smile, a twinkle in the eyes, a dazzling permatan– such were the qualities Des O’Connor parlayed into a near 50-year reign as one of Britain’s favourite popular entertainers.
O’Connor, who has passed away aged 88 after a fall, was one of those old school fixtures on British TV who were easily taken for granted. He just always seemed to be there, whether good-naturedly enduring a ribbing from his pretend show business enemies Morecambe and Wise, holding court on one of his many chat-shows, or reinventing himself late in his career as a short-lived quizmaster on Countdown.
He never really changed, either. O’Connor was forever the middle-aged raconteur with the attention-seeking sports jacket, Lego hair and lightly salted wit. He was Alan Partridge if Alan Partridge had been likeable, self-aware and talented.
Entertainers from the O’Connor-era tend to be dismissed as toe-curling beyond redemption. But O’Connor was a consistently compelling presence on prime time. He was naturally at ease with celebrities and had a turn of phrase just the right side of cheesy. “How do you get from jollies to juries?” he once inquired of John Cleese, in reference to the Monty Python comic’s early days as a solicitor. It was typical of a man who could be silly and sublime all at once.
O’Connor was equally relaxed with younger stars. Interviewing the Spice Girls on Des O’Connor Tonight in 1997, for instance, he was neither overawed nor patronising. “Victoria, I heard you’ve got a black belt in shopping,” he said to Posh Spice, eliciting from her that rarest of things: a thoughtful smile.
O’Connor learned the show-business ropes the hard way. He was born in Stepney, East London to a Jewish mother and a father from Ireland (he would joke he was the only O’Connor to ever have a Bar Mitzvah).
An entertainer of many talents, he briefly played professional football for Northampton Town. However, the stage was his true love and after national service with the RAF he had his first taste of the limelight as a Redcoat at Butlins.
Live entertainment in the 1950s was not for the weak of heart. This O’Connor discovered when, early on, he was booked for a week at the Glasgow Empire and was confronted by a hostile audience. His solution was typically playful: he feigned fainting.
“You can hear a silence… when it’s that quiet it gets loud,” he recollected years later. “I went down in a heap on stage. One of the musical directors popped his head up, 'Is this in the act, sir?'”
As news of his collapse in Glasgow spread, Eric Morecambe joked that O’Connor was “the only comic selling advertisement space on the soles of his shoes”.
With Morecambe and Wise in 1982
Thus began a cheerful rivalry with Morecambe and Wise. Today, this would probably have gone sour and descended into a twitter spat. But in 1979 O’Connor was good natured enough to appear on a David Frost chat show, where Eric and Ernie roasted him to his face.
He presented the duo with one of his albums – at which Morecambe pretended to throw up in a bucket. His pop career was no novelty, though. O’Connor had a UK number one in 1968 with “I Pretend” and would notch up a further four top 10 singles. In all, he sold 16 million albums, toured with Buddy Holly and shared bills with The Beatles and Cilla Black.
Nonetheless, it is as the ultimate Saturday night TV smoothie that he will be remembered. He hosted his first chat show, The Des O’Connor Show on ITV from 1963 to 1971. This was followed by Des O’Connor Tonight, which ran for seven years on BBC Two and then transferred to ITV for a further 17.
O’Connor never seemed to go out of fashion. He teamed up with Melanie Sykes to present Today With Des and Mel from 2002 to 2006. And in 2007 he replaced Des Lynam as Countdown co-host, alongside Carol Vorderman, though he only lasted a couple of years.
What was extraordinary is that, through his various incarnations as a light entertainer, it was always the same Des O’Connor staring out at us from Planet Chat. The O’Connor who traded one-liners on the Des O’Connor Show in the 1960s wasn’t all that removed from the one cracking wise alongside Mel Sykes in the 2000s. He personified consistency in the most fickle of industries.
O’Connor truly was that rarest of show business figures, then. Someone whose charm and easy wit appealed across the generations, and who remained beloved all the way to the end. He hasn't been on TV for the best part of a decade and yet he will be missed terribly by anyone who enjoys a chat, a playful anecdote and a hearty chuckle at the end of a long day.