Des O’Connor: “There’s no mystique about me”

Still going strong at 80, the entertainer shares the secrets of his success

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He was 80 in January and this week’s The One & Only Des O’Connor celebrates that and his showbusiness success: record sales of 16 million, 1,284 performances at the London Palladium, and he’s one of the world’s longest-lasting chat-show hosts. RT meets Des O’Connor…

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On celebrity

“There’s no mystique about me. I am what I am. The public sees me as a member of the family because I’ve been on that little box in the corner of the room so often, not some ‘lah-di’ star. It’s so good of you to interview me. Celebrities complain about having to do things, but if no one asked they’d be much worse off. It’s crazy. Too many take themselves seriously. We just do a job for which we’re proud, privileged and overpaid.”

On his days as a semi-professional footballer

“I was very fast, but was told it would be better if I took the ball with me. I smile when I read of ‘the pressure’ on today’s footballers. What pressure? A young man kicking a ball around in a sport he loves, earning a fortune, showing his talent in front of spectators? It sounds smug, but I don’t do stress.”

On vices

“I was drunk once – at Butlins [in Filey, north Yorkshire] in 1952 when I was a Redcoat running a sing-song in the bar and Derby County football team liked it so much they each bought me a double rum with pineapple juice. I knocked them back. Nearly fell through a window, and thought, ‘Why would I want to do that to myself?’ Never touched a Woodbine in my life. I’m not lecturing, but I didn’t feel the need.”

“I gambled foolishly because I was earning £1,000 a week and didn’t realise I had to pay 83 per cent tax. I was too busy working. If I was in this for money I wouldn’t have the right attitude.”

On family

“I come from a working-class family. We had nothing – especially after the house we rented in London had a direct hit in the war. Most comedy is driven out of poverty and wanting to improve yourself. Somewhere along the line my parents [father a dustman and mother a charlady] handed love and humour to me without knowing.”

“Every time my dad made me laugh I loved him more. It made me want to spread it around. Corny, I know, but comedy is the best medicine. I never understood the other side of the coin – Pagliacci, the sad clown. What’s that all about?”

“If there was a beautiful woman in my life I married her. Unfortunately my love of showbusiness took me away from home so many times it became a problem. I get on with all my children, who will be at the TV show.”

On his chat show

“It was never an interview, more a conversation. I was so privileged to talk to some of the world’s best-known people but I couldn’t do the job – if it is a job, hah hah – if I was overawed or too sycophantic. I had a few rules – no swearing, no religion, politics, sickness, tragedy, scandal, sex, drama. I don’t want to get the ‘story’ – ‘Were you abused as a child?’ – I tried to find the fun side. I reckon if we had Genghis Khan on we’d get a smile out of him. There is humour in everything, although I once did a little joke at the expense of Christine Hamilton and felt bad. What a cheap way to get a laugh. I should have known better.”

On his career

“They said, ‘You’re not ready, son’ [to perform when he started as a Redcoat in Butlins], and they may have been right. When I didn’t get Sunday Night at the London Palladium [following Bruce Forsyth], which everyone said I would, I was bitterly disappointed, but later I realised it would have been too much too soon.”

“There’s a lot of swearing in comedy today, but I’m not sitting in judgement – how can you when they’re jamming them into 20,000 seats at the O2 arena? It’s their life, and the audience must know what’s coming. When I started, ‘bloody’ could get you fired. The worst I ever said was ‘piddle’. Or it may have been ‘widdle’.”

“I told Eric Morecambe over a cup of tea in 1967 near the Bournemouth Pavilion that I wanted to be an international star, and he said, ‘Yeah, and I’d like to have an affair with Brigitte Bardot, but some things aren’t possible’. You need ambition, though – or what’s the point? Eric always had a laugh at my expense – ‘Des is short for Desperate’ – and I went along with the jokes. It means my head was above the parapet. You don’t make jokes about people you don’t like. It’s not an ego trip.”

“I’m a ham. Getting chewing gum off the stage is easier than removing me. I enjoy every minute. I’ve just finished a West End musical [Dreamboats and Petticoats], a couple of concerts and four TV shows. God willing I’ll do 30 more concerts this year. Two and a half hours of just me. Unless you’ve seen me live you don’t know what I do. With great respect to talk-show hosts it’s not that difficult sitting in a chair and talking to someone.”

“I enjoy a happy evening doing what I do well. At the stage door you’ll get husbands saying, ‘Well, Des, I didn’t want to come. I were dragged here from the foot- ball, but you was alright, and you don’t sing that bad, do you?’ I actually sing quite well. Come and see. I live in a world of no strangers. I’m happy if I’ve made some of them smile.”

“Someone at my last concert shouted, ‘When are you going to get your knighthood?’ I don’t hope for it, but it would be very nice. I got a CBE – ‘cute but entertaining’ – which is a lovely bit of recognition.”

On his age

“If you think you’re old, you will be. My wife says I’m still the last
one on the dance floor. Cliché as it is, we’re here once. So enjoy it. I
don’t think about death. That’s probably why I don’t fear it.”

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 3 April 2012.


The One & Only Des O’Connor airs tonight at 7:30pm on ITV1/ITV1 HD