad wasn’t happy about. It was about war, from a 1970s perspective. You can’t get more un-PC than that.”

Raymond Briggs and Roald Dahl were favourites too.

“All stuff that was mischievous. I loved The Diary of Adrian Mole,” says Dermot, who started out in local radio, before becoming a regular our screens, presenting T4 from then Big Brother’s Little Brother 2001. In 2007 he replaced Kate Thornton as the presenter of ITV talent show The X Factor.Once in his teens, Dermot began to read about a topic that would become a great passion of his – the Second World War.

“Growing up near Colchester, there were a lot of old American airfields nearby. As a result there was much spoken word history, and we even knew a few people who used to on the airfields,” he says.

“It was also Battle of Britain territory. I loved all of that.

“As I’ve got older I’ve become far more interested in ordinary people doing extraordinary things – and during that six-year period especially, when the world was shaped in such a profound way. We continue to live with the consequences even now.

“When I hit 30 I watched the TV show Band of Brothers, and I remember thinking I’d have been around the same age as the older officers. I was born in 1973, and just 30 years before that the Second World War was on. I’ve always loved politics and history, alongside English – that was my sweet spot at school – but this got me more interested than ever.”

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It’s a passion that continues to grow. In 2015, Dermot fronted a two-part Battle of Britain documentary series.

“While working on the show, I spent a whole summer with a veteran from the Second World War, 94-year-old Wing Commander Tom Neil,” says Dermot.

“You become an ‘ace’ if you shoot down five or more enemy aircraft, he was almost a triple ace.

“I’ve been up in Spitfires and Hurricanes and when they turn the force is incredible. In the war they were throwing themselves about all over the place. That they were able to hit anything is quite extraordinary. I used him as inspiration for a young pilot in my book.”

The book in question is his sixth children’s story Wings of Glory, an adventure story about a bird on a mission to win the war, which is launched this month.

Dermot is a regular on ITV’s This Morning, and presents a breakfast show on BBC Radio 2. One of the joys, he says, is having a platform on which to share stories such as Tom’s.

“Our veterans – it’s so important to tell these stories and look after these people because they sacrificed a lot. Whether you agree with any of it, that’s kind of not the point. These people have served their country and what they did and how they did it is still fascinating today,” says Dermot.

“Those stories and that time of history is really important. We’re still living with it and we can still veterans learn from it.

“That said, whether I’m writing or presenting, I think you need to be objective about a country’s history. The last thing I’d ever want to do is be too sabre-rattly or jingoistic. But it’s important to look at it as a time when this country did great things.

“And if I can open up a child to know more about it and want to learn more about it then I think I’ve done part of my job.”

Dermot married long-term partner Dee in 2012, having met her in 2002 at a TV production company where they both worked.

In June 2020 they became parents to Kasper, now three.

Dermot says he hopes one day his son will share his interest in history.

“I think it’s hugely important for children to know about the country they’re being brought up in and I really want him to learn about British history – the good and the bad,” he says.

“Norwegian history too, because his mum is Norwegian, and Irish, because of his heritage.

“I want him to be aware of these things, but at the same time I’m acutely aware that I don’t want to force anything down his throat.”

Not that Kasper would let him, he laughs. The toddler rules the roost in their Primrose Hill home in London.

“He tells me what to do. ‘Go get milk, daddy’, he’ll say.

“I’ll think to myself, ‘I do a lot more than getting milk, I’ll have you know’, but then I’ll go and get his milk,” laughs Dermot.

Kasper has already picked up a love of books from his dad.

“In terms of reading and enjoyment of reading, we haven’t had to force anything. He’s been all over it from day one. We all know the statistical evidence about reading to children, and it’s all good,” says Dermot.

According to The Reading Agency, research shows that reading for pleasure can promote better health and wellbeing, aids in building social connections and relationships with others and is associated with a range of factors that help increase the chances of social mobility.

“I’m not trying to raise an A-grade student,” Dermot insists. “He’ll be a person on his own merit. As long as he applies himself and works hard that is enough. That’s what I think a parent should be there for.

“But we read together all the time. He loves books, and for that we feel very lucky.”

Wings of Glory by Dermot O’Leary (£12.99, Hodder Children’s Books) is out now

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