Des OConnor: From Butlins to chat show king

Des OConnor: From Butlins to chat show king

Des O’Connor once said that all he did was walk on to the stage, chat to the audience and sing a few songs.

It was a formula that made him one of Britain’s best-known stars, an old-fashioned showman who could turn his hand to almost anything – fronting his variety programme, hosting chat shows or presiding over the quiz Countdown.

An almost ever-present face on UK television, he held the record for more mainstream appearances on the small screen than any other performer.

O’Connor, who has died aged 88 after a fall at his home in Buckinghamshire, also carved out a successful career as a singer including four Top 10 hits and more than 30 albums.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born on 12 January 1932 in Stepney, East London, the son of a Jewish cleaner and an Irish dustman. He contracted rickets while he was a child which resulted in him having callipers on his legs until he was seven.

He was also badly injured in a car accident and spent some time in an iron lung which disrupted his primary school education.

During the war, the family moved to Northampton where he signed as a schoolboy player with Northampton Football Club although he only made the third team.

It was while working in a local shoe factory that he discovered a talent for making people laugh, once recalling his ability to reduce the firm’s typing school to giggles and to be the main source of entertainment on works outings.

His prowess as a performer came to the fore during his national service with the RAF, when his commanding officer insisted he take part in a talent show.

After he was demobbed, he secured a job as Red Coat with Butlin’s – a role that provided the springboard for many a famous show business name – before he was signed up to appear in a variety show at Newcastle’s Palace Theatre in 1953.

His early success was gained by his astonishing ability to generate an instant rapport with his audiences, something that would carry him though the ensuing decades of his career. “If you are not enjoying it,” he once said, “how do you expect them to.”

When rock ‘n’ roll arrived, the variety theatres saw the potential of booking big name music stars and building a show around them. In this way O’Connor found himself touring with Buddy Holly when he came to the UK in 1958.

“After all, I was given the princely sum of a hundred pounds per week which was a lot of money back in those days.”

O’Connor’s fame as a performer soared when he was recruited by ITV to host The Des O’Connor Show, which ran from 1963 to 1971. The show followed the format of theatre variety with O’Connor wisecracking to the audience, singing songs and introducing a stream of guest stars.

When the show was first filmed in colour in 1970, ATV did a deal for it to be shown on network television in the US bringing O’Connor to a whole new audience. It led to live appearances in Las Vegas.

By the end of the 1960s, he was one of Britain’s best-known stars and was chosen as the first victim when This Is Your Life was resurrected by Thames Television in 1969. Fittingly he was surprised on stage at the London Palladium, a venue where he performed more than 1,000 times.

In 1977, O’ Connor began hosting Des O’Connor Tonight, a variety chat show. It began on BBC Two where it ran for five years before switching to ITV, eventually ending in 2002 after nearly 26 years on air.

It was notable for showcasing the work of comedians. Ken Dodd and Benny Hill were among the established comics who appeared and new talent, such as the Cornish comedian, Jethro, got their big breaks on the show.

It was broadcast live, something that occasionally provided some controversial moments. There was an appearance by an obviously intoxicated Oliver Reed while, on another occasion, Liverpool comedian Stan Boardman told his risque joke about Fokkers which saw him banned from ITV.

“I just looked at the ceiling,” O’Connor later recalled, “then I held my head in my hands. The audience roared with laughter.”

O’Connor was a regular guest on the Morecambe and Wise Show usually the butt of jokes about his ability as a singer. Eric would come out with lines such as, “If you want me to be a goner, buy me a record by Des O’Connor,” often with the singer standing behind him.

In fact, O’Connor had four Top 10 singles, including, I Pretend, which went to No 1 in 1968 and recorded more than 30 albums, six of which were Top 40 entries.

What the audience didn’t realise was that many of the gags were written by O’Connor himself, who had been great friends with the duo since their early days in show business.

Having cut his teeth as a game show host on Take Your Pick in 1992, O’ Connor had a year as co-host of the show, Countdown, with Carol Vorderman. He was awarded a CBE in 2008.

Away from the stage, he was a keen racegoer as befitted a man who once held an amateur jockey licence and, for a time, owned a number of racehorses.

O’Connor was married four times, describing the end of his first three relationships as casualties of his obsession with work. In 2007, he married long-term girlfriend Jodie Brooke Wilson, 37 years his junior who had given birth to his son Adam when O’Connor was in his 70s.

Des O’Connor was the consummate professional, a natural performer who never lost his love of just standing in front of an audience and giving them some good old entertainment.

“If it ever became work, I’d pack it up,” O’Connor once said. “I’ve never done a day’s work in my life.”

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