From his days of live TV chat programmes to impromtu stage shows, Des O’Connor is no phoney. He talks about having a laugh, testing times and why there’s no point in worrying.
He starts with a joke and finishes with a thank you. In between, he’s charm itself; a proper gent. Behind the perma-tanned smile, Des O’Connor is a thoroughly pleasant chap, almost indistinguishable from the man we’ve seen on our TV screens since 1963.
So good afternoon, sir, we say, as Des calls for our allotted 15-minute chat.
“Sir,” he laughs. “I haven’t got that yet.”
And of course he hasn’t, though he was made a CBE in 2008.
“Then what should we call you, Des?”
“You can call me whatever you like. If I like it, I’ll answer your questions and if I don’t, you’ll hear a click. . .”
Which would be the sound of Des hanging up. Except Des never hangs up. And our 15 minutes soon turns into 20, 25, 30. . .
Des is in town next weekend at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre. He’ll be presenting An Evening With Des O’Connor, a two-part show featuring music and comedy. There’ll be clips of the showbusiness legends with whom he’s shared the stage, including Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, Tina Turner, Morecambe and Wise, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Pavarotti, Oliver Reed, Shirley Bassey, Will Smith, Robert Redford and many, many more.
“It’s very loose and very spontaneous,” he says. “I take my pianist on stage in the first half and we play it by ear. I ask the people in the audience whether they’ve got any problems and that’s really how it all starts. The hardest thing is to get people to believe we are genuinely ad libbing, but it’s true.
“We ask if anyone can play the piano and sometimes people come on stage and have a go. We get all sorts. We’ve had people who play like Les Dawson and people who’ve been concert pianists.”
Des enjoys playing Wolverhampton. For a while, he hung out in the city. He had a girlfriend who lived in Pensnett, back in the day, and places like Dudley, Brierley Hill and Wolverhampton were on his radar. “I lived near Dudley for a while. My girlfriend was there. It’s absolutely true. I love Dudley. I love the accent. It’s a lot of fun.”
Des is the consummate professional. Initially, he answers every question by leading the conversation back to his show in Wolverhampton. He runs full circle, ending enquiries with stuff like: “For me these evenings are more of a party than a show. They just happen. It’s just a giggle and a laugh.” But after a while, he starts to relax. He drops his guard and becomes, well, just Des.
He featured on our TV screens from 1963 to 2008. The Des O’Connor Show, Des O’Connor Entertains, Des O’Connor Tonight, Take Your Pick, Today with Des and Mel and Countdown kept us glued to our screens for 45 years or more. In between times, he played live shows. He still does.
“Right now, I’m in the middle of something extraordinary,” he says, and he has the same breathless enthusiasm as a 17-year-old indie kid who’s just been asked to play his first gig at a local pub. “I prefer the smaller theatres. It’s great fun and it keeps me on my feet. When I do the one-man show, I do two halves. Whatever happens happens. I don’t get nervous before I go on, it doesn’t bother me. A woman in the audience the other night called out that there was no programme. I told her there was no need – she’d just be getting me.”
There’s never any need for him to be worried, of course. He’s 84-years-young and he started his career in 1956. He’s interviewed Freddie Starr, Oliver Reed, Emu and Georgie Best on live TV. After that, how could he be phased? “I think getting that lot together was a plot to get me off the telly.
“But I like things to go wrong, it should be a giggle, you don’t want things to go right all of the time.
“I get excited by what I do. The adrenalin still gets me whether I’m doing TV or theatre. Usually, after a show, I’ll take two or three hours to switch off.” There’s no groupies or whisky, of course, just chat and high-jinx. “It’s like finishing work at 5.30pm and going to bed at 6pm. You wouldn’t do that. You need to unwind.
“Working with people like Freddie Starr and Georgie Best tests you. In those days, the show had gone live and they wanted to inject some humour. I wasn’t worried and I’m still the same today, I don’t worry about things. Funny stuff has happened along the way and I think that’s great – it means I’ve now got stories to use in my new show. You know, being bitten by the Emu, that’s funny.
“I’ve had plenty of difficult guests and been in tricky situations. It’s difficult to say who the most difficult has been but I’d probably say Stan Boardman would be one. He did the Fokker joke when he was on the show. The one about the Focke-Wulf planes. I just sat back on the sofa and looked at the ceiling. Then I held my head in my hands. The audience roared with laughter.”
When he can, Des takes his boy on the road. Adam is 11 now and is a star in the making. “Soon he’s going to be on there. He sings, he dances, he plays the piano and plays the drums. My wife is a brilliant singer, too. The point is to make sure you don’t bore or embarrass the audience. You have to send them home with a smile on their face. I can tell when I walk on that stage within a minute whether they want more songs or more laughter. I’ve got different guns for different occasions.”
