Des O’Connor obituary: TV’s singing, self-deprecating, enduring Mr Nice Guy
Popular British entertainer recorded 36 albums and performed around the world
In 2011, Des O’Connor made his West End musical debut in Dreamboats and Petticoats, and joked: ‘I’m hoping to win a most promising newcomer award.’ Photograph: REX/Shutterstock
Desmond Bernard O’Connor
Born: January 12th, 1932
Died: November 14th, 2020
One day in 1964, over a cup of coffee, Des O’Connor told the comedian Eric Morecambe that he hoped to be an international star. “Well, I’d like to have an affair with Brigitte Bardot,” replied Morecambe, “ but we can’t have everything we want, can we?”
Morecambe, though right about his chances with Bardot, was wrong about O’Connor. Within three years of that conversation, O’Connor had a hit with his first single, Careless Hands, and in 1969 his song I Pretend went to number one in the United Kingdom and sold 16 million records worldwide.
'He won so many friends just by showing he was a man who didn’t take himself too seriously'
The Des O’Connor Show, featuring songs and sketches, had been popular in the UK for some years, but from 1970 it went from black and white to colour, and was broadcast in more than 40 countries, including in the United States, where NBC scheduled it as a summer replacement for the network’s Kraft Music Hall. O’Connor, who has died aged 88, went on to record 36 albums, perform in cabaret in Las Vegas, at Sydney Opera House and more than 1,000 times at the London Palladium.
None of this success appeared to affect Morecambe’s opinion; and O’Connor became the long-running target of affectionate teasing on The Morecambe & Wise Show. In a sketch on the 1972 Christmas special, for instance, Morecambe played a first World War British soldier in the trenches who puts a Des O’Connor record on the gramophone. Within moments, Germans begin to surrender or hurl themselves on to bayonets.
Three years later, O’Connor was invited to be a guest on the Christmas special but was allowed on stage only as the show ended and so never got to sing. It turned out that O’Connor was in on the joke. “I used to send Eric and Ernie jokes to insult me with and people would come up to me and say: ‘Did you hear what he said?’ and I’d say under my breath: ‘Yes I know, I wrote that one.’”
“He won so many friends just by showing he was a man who didn’t take himself too seriously,” said O’Connor’s fellow entertainer Bruce Forsyth. “He takes his work seriously, of course, and is the consummate professional, but I think what the British like, more than anything else, is a man who can take a joke against himself.”
O’Connor was born in Stepney, east London, the son of Harry O’Connor, a dustman, and Maude (nee Bassett), a cleaner. His mother was Jewish and his father was Irish, and Des joked he was the first O’Connor to celebrate his bar mitzvah. “We were poor when I was a kid, but there wasn’t a day when we didn’t laugh or have something to look forward to. You can sit down in a corner and cry, or you can get on with living.” He suffered from rickets and wore callipers until he was six, when his father told him to throw them away. Later, when he was evacuated from the East End to the Midlands during the second World War, he briefly became a professional footballer for Northampton Town.
After the war he did his national service with the Royal Air Force. “Coming from a poor background, I’ve always felt the need to prove myself,” he told one interviewer. He realised for the first time he was unfit and uneducated, so started training and reading. “I’d like to say it’s the taking part, but it’s the winning,” he once said. “I came second in every race in the air force. So I trained and trained until I entered the marathon and won it.”
It was during national service, too, that he got the first taste of theatrical life. He was caught mimicking his commanding officer without realising the man in question was watching. “He thought it was so good he ordered me to enter the talent competition. I was ordered into show business. How many people can say that?” He won the contest.
In 1951 he became a redcoat entertainer at Butlin’s holiday camp in Filey, North Yorkshire. But a hostile producer refused to allow him to take part in the camp’s Friday night revue, which was unfortunate, because he had told his parents he was the camp’s principal comedian and had also written to 22 agents making the same claim. “So I sat down with the other redcoats, because I knew all their bits, and said, ‘Look, my mum and dad are coming to see the show and I told them I’m in the show and I’m not, do me a favour.’” He had £26 in savings and offered the four £5 each to pretend they were sick. “All four of them went ill with food poisoning . . . and the producer said ‘Can you still remember some jokes, can you do a spot?’ I said yes, I can do it.”
'I was dubbed a Casanova but I’d only been out with three girls in my life and I married them all'
As a result of his performance, he got his first stage gig at the Palace theatre in Newcastle. “I’m not saying people should lie,” O’Connor reflected later, “but sometimes I think you have to make things happen when you’re in show business.” In 1958 he, along with Robert Morley, Pete Murray and Ted Ray, became one of the regular hosts of Spot the Tune, the Granada TV game show in which contestants named a popular song after hearing a few bars of music. After five years, Granada TV hired him to headline his own variety show.
In 1977, he began hosting the chat show Des O’Connor Tonight, which ran for 25 years. In 2001, he signed a £3.7 million (€4.1 million) deal with ITV for a year’s work, making him Britain’s highest paid TV entertainer. The deal included four one-off specials and a lunchtime chat show, Today With Des and Mel, that he presented with Melanie Sykes. And in 2007 he replaced Des Lynam as the host of the Channel 4 quiz show Countdown. The following year he was appointed CBE.
O’Connor’s first marriage, to Phyllis Gill, a fellow redcoat at Butlin’s whom he married in 1953 and with whom he had a daughter, Karen, ended in divorce in 1960. That year he married the ballerina and actor Gillian Vaughan, with whom he had two daughters, Tracey Jane and Samantha, before their divorce in 1982. Three years later he married the model Jay Fufer and they had a daughter, Kristina, but divorced in 1990.
“I was dubbed a Casanova but I’d only been out with three girls in my life and I married them all,” he told an interviewer in 1996. Not quite. Among the women he dated was the singer Shirley Bassey, whom he took on a boating lake in Leeds and to the pictures in the early 1960s. Years later he asked her what she had thought of the experience. “I thought you were gay,” she replied.
In 2007, he married the singer and songwriter Jodie Brooke Wilson. They had a son, Adam, born in 2004 when O’Connor was 72. In 2011 he told an interviewer: “My wife has mentioned having another baby. But it would be a bit selfish of me at my age, even though I’m in reasonably good nick.”
He ascribed his longevity to moderation, a trait he shared with his friend Cliff Richard: “Cliff and I have discussed this. We both eat only one meal a day. I drink very little alcohol; I’ve never smoked and I don’t exercise madly; just a brisk half-hour walk five times a week.”
Perhaps his line in self-mockery also helped. In one interview, conducted at his home in Marbella, he showed his sun-burnished chest to the reporter. “I only have to look at a travel brochure and I go brown. My neighbours see me and say: ‘Here he comes, the Singing Tan.’”
He kept working until late into his life, on stage and screen, and touring with a one-man show. In 2011 he made his West End musical debut in Dreamboats and Petticoats, and joked: “I’m hoping to win a most promising newcomer award.”
He is survived by his wife and children.