IT WAS an embarrassing, undignified withdrawal and the circumstances around the departure late last year of Ian Dickson from his dream gig hosting Can of Worms, the chat show he co-created, were, at the very least, odd.
In December, the Ten Network issued a press release saying Dickson had ''sacked himself'' as host. Industry speculation suggested that Ten and its production partner, Andrew Denton's Zapruder's Other Films, had pushed Dickson out.
Dickson, though, is having none of it. A few months on from the ''self-sacking'', the 49-year-old British expat is sitting in an inner-Sydney production office. The pretext for our meeting is another gig as reality television provocateur, this time as a key anchor for Nine's latest season of the car-crash reality franchise The Celebrity Apprentice.
Ian Dickson (left) with fellow Celebrity Apprentice contestant Ben Dark.
''When I first took Can of Worms to Andrew Denton,'' he says, carefully, ''I was clear [with him] I didn't have to be the host. I wasn't sure I should be. I always thought I'd be a better guest. He was quite insistent that as it was my idea, I should put myself forward.''
The idea of the show was to suggest controversial topics to a panel of guests who have prepared, clear-cut answers. It could be about sexual assault, social media or even how you should treat your teenage children. Quickly, the guests would realise the topics were not so simple. From the outside, Dickson appeared to struggle slightly with the show's so-called traffic cop role.
When the 10-week season wrapped last year, Dickson flew to England with his wife, Mel, for a month-long family holiday. Upon his return, he re-watched the series and decided to move on. ''I tried it and I failed,'' he says. ''There's no shame in that. It wasn't desperately bad. People were polite about it and I got through it. But there was no magic …''
David Hasselhoff has reinvented himself as ''celebrity super-brand'' the Hoff.
Asked if he clashed with Denton, he smiles.
''Andrew is a tough guy to work with. He's very demanding. He's got his own ways of doing things. Often they were at odds with my way and we clashed, but that's how I've always worked. I felt lucky to work with someone so passionate about my show.''
Denton was unavailable for comment, owing to filming commitments, but his partner in Zapruder's Other Films, Anita Jacoby, insists neither she nor Denton forced Dicko out. ''We didn't try and talk him round after he made the decision,'' she says. ''But he felt he had given the role a go and it wasn't a natural fit. He wanted to host the show. You put two creative people like he and Andrew in a room, discussing a television show and you have robust discussions. They're both big boys with strong personalities.''
Remarkably, Can of Worms will return on Ten later this year and Zapruder's is currently auditioning new hosts. ''We need a great second season,'' Dickson says. ''We want to sell it overseas.''
Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Dickson says he decided to dive back into reality TV.
''Apprentice has filled a gap,'' he says. ''I wondered if I still belonged on TV. I am in a midlife crisis. A lot of people in my position will leave their wife and get a trophy blonde half their age or a Harley-Davidson. I'm going on Celebrity Apprentice.''
When Dickson arrived in Australia in 2001, he was a marketing executive for a major record label. He sat in boardrooms, took on challenges and problems and attempted to generate business. And he was, he modestly intimates, fairly good at it. ''But now I've drifted into a weird world of celebrity,'' he says. ''I know it sounds crazy, but doing Apprentice was a desire to go and prove myself again.''
The show was more physically and mentally draining than he envisioned. ''I worked the longest hours of any show I've worked on,'' he says. ''It's intense. It's like life with all the boring bits taken out. I've realised now how crucial the ornery and tedious bits are … That's not available in this process. It's exhausting.''
Then there was the show's stunt casting: the inclusion of David Hasselhoff.
''The Hoff is a weird celebrity super-brand,'' Dickson says. ''Everything he does, supports the Hoff brand. It's amazing how quickly it becomes normal being around him. He talks about the Hoff in the third-person and so do you to him. But you can see why he's been so successful at rebranding himself. He works like a dog.''
Aside from the Hoff, there is the show's customary mix of celebrity curios such as Jason Akermanis, Tania Zaetta, Charlotte Dawson and Patti Newton. Dickson admits he was initially underwhelmed by the cast.
''I thought it would be wall-to-wall A-listers because it was such a success last time. But … some of the guys I'd never heard of gave us some awesome moments. It was cast brilliantly.''
Was there anybody he didn't get on with? ''Well, Tania Zaetta is hard to get to know,'' he says. ''She gets bad press and she doesn't do herself any favours. You just have to know how to work her. She's just got an inexhaustible talent for winding people up. She is needy and insecure and that can manifest itself as over-assertiveness or feeling deeply wounded.''
The show's host, Mark Bouris (''Mr Bouris'' to the contestants) says he was surprised by Dickson's growth during the series. ''He was very confident early,'' Bouris says. ''He did get a shock, though. He didn't have any sense of how tough it would be to appear in a boardroom and not have control of a situation … He was humbled and learnt a lot.''
Dickson is open in telling Bouris bluntly he believes he can replace the indomitable host. ''I told him I want his job,'' he says. ''I said if I win this, and he's busy doing his finance company Yellow Brick Road, they should look at me. I'm serious. I don't want to be with the other celebrities, I want to be where he is.''
In recent years, Dickson has tried his hand at various television franchises and for a time lived in Melbourne, working on breakfast radio. It was during this stint living by himself away from his family in Sydney he began drinking heavily.
''I was smashing five bottles of wine a day,'' he says. ''Alcohol became like work, or a shit job you had to do every day. So I stopped.''
After 1000 days of sobriety, Dickson says he reached a point where he was unsure why he had stopped drinking: ''I stopped for three years and I really enjoyed my sobriety and it did what I needed to do. But I felt like I was depriving myself for the sake of it. And I was totally boring. A lot of people will be disappointed to hear me say that. But I never said I wouldn't drink again. I never said I was going to AA or I was an alcoholic; I just said I wanted to stop, because I wanted to stop. So I did and now I'm drinking again.''
Although he has recently filled in for Tina Arena as judge on Young Talent Time, Dickson has ruled out returning to the world of pop music. ''I've run a million miles from commercial music,'' he says. ''If I see a pop video, it's like The Matrix: I just see numbers down the screen, and I know what goes into it. But I did like YTT. Celebrity judging panels have moved on since I left the table. They're filled with international A-list stars now. I'm probably a bit humdrum in comparison.''
Still, rarely for a television personality, he cheerfully admits to drawing pleasure from his own fame. ''I like it,'' he says. ''It puts a spring in your step. You feel a bit special. People recognise you, it's a nice feeling. I grew up in a shit council estate in Birmingham where nobody ever made anything of their lives. To be recognised by most people in the country is a buzz to me.''
Doesn't he then feel uncomfortable talking so candidly about his personal life? ''I have nothing to hide,'' he says. ''I don't lead a life beyond reproach. I talk about my frailties, my successes and my failures. I've always been open about that. It's cathartic in many ways. It's good to get things off your chest.''
As for what's next for the man universally known as Dicko, he's not so sure. He will pitch several co-production ideas with David Wilson, his partner at his talent management company, Watercooler. But he clearly yearns for more.
''I haven't got a job,'' he says. ''So I need a job. I don't really know what that is. I have no idea what Apprentice will throw up. I'm hopeful of something good. The phone is ringing a lot. And I feel on top of my game.''
The Celebrity Apprentice is on tonight at 8pm on Channel Nine.