Des has other kids. “I have four daughters. But when Adam came along it was a bit special. For the first time in my life I had a son. He wants to play football, I played a bit for Northampton but I was never going to be a pro. So if Adam and I have a kick about, he always puts me in goal. I must be honest, I don’t stop too many. I just enjoy life though, that’s the thing. Too many of us worry about things that are never going to happen. My motto is to worry when something happens, not if. I just want to have a giggle and a laugh.”
He’s learnt a lot along the way. And the most important lesson has been to be himself. The public hates a phoney, so Des has always just tried to relax. “I’ve got away with it, really. I’ve never put on a phoney face. I am what I am.
“I’ve always tried to be normal and not assume a personality. It’s like the thing with Des and Mel, it was funny because we were ad libbing. We’d look at the papers in the morning, or, rather, Mel would. After a while, I didn’t bother. I’d go on screen completely unprepared. It was better that way. Then Mel would say things and I’d just react.
“I remember her telling me once that Jennifer Aniston, the girl from Friends, liked her toilet roll to be hung in a particular way. Spontaneously, she asked me which way I liked my toilet paper to hang. We were on live TV and I just burst out laughing. We laughed for a minute-and-a-half. We didn’t say anything. And the more we tried not to laugh, the more we laughed. The public love it when you’re being honest. I think the public can sense it.”
The other thing he’s learnt is this: don’t stand still. If you think you’ve made it and imagine you no longer need to change, you’re a dead man walking.
“You can’t do the same thing for all those years, you have to keep up with what’s going on in the world. You have to go on the road. I learn more from a night in the theatre than I do from reading a million papers. There was a time when I would be violently ill in the cinema in the afternoon because I had a show that night. But now I love it. If you’re in the theatre, it’s not like TV. In the theatre, the audience takes up the option to laugh every 15 seconds. There’s nothing like it. You know whether they’ve loved it.
“I love what I do. I’ve interviewed Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, Barbra Streisand. . .” his voice trails off. “Put it this way. One night I had Catherine Zeta-Jones on one side and J-Lo on the other. And I got paid for it. How lucky can you be?”
It’s not just mixing with the biggest names that has been creative satisfaction during a golden career. Des has also played some of the most impressive venues in the world, including the MGM Grand, in Las Vegas.
“That was a big deal. I was booked at the MGM Grand and they told me I’d be on with the singer Helen Reddy. They said I could have 35 to 40 minutes but I had to do all jokes and no singing. I told them I couldn’t do that. I said it would be like going into a boxing ring with one arm behind your back. So they booked me again and instead they put me on with a comedian. They said: ‘That’s fine, just go on and do all singing, no jokes’.”
Having spent so many years in showbusiness, it’s perhaps no surprise that Des seeks the approval of his peers. And being fêted by them during a TV broadcast was one of the highlights of his career:
“I loved doing an Audience With, on TV. I was worried before because I wanted to get it right. My wife told me I’d been rehearsing for 40 years and not to think about it. When I went out, there was a sea of famous faces. It was quite intimidating. I did 109 minutes non-stop and the bar ran out of booze. That was a good time.
“I’ve also loved all the Royal shows. And I’ve done 1,309 performances at the Palladium. It feels like I’m showing off by saying that to you, but you led me into it by asking the question, so forgive me. It’s the most solo performances in the history of the theatre.”
But the more intimate surrounds of theatres like Wolverhampton’s Grand remain his bread and butter. Des has been to Wolverhampton countless times and used to hang out in the city. He’s looking forward to being back. “There’ll be a blonde woman there, who I know. I won’t embarrass her by saying her name. But she always comes. I’ve been at the Grand six times. I remember being there late once, there was trouble on the motorway. There used to be a zebra crossing across the front of the theatre. People were going in when I got there. It was 7.50pm. I hadn’t even shaved. I picked up the tannoy and made an announcement. I told them my trousers were going on, my shoes were going on. I just made a big joke out of it. The audience loved it.”
It’s time to go, but Des isn’t done. “You sounded as though you were genuinely interested,” he tells me. “I can always tell when people are. I enjoyed that. Thank you.” It ought to be the other way round, of course, I ought to be thanking him. But then that’s the measure of the man. He’s been keeping it classy for six decades. And he’s not about to stop now.
An Evening with Des O’Connor is on at The Grand in Wolverhampton on Saturday, April 23. Tickets cost from £25.50. Visit www.grandtheatre.co.uk
By Andy Richardson