Des O’Connor began his career in television’s golden age and he’s been performing ever since. He talks to JAMES BUTLER about his life – and Elton John’s pyjamas.
Over the past six decades, Des O’Connor has been a constant fixture on British television.
His career began in an era when light entertainment was booming. He appeared on the Morecambe And Wise Show and engaged guests in easy conversation on his own variety and chat shows, which were seen by more than 200 million people worldwide.
It is this kind of light-hearted dialogue which audiences can expect from Des when he performs at the Kings Theatre tomorrow night.
This is not his first time in Portsmouth – in fact, Des spent his first nights as a married man in the city.
He says: ‘When I was 19 years old and I had just got married for the very first time, I had my honeymoon in Southsea.
‘I can’t remember where we stayed, but I don’t think I could afford anything as posh as the Queens Hotel.
‘It must have been a rag and bone boarding house because in those days I was on about fourpence a week.’
The Kings Theatre has particular significance for Des, as photos for his latest album, Inspired, were shot in the venue.
Des has taken a new approach for his current tour, he says. This includes footage of his career highlights played on video screens and more focus onhis music.
‘I actually sing very well – believe it or not,’ says Des.
‘The jokes that dear Eric Morecambe used to do about me and my singing... I remember saying to him once “I’m going to do a one-man show” and he said “well let’s hope two turn up.”
‘I actually used to send him insults about me which he used. People would come up to me and say “did you hear what he said about you on Saturday night?”
‘I would say “isn’t it terrible” but really I was thinking “I sent it”.’
For Des, part of the joy of performing live is interacting with the audience.
‘I just love the conversation. I don’t mind the audience interrupting the programme – just do it and have fun with it.
‘The thing is, we take ourselves too seriously. We don’t have to be perfect, we want to be entertained. I love it at the stage door when people say “I was dragged here, but you know what, you’re not bad”.’
He adds: ‘I don’t ever have to do jokes any more, I just relate to things that happen. I call it “of the moment” humour. Take the other night for instance. Since I have been putting these screens up, I have to turn around to look at them occasionally. As I turned back, somebody said “is that your own hair, or is that a wig?” So I said “What kind of idiot would buy a wig with a hole in the back!”
‘Those moments – you never write them, they just happen.’
For Des, this kind of honesty is the best policy.
‘You have to be yourself, you can’t assume a personality. The public aren’t fools – that television screen is a magnifying glass. They can see what they think is genuine and what they think is phony.
‘The lovely thing about my show was we never did interviews, we did conversations.
‘You can rehearse an interview – you say this and I’ll say that – but you can’t rehearse a conversation. It created a mood and was lots of fun. It was like a HELLO! or OK! magazine for television and I’m honest enough to admit it.
‘I remember when we got Tony Blair on as his career was taking off I was criticised for not asking political questions. If he wanted to do that, he’d have done a political programme.’
Another show with Tony Blair led to some unusual pacts being made on air.
‘I remember years ago I did a football World Cup special. There was myself, Pavarotti, Elton John and Tony Blair. So it wasn’t a bad line-up. I remember saying to Tony Blair “if England win this World Cup would you come back on and sing with me?” and he said yes. So then I said the same thing to Elton, and he said “Sing with you? I’ll sleep with you!” which brought the house down.
‘England won the first two important games after that, and Elton rang me up and said “I’ve just been out and bought new jim jams!”
In a packed career, Des has performed at the London Palladium more than 1,200 times, played the title role in the Wizard of Oz stage musical, and topped book charts with Laughter Lines, his collection of comic poems. A peak for Des was a stint on American primetime television.
He says: ‘I did two years on American coast to coast television – this was national, Wednesday night, 8 o’clock television. I replaced Dean Martin and Perry Como, and even Tom Jones only did one year.
‘I’m very proud of the fact that at Elstree [Studios] where we taped a lot of the shows you only had to go 30 or 40 steps to Studio D and that was a pathway to a world of no strangers.
‘I played the Sydney Opera House, Canada, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, and it all happened because of that series.
‘I’m proud of the fact that I’m an international name, but I used to joke that I’m the most unknown international star in the country. I wouldn’t normally boast like that!’
Despite his achievements, there is one thing Des still has left on his list.
‘I’ve done practically everything – I was even the clown of a circus for a day – but I have never done a movie of any kind. I just know I could do that.
‘My daughter seems to think I should play something evil. She says ‘‘Dad, you’re always smiling, laughing, giggling – why don’t you play something evil?’’’
He adds: ‘I don’t expect they’ll be giving me Cary Grant parts, but if there’s one going I’d like it please.’
Countdown and bare legs
I would watch the clock go round and I thought ‘God, that is my life ticking away!’ In theory, you could actually do those shows without trousers on – when the camera comes to you, you’re sitting down.
I told my little boy I was writing poems, and he came back two days later and said ‘I wish I were a glow worm, I never could be glum, ‘cause how can I be miserable, when the sun shines out my bum?’
Joan Collins, Tina Turner – you name them, they were on my show. For this show at the Kings we play clips of stars I interviewed. Every one has a smile on their face.
Where & when...
Des will bring his show to the Kings Theatre in Southsea tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets: £19.50 full price, £17.50 for Kings Card members. Call (023) 9282 8282 or visit kingsportsmouth.co.uk