Countdown’s Nick Hewer talks to Hannah Stephenson about being pals with Lord Sugar, how fame doesn’t impress him, and why he’ll never appear on Strictly Come Dancing.
There are some things in life that former PR man and current Countdown presenter Nick Hewer can’t stand – and reality TV is one of them. “I watched a bit of Celebrity Big Brother the other day. Do you know something? I would prefer to eat my leg, parboiled, through fishnet tights than do anything like that, or go into the jungle or any of that.
“It’s awful that people do it. Maybe they’re hard up and they need the money to pay the tax bill which they ignored, or maybe they want to resuscitate some fading career in showbiz. How can people put themselves at the mercy of looking ridiculous?” he asks incredulously.
In the next breath, he admits: “I did it on The Great Celebrity Bake Off, which was bloody terrifying. I nearly had a nervous breakdown because of it. I went home and didn’t speak to anyone for four days because I thought I looked such an idiot. I really tried but I was embarrassed.
“The only reason I did it was that it was for a good cause. I’m patron of Pancreatic Cancer Action and the whole thing was for Stand Up To Cancer.”
Hewer’s dry, acerbic wit and mock bafflement at some of the goings-on around him – characteristics which gained him legions of fans during his 10 years as Lord Sugar’s adviser on The Apprentice – are ever-present in his conversation, and he is indeed ‘a humorous, all-round good bloke’, as Jo Brand puts it.
I catch him as he’s heading off for a break in south-west France, where he has a rural bolthole, before hitting the literary festival circuit back in the UK with his new memoir, My Alphabet. He will be appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival later this month to discuss his new book.
In it, he charts alphabetically – but not chronologically – his life and times, from A for The Apprentice, to Z for Z-List, the category of celebrity he thinks he might be in as he reaches his twilight years
Hewer is now 74, but his TV career on The Apprentice started when he was nearing 60 and he did it for 10 years.
He still watches the show, he reveals, and is still good friends with Lord Sugar, whom he met in 1983 when, as a PR, he was taken on by Amstrad (founded by Sugar) to help with the launch of its home computers.
“He’s terrific fun and dangerous and exciting,” Hewer says of his friend. “He kicked off The Apprentice thing, which sparked 14 years of an extended career which has been extraordinarily beneficial, enabling me to bank some money when I should have been retired, and it also kept me working in interesting things.”
He believes shows like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den demystify business, although he laments that so many youngsters are seeking celebrity status over substance. “The tragedy is, if I were to do a survey and ask 16 and 17-year-olds what they want to do, they would all say they want to be rich and famous and recognised. They want it quick and they want it now. And they’ll kill to get it.
“I would say to people, forget trying to be famous because only a few get there and most of them disappear after 15 minutes.”
He’s stayed in touch with Apprentice candidates Saira Khan, Tim Campbell and Miriam Staley, and remains a fan of the show. “I got out of it because I was just too tired,” he explains. “It was so exhausting. And I was getting a bit irritable.”
Now, of course, he has presenting Countdown to keep him busy, but he recently dropped the after-dinner speaker circuit to make more time for himself and his partner of 20 years, Catherine. He dedicates the book to Catherine, writing that she “righted this old boat, caulked the hull, took the helm and steered me into safer and kinder waters”.
Indeed, after he was divorced from his first wife in the 80s and initially saw less of his two children, James and Katie, he threw himself further into work and bought a house in France with a view that the children could spend holidays there – although that didn’t work out.
“I threw myself into work. It was a seven-days-a-week job. The office became my home. Not seeing my children was a big sadness but that’s the way divorced fathers sometimes have to live.
“The divorce did affect my relationship with my children, but it’s OK now. But it took a long time.”
He’s now a grandfather of five, but laments that he’s not good enough at his new role. “I’m not attentive enough. I’m still working too hard. Whenever I’m invited to the children’s plays or to a football match, I’m not available. I’m afraid I’ve still got that work ethic, which I’m going to try to kill off.”
Retirement may not be on the cards, yet long absences from home suit his relationship, he says. “Catherine is fantastic. But she’s got her own business too, so she quite likes me being away. She’s very keen to encourage me to travel while she stays at home. I don’t know if that’s because she wants me to enjoy myself, or whether she wants me out of the house.”
He’s done mammoth road trips through Russia, Mongolia and Sierra Leone, partly because he loves adventure and cars, and to raise money for charity. “I may have turned a corner in terms of age,” he muses. “I’m beginning to worry about it. At 70, something goes clunk and you suddenly realise you’re not as agile as you were. Mortality certainly is on one’s mind and one is more concentrating on how to deal with it when the time comes.”
He didn’t hit a low point when he turned 70, but he was aware that he was ‘creaking and groaning’, he admits with a laughs. In the book, Hewer charts his various ailments and weaknesses over the years, the migraines triggered by smoking (which he gave up 20 years ago) and coffee, a colonoscopy, high blood pressure and a being an inch away from a stroke, which has been remedied with hypertension tablets.
Lord Sugar has never persuaded Hewer to accompany him on his gruelling cycle rides. “Have you seen him all geared up in his Lycra ready to go for 30 miles – and I’m about to go for breakfast? He’ll go 60 miles before lunch. He’s a very fit guy.”
Reflecting on how fame has changed his life, he says: “Am I enamoured of the celebrity lifestyle? Absolutely not. I’m quite happy down in south-west France, where nobody knows me from a hole in the road.” He’s about to sign a two-year contract for Countdown, a show he’s clearly very proud of, but turns a lot down these days, including an approach from Strictly. “It’s a fantastic show but I’d have a heart attack within the first two minutes. The energy and athleticism is beyond description,” says Hewer.
“It’s not my sort of thing. Nobody’s stitching me into a red satin shirt, I can tell you.”
My Alphabet: A Life From A To Z by Nick Hewer is published by Simon & Schuster on September 6, priced £20.
Tickets on sale for Yorkshire appearance
Nick Hewer will appear at Ilkley Literature Festival on Friday, September 28.
The evening at Kings Hall will see Hewer discuss determination and how to get it, offer insights on being old and reveal some of his greatest regrets.
In addition to being the host of Countdown, Hewer’s other television appearances include being on Question Time, Who Do You Think You Are? to Have I Got News For You.
Others due to appear at this year’s festival include cricketer Moeen Ali and former Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain.
Tickets for Hewer’s show are priced at £14 for adults and £10 for concessions. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk.