It all adds up for Dara O Briain

Dara O Briain with Mark Watson, Marcus Du Sautoy and Andrew Maxwell
Dara O Briain with Mark Watson, Marcus Du Sautoy and Andrew Maxwell
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Dara O Briain has made the leap from stand-up comedy to versatile presenter. He talks to Roger Crow about the success of Stargazing Live and the new series of School Of Hard Sums

For some, just the word ‘maths’ is enough to send a cold shiver down the spine.

But if you don’t know the difference between long division and Joy Division fear not, as Dara O Briain: School Of Hard Sums is back for a new run.

“We’re not trying to make maths cool, or fun or sexy. It’s for people like me, who already think it’s cool, so it’s nice to be able to preach to the converted for a while,” explains O Briain with the enthusiasm of a kid who’s had too many sweets.

In case you didn’t know, the 41-year-old comic and presenter has carved himself a niche in the bedrock of British TV with Mock The Week, The Apprentice: You’re Fired, Three Men In A Boat and 
Stargazing Live.

With an enviable gift of the gab, it’s little wonder tickets for his recent 135-date Craic Dealer tour sold like hot cakes, or that School Of Hard Sums was given another green light after 2012’s successful first series.

This second series sees the Irish funnyman attempt to solve some of the world’s biggest conundrums by using maths, physics, chemistry and logic against mathematically-challenged comedians.

O Briain is aware he needs to steer clear of sounding 
patronising, partly because of the time he went to a conference about maths teaching.

“There were a few people in there who tried to ‘bring maths to young people’ and one of them was wearing a jacket with numbers sewn on to it! Everything is wrong about that,” he says, sighing.

“Frankly I would sooner go the other way and almost be snobbish about it and people go, ‘Oh that’s too difficult’.”

Despite the title, the show isn’t all about sums; there’s a certain amount of lateral thinking involved as well, though posing conundrums can create unintentional problems.

“The danger is if you do too many puzzles in front of people who are quite nerdy, they’ll have seen the puzzle before,” he explains.

The previous SOHS run featured a comedy guest of the week, and a couple of students to help out. Version 2.0 features a few additions to the format as the funnyman explains: “Now there are two comedians rather than one and we’ve got a whole bank of students rather than just two, so it’s a more populated show.”

When he’s not working out problems with the likes of special guests Stephen Mangan, Marcus Brigstocke and Josie Long, O Briain is busy prepping for a string of other upcoming projects, including old favourite Mock The Week, which returns in June.

He admits the show which helped make him a household name in the mid-Noughties is tamer than it used to be.

“It’s going through different phases,” he explains. “It’s slightly more mellow, middle-aged, less vicious now, which I’m enjoying more to be honest than the ‘We’ll say things that no one else will say’ phase we went through.”

One of O Briain’s biggest success stories is Stargazing Live, January’s week-long celebration of all things celestial.

“At one stage in season two we were getting four million (viewers) an episode,” enthuses O Briain.

“We were settling into a more normal three or three-and-a-half [million viewers in season three], so maybe we’ve passed our peak but actually, for all the stuff I’ve done on BBC Two, Three Men In A Boat, all the Mock The Weeks even, this has got greater ratings than any of that.”

It doesn’t hurt that he and Professor Brian Cox are a 
dynamic double act.

“You can’t underestimate his appeal,” explains O Briain. “There’s a thing in showbiz where you know when somebody’s been hit with the star wand, and you know with Coxy that’s the case.”