Despite spending three decades as the punchline of cruel jokes by Britain’s most popular TV comedian, Eric Morecambe, Des O’Connor had the last laugh by sustaining a peak-time TV career from 1963 to 2012. Such longevity of success in a fickle field is rivalled only by that of Bruce Forsyth and David Attenborough.
On shows under various titles – including The Des O’Connor Show, Des, and Des O’Connor Tonight – he was a fixture in ITV weekend peak-time programming from 1963 until 1999, moving between songs, comedy and interviews – the order of that list reflecting the hierarchy of his talents. In this century, and his own eighth decade, he serenely adapted to daytime TV on Today with Des and Mel, co-hosted with Mel Sykes for ITV, and in a stint fronting Channel 4’s Countdown.
The first fame for O’Connor, who has died aged 88, came as a pop singer, with three top 10 hits between November 1967 and May 1968. Careless Hands reached number six, and 1-2-3 O’Leary charted fourth, but it was I Pretend, which spent 36 weeks in the top 50, that qualified O’Connor, at least technically, for anthology records and radio station days dedicated to “all No 1s”.
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All three of his biggest-selling records were sad ballads, a man lamenting a love lost for some reason, and this helped to establish, for his fans, a sympathetic, self-deprecating, likeable image that lasted throughout his career.
However, there was no sympathy or liking, at least publicly, from Eric Morecambe. Almost from the time the men first encountered each other on the theatre variety circuit in the 1950s, Morecambe cultivated an on-stage joke about O’Connor being an allegedly terrible singer and second-rate act.
Some of this was wordplay (“Des, short for desperate,” the comedian used to say), but, although Morecambe liked to claim that the hostility towards the performer was humorously fake, showbiz snobbery may have been involved. Comics, who saw their art as the hardest interaction with an audience, could be dismissive of song-and-dance men (Bruce Forsyth also faced some of this), and O’Connor was also part-Irish (on his father’s side, his mother being Jewish) in an era when racist jokes about people from Ireland were a staple of English comedy.
Even as O’Connor became a significant recording star – his cumulative 117 weeks in the BBC charts dwarfing the stats of two more revered solo singing O’Connors, Sinead and Hazel – Morecambe accelerated the gags about “The Best of Des O’Connor” being a blank disc, and so on. O’Connor’s 1969 fourth single, Dick-a-Dum-Dum (King’s Road), an inane celebration of 60s London, may have helped Morecambe’s cause. Stalling at 14 in the hit parade, it started the downslope of his pop career.
There is a story that neatly captures the character and instincts of the two performers involved in the supposed feud. In 1968, when Morecambe was hospitalised with his first heart attack, the news spread across the variety circuit. O’Connor, who was performing that night, told his audience and asked them to pray for the comic’s rapid recovery. That was very Des: a kindly guy with old-fashioned attitudes to most things except marriage (O’Connor had four of them). When Morecambe was later informed of the touching gesture, he thanked performer and audience with the words: “Those six or seven people may have made all the difference.” That was very Eric: unable to resist the chance to extend a running gag, even in response to an act of generosity.
O’Connor later admitted in interviews that the gags had hurt him, and even made him worry for his career, but he took the interesting and potentially perilous decision to join in with the joke, appearing on the Morecambe & Wise BBC shows, where he would be about to sing when Eric would declare some problem with the technology or running order, preventing the rendition.
The active participation of the target helped somewhat to neutralise the cruelty, and, suggesting to the audience that he was a sport, further enhanced O’Connor’s reputation as a nice guy. Despite being presented on Morecambe & Wise, to up to 30 million viewers, as a tuneless loser, O’Connor by 1969 was celebrated enough to be a guest on ITV’s top-rating biographical entertainment show, This is Your Life.
That compliment was followed by becoming a regular on the commercial channel, in various formats, for more than 50 years. As time went on, jokes against O’Connor less involved his singing than his complexion. Long before spray-tanning became a fashion, he would reach the screen looking as if he had recently showered in gravy. But consistently high ratings confirmed what even snootier TV reviewers (including me) could not deny. Avoiding the addiction, depression or health problems that engulfed so many contemporary entertainers, he was always prepared, relaxed and fluent in a gentle voice that touched various accents without landing on one.
His divided parental inheritance allowed the joke that he was “the only O’Connor to have had a bar mitvah”, although he drew musically more on his patrimony, not only in 1-2-3 O’Leary but also recordings of Danny Boy.
Middle England also made a significant contribution. Evacuated from London to Northampton during the second world war, he stayed to make a contribution to two of the town’s major activities – shoe-making and football – thus becoming, in two senses, an ex-cobbler.
He was employed at Church’s Shoes, and there was a legend among veterans that the young O’Connor used to do impromptu song-and-dance routines on the clicking tables, the firm surfaces on which leather was cut into the shapes to make footwear.
He also briefly played as a winger for Northampton Town, nicknamed the Cobblers. Media profiles throughout the star’s life referred to him as a “former professional footballer”. This was not quite true: the club’s official historian, Frank Grande, established that the teenage Des played only for the youth and reserve sides. O’Connor’s memory of his footballing skills, typically self-mocking, was that he was “very quick but often forget to take the ball with me”. Older fans, though, still considered him an honorary Cobbler. The club has recently re-signed several veteran former players, and there was affectionate banter in the town that O’Connor had just missed out on a return.
Despite this entry on his CV, O’Connor was a lifelong supporter of Millwall (the team local to his birthplace of Stepney in east London), and during the 1960s he wrote a column called “From floodlights to footlights”. His song Careless Hands also had a footballing afterlife, as one of the less profane terrace chants aimed at hapless goalkeepers. The Millwