Thomas Patrick O’Connor obituary: Gifted comedian with big Irish following

Teacher turned TV presenter got his big break on ITV’s Opportunity Knocks in 1974

Television presenter Tom O’Connor   on   set, in April 13th, 1985: O’Connor was greatly admired by many in Ireland, including Gay Byrne. Photograph: Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

Television presenter Tom O’Connor on set, in April 13th, 1985: O’Connor was greatly admired by many in Ireland, including Gay Byrne. Photograph: Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

 

Born: October 31st, 1939 
Died: July 18th, 2021

Tom O’Connor, who has died aged 81 after a long struggle with difficult illnesses, was a Liverpudlian of Irish heritage who became one of Britain’s best-known comedians and television presenters in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He also enjoyed a long career as a stage artiste and had an enthusiastic and loyal following in the 1980s at Dublin’s Clontarf Castle’s summer shows. His Irish admirers included Gay Byrne, on whose Late Late Show on RTÉ television O’Connor appeared several times as a guest.

George Hunter, who was the compére of the Clontarf Castle shows at the time, told The Irish Times this week that the comic would pack out the 400-seat venue for a week-long show, where he commanded fees of £6,000 [€7,000-plus] at a time when that was a year’s pay for many people.

Hunter recalled also that O’Connor, a keen golfer whose books of comedy writings included – with a wry reference to Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Clubhouse, was always welcome to play at Dublin’s top courses like Portmarnock or Royal Dublin despite it being peak season, with the courses heavily booked by visitors. “I’d ring them [the clubs concerned] up and they’d say ‘oh, bring him down, bring him down!’”

Hunter added that “Gay [Byrne] loved him, and he was very popular with the Queen and Princess Diana as he was seen as a very clean comic.”

Demanding audience

O’Connor learned his stagecraft in a decidedly unusual way, in front of a particularly demanding audience: classrooms of primary-aged schoolchildren. A native of Bootle, Lancashire, he had followed schooling at St Mary’s Grammar School in Crosby with training as a mathematics and music teacher at the renowned St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham, London, returning to Lancashire to teach at St Joan of Arc School in his native Bootle.

There, he found at first that it was difficult to hold his pupils’ attention, but found also that he overcame this difficulty by telling jokes to his young charges as a way of making his lessons more interesting. This was noticed by colleagues, and eventually, in the late 1960s, he started a part-time job as an entertainer at working men’s clubs in Liverpool and surrounding areas.

At one stage, finding something of a writer’s block when he found himself telling jokes, the punch lines of which were increasingly well known, he sought and received some very good advice from his fellow Merseyside comedian, the legendary Ken Dodd, who suggested he get material from “observing real people in real-life situations”. He never looked back.

He got his big break on ITV’s Opportunity Knocks talent-spotting show for unknowns, in 1974, where he so impressed his hosts he got a three-week slot. He soon made the leap into mainstream variety TV with Thames Television, appearing also, for the first of several performances, on the Royal Variety Show in 1976.

Other regular TV work followed: as a presenter for the popular Name That Tune on ITV, from 1976 until 1983; and on The Comedians, also for ITV, with Frank Carson, Bernard Manning and Russ Abbott among other then-major stars.

The BBC took notice, and from 1984 O’Connor had his own show on the network, which included, from 1987, his own day-time TV series, Roadshow – a nod perhaps to his ability to appeal to a very wide variety of audiences of all ages.

Another big break came in 1987, when Tyne Tees TV chose him to succeed Barry Cryer as presenter of its very successful Crosswits quiz show, which O’Connor hosted for the next 11 years. Other TV quiz shows on which he worked included Password for Channel 4, Gambit for ITV, the Zodiac Game, also for ITV, and the very popular Countdown on Channel 4, where he worked as part of its “word verifier” team.

Approachable

O’Connor wrote several books, including an autobiography, Take a Funny Turn, the aforementioned One Flew Over the Clubhouse, and a collection of gag material, Follow Me, I’m Right Behind You.

O’Connor won a reputation as an unpretentious entertainer, who was approachable and flexible. Paul “Goffy” Goff, of BBC Radio Tees, recalling his time as a compére at Hartlepool’s Borough Hall when O’Connor visited for a show in the 1980s, said in a tribute online that “he was one of those who did his homework and rang you in advance to find out more about the town . . . he also found time at the end to have his picture taken [with fans] and to sign autographs.”

In 1988, O’Connor was the subject of allegations by the News of the World newspaper that he had had an affair with an 18-year-old woman. He sued the newspaper and won damages in an out-of-court settlement. It was always an unlikely story: O’Connor enjoyed what to all appearances was a particularly happy marriage to Patricia (Pat) (nee Finan), a fellow teacher. They married in 1961 and were together until he passed away.

Over the past 14 years, during which he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and, from 2013, with bowel cancer also, Pat tended to him in their home near the famous racecourse at Ascot, a set of two cottages converted into a single home. She survives him, with their children, their son Steve Finan O’Connor (manager of the rock band Madness, and husband of Denise Lewis, the UK Olympic heptathlon gold medallist), and their daughters Anne, Frances and Helen.