‘A self-made man. Well, it’s nice of him to take the blame.’
Desmond Bernard O’Connor CBE 12 January 1932 - 14 November 2020
Des was an entertainer and performer who won a place in the heart of the British public for having the humility to take a joke at his own expense. A near permanent fixture on British television schedules as a performer or hosting light entertainment since the late 1960s through to the second decade of the new century.
O'Connor was born in Stepney, East London to to Maude (née Bassett) a cleaner, and Harry O'Connor, a dustbin man. His father was Irish and his mother was Jewish. He had claimed to be the only O'Connor in the world to have had a Bar Mitzvah. He suffered from Ricketts and wore callipers until he was six when his father insisted on throwing the supports away. As a school boy during the second world war he was evacuated from the capital to Northampton and he even had a brief career as a professional footballer with Northampton Town. He played for their reserves after World War II, but in usual self deprecatory style he made light of the experience. "I played wing and was very fast... unfortunately, I often forgot to take the ball with me."
National service with the RAF gave him a drive for self improvement and training. He had mused that he always finished second in races while with the RAF, so he trained for a marathon and won it to demonstrate to himself that he was capable. "I'd like to say it is the taking part, but it is the winning!" This determination when setting a goal was to be a key factor in the success in his career. It was during his time in the RAF that the stage came calling. He mimicked his commanding officer, unaware he was being watched by the victim of the lampooning. The Officer was impressed and ordered him to enter a talent competition. "I was ordered into show business. How many people can say that?” O'Connor would say. He won the talent show of course.
He started as a Red Coat at Butlins Holiday Camps and had told his parents, along with multiple Agency reps, that he was the principle comedian. He offered four colleagues financial incentives to pretend to be sick and he delivered the show himself which got him a break in the theatre.
By 1958 he was a regular host on a TV show called Spot the Tune and then was given his own variety show with Granada TV. The Des O'Connor show ran from 1963 to 1971. This was broadcast in over forty countries, including America. He then hosted Des O'Connor entertains from 1974 to 1976 and then hosted the chat show Des O'Connor Tonight from 1977 to 2002. Today with Des and Mel a live afternoon light entertainment show he hosted with Melanie Sykes ran from 2002 to 2006. He then replaced Des Lynham as the host of ever popular Channel Four competition and entertainment show Countdown.
Alongside this career which made him the highest paid TV entertainer in the UK in 2002 O'Connor was also a successful recording artist with 36 albums throughout his career, with 16 million sales worldwide and a UK Singles chart number 1 with I Pretend in 1968. He was an unfashionable crooner and reflecting on his status, he told of “a little old lady” that came up to him at the stage door one day. According to O’Connor, she offered him £5 and asked him to send her his new record. “But you can get it for £3 in the shop,” he said. She replied: “But the last time I went into the shop and asked for a Des O’Connor LP they said, ‘You’re kidding.’”
It was his singing and his ability to poke fn at himself that made him tremendously popular. He featured regularly on the behemoth entertainment show that dominated the seventies in the UK, The Morecambe and Wise show. He was ridiculed relentlessly on the show, being referred to as "Des – short for 'desperate", and "Death O'Connor". One line, sung to the tune of "Crazy Words – Crazy Tune" was, "Roses are red, violets are blue, Des can't sing, we know that's true!" O'Connor would often explain that people would approach him to ask if he was aware of the jokes the pair had made at his expense on a weekly basis. He frequently would explain he even wrote many of the jokes himself, including ‘Des O’Connor’s a self-made man. Well, it’s nice of him to take the blame.’
O'Connor was married four times through his life. He quipped in 1996 that he had been unfairly dubbed a Casanova, responding that he had been with three girls in his life and married each of them. In moments of reflection, he considered his first three marriages as casualties of his commitment to his work. He had dated Shirley Bassey in the early 1960s, taking her to a boating lake in Leeds and a night at the cinema. Many years later when their paths crossed once more, he asked her what she thought of the experience. She replied she thought he was gay.
O'Connor died in hospital after a fall at his Buckinghamshire home and is survived by his fourth wife, Jodie, and their son, Adam, along with his four daughters, Karin, TJ, Samantha and Kristina from previous marriages.