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Dermot O’Leary – “If I’m honest I think I enjoyed school too much”

Presenter and author Dermot O’Leary wishes he’d studied harder but he still managed to discover a passion for the written word...

  • Dermot O’Leary – “If I’m honest I think I enjoyed school too much”

My earliest school memories are of the seemingly endless summers and harvest festivals.

I was born in Colchester. My parents moved there because they wanted to bring their kids up just outside London. They came over from Ireland in the late 60s.

There were a lot of people the same age as my parents that had kids, and we all went to the local village primary school in a place called Marks Tey.

I remember being in musicals, which at the time seemed bigger than the X-Factor. I remember not getting the part of Fagin in Oliver.

I went to a Church of England primary school and every Saturday I had to go to catechism classes. This was while all my friends were off playing football!

To make up for it, my dad would take me to the BHS café for strawberry flan and then he’d take me to the library in Colchester – it was a brilliant library.

I come from a typical Irish working-class family where education is taken seriously. My parents’ ethos is: work hard and try your best.

I always enjoyed school but I never excelled. I don’t think I ever tried hard enough in my studies. If I’m honest, I think I enjoyed school too much!

I wasn’t part of the cool gang at school, but I had a lovely set of friends. In fact, they’re probably the main reason I enjoyed school so much.

I was easily distracted as a kid and didn’t have attention to detail. Put two people in a corner and I always wanted to know what they were up to rather than what I was supposed to be doing!

I loved history and RE and I enjoyed drama and PE.

My favourite teacher then was Mrs Harlow. I have to give her and another teacher, Mrs Briggs, credit because they really worked hard on my reading.

I didn’t read particularly well independently until I was six. I really enjoyed English, but I think so much of that is down to my parents being Irish.

Both my parents are big readers but my dad is a born storyteller. He read us old Irish fairy stories that he was passing on.

I remember being captivated by the magic of stories like The Children of Lir and Tír na n-Óg. As I got older I hoovered up a lot of Irish writers – Joyce, Behan and Beckett.

I read Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl independently when I was about six and that was what got me hooked on reading.

I remember the page-turning joy of his books. I also loved Raymond Briggs – The Snowman, and Father Christmas especially. I like the way he never talked down to kids. Father Christmas is always a bit tired and a bit belligerent, he wasn’t a genial old man.

As I got older I got into the Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I was immersed in these for about five years. They could kill a car journey back to Ireland, not even coming up for air.

Essentially, it was role play with a dice where you’re the central character in a beautifully painted fantasy world with villains and cutthroats and lizards and trolls. This was before wide-scale computer games, so these were the books we all read.

I think I always knew I’d do something that involves entertaining people. I liked the idea of being a chef, or maybe front of house in a restaurant.

I really enjoyed catering and bar work as I was growing up. It’s very similar to live TV – it’s kind of entertainment and showbiz all mixed up. You’ve only got one shot, and you want your audience to leave satisfied – happy and entertained.

I don’t think I ever imagined I’d be famous or a published author. But I did always love reading and writing and creating things to entertain my friends and family. I used to make up stories into little books which I’d try and flog to my family and the neighbours!


Dermot O’Leary’s latest book is Toto the Ninja Cat and the Superstar Catastrophe, illustrated by Nick East (hardback £9.99, Hodder Children’s Books).

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