A tribute to Des O’Connor
We’re celebrating the career of one of the showbiz greats who we don’t think ever got the credit he deserved, especially in the field of chat shows where he did it hugely successfully for over two decades, on both channels.
Always renowned as one of the nicest men in showbiz, Des O’Connor deliberately didn’t take on a stage name when he took up entertaining full-time, emphasising that he was a normal bloke who just happened to tell jokes and sing songs. He made his telly debut in 1954 on the Beeb, but made his name on ITV, first as host of Spot The Tune in 1957 and then a familiar face on variety before he got his own show in 1963. This was concurrent with his recording career, and in the fifties he’d actually toured with Buddy Holly. He didn’t quite make the impact of Buddy, but his middle-of-the-road music won him substantial success, not least with I Pretend which got to number one in 1968. Our favourite Des song, though, is Dick-a-Dum-Dum, a faintly ridiculous song about landing dolly birds (one to file under wouldn’t-record-it-now, obviously). Des clearly thinks it’s all a bit daft in his vocals, but that’s what makes it all the more fun.
As the sixties started swinging, Des’ musical career wasn’t quite what it was and the hits dried up, but that was OK because he had numerous other strings to his bow, and he was a major draw on television. His ATV variety shows were a pleasing mix of stand-up, sketch, speciality acts and singing, all held together by Des’ wonderfully affable personality, with Jack Douglas as his regular sidekick, and they were a Saturday night staple for a decade. As he’d frequently illustrate, Des was also a hugely generous performer, and was always quick to pay tribute to the guests who made the shows so good, not least when he was the first British performer to work with the Muppets.
Although Des started the seventies under lock and key on ITV, his best publicity came on the Beeb, thanks to, of course, Eric Morecambe. Eric and Des were famously huge mates and, despite his singing constantly being pilloried on primetime telly for years, Des didn’t mind a bit, astutely reasoning that every time he was insulted by Eric and Ern, he established himself as a lovely self-deprecating bloke without a shred of ego. The jokes were brilliant (“I’m doing a one-man show!” “Well, let’s hope some more turn up for the next one”), and when Eric had his heart attack, Des was devastated and asked his audience to pray for him – and as Eric pointed out, “those six or seven people must have made all the difference”. On Christmas Day 1975, Des arrived to be insulted face to face, and he really is brilliant in this, getting as many laughs as the other two. Three entertainment titans at the top of their game.
As was also the case with Eric and Ern when they were at ATV, for a variety act working for Lew Grade one familiar task was producing at least one series expressly for export, recorded at the studios in Elstree but with American writers, guest stars and producers. That task fell to Des in 1970 and his slick, agreeable personality ensured he made a better fist of cracking America than many of his contemporaries, while he also had the pleasure of working with many huge names including Liberace and Phil Silvers. But in the end Des decided he wasn’t especially interested in courting the US full time and was happy enough with his success at home in Britain. But these US shows did have a lasting legacy…
…as to promote them, Des found himself appearing on numerous US talk shows, where his quick wit and easy-going nature saw him get loads of laughs, while Des enjoyed the ability to appear as himself and entertain without using up all his material. His agent was certainly impressed, and when he got back he pitched a Des O’Connor chat show to Lew Grade, but he didn’t fancy it. But Des felt the idea had legs and, getting a bit bored of the ATV way of doing things, was up for a move. Hence in 1976 Des moved over to the Beeb and launched Des O’Connor Tonight for the first of umpteen series. As ever a generous performer, Des was always happy to act as straight man to the comedy guests he introduced, and he made a particular point of inviting on new young comedians, in those days usually from the States, in turn giving early TV exposure to Jay Leno, Kelly Monteith and Jerry Seinfeld In full what’s-the-deal-with-airplane-peanuts mode.
Des stayed at the Beeb for seven years, most regularly seen in the cushy Monday-night-opposite-Panorama slot on BBC2, where Des was delighted to be told he’d broken the record audience for a light entertainment show on BBC2, previously held by his old mates Eric and Ern. In those days that slot was just as good as any on BBC1 and he got plenty of exposure on the main channel as well. He was sitting pretty at the Beeb but in 1983, Thames arrived with a truckload of cash and lured him back over to do pretty much the exact same show, with Lord Bob Monkhouse going in the other direction. Although an attempt to do the show live was swiftly abandoned after a notorious episode starring Stan Boardman and Oliver Reed, the show was hugely successful on ITV, with the most regular guest being his old mate Freddie Starr.
There was one memorable return to the Beeb in the eighties, though, and of all things it was on Top of the Pops. When Roger Whittaker guested on Des O’Connor Tonight, their rendition of The Skye Boat Song went down so well it was released as a single and made it to the top ten. Actually what went on behind the scenes of this performance is more entertaining than what was on screen, as Roger arrived in a wheelchair having run over his foot mowing the lawn, and with Des’ producer Brian Penders having turned up at the studio to watch on crutches after a knee operation, and Roger bringing a mate to open doors for him who had a broken arm himself, Des found it all so funny he laughed so hard and did his back in, just in time for them all to be ushered into the studio for rehearsals, looking so wretched the crew assumed it was a joke about their decrepit nature. A quick trip to the osteopath later, Des was back on form and, when a technical fault delayed recording by half an hour, Des kept the audience entertained, ensuring they got a reception that wouldn’t have shamed Duran Duran. What a pro.
As we say, when people talk about the great chat show hosts, they never mention Des, but he did it successfully for over two decades, in primetime, with huge ratings, and as we went into the nineties he was just as famous and popular as ever, going strong even after Thames lost their franchise, and his show was an important part of the publicity trail for everyone with something to plug. Everyone from Tony Blair to Pavarotti graced the sofa, but Des remained most proud of the show’s reputation for comedy, and many new comedians made their first pre-watershed appearances with Des, who’d generously ask for feedlines so they could deliver as much of their material as possible. Here’s a great example, where Des helps young buck Alan Davies make his mainstream debut.
The dozen or so episodes of Des O’Connor Tonight a year formed the backbone of Des’ work for ITV, but there was scope for some other vehicles. Unfortunately for Des, this didn’t include Blind Date, which he saw on Australian TV and pitched to Philip Jones at Thames, but Jones, always something of a worrier, was so concerned that things could go too far on the date he wouldn’t do it, unless they went no further than Fortnum and Mason’s for tea. But Des found an equally sturdy format in 1992 with the revived Take Your Pick. Des was a great host of this show, responsible for the inspired decision to pick the contestants from the audience just before the show, and relishing the off-the-cuff conversations with them. And the Yes/No Interlude remained an evergreen format, not least when everyone would get gonged out after seconds and the show would go to an ad break after about five minutes.
Des O’Connor Tonight finally ended as a regular show in 1999, but it continued via specials for several years, and Des wasn’t wanting for work as he moved over to daytime. Actually we reckon Today with Des and Mel, for it was that, was a pretty ace show, the pair’s easy-going chat making for perfect post-lunch viewing (it was never quite the same when it was on at teatime) and it could have run forever had it not been axed in 2006 for being too expensive. Throughout, Des illustrated he remained the consummate host, happy to chat with everyone, not least in this conversation with the unlikely figure of Stewart Lee, though we reckon there’s a mutual respect between the two comedians and it’s not as hugely embarrassing as it might have been, honest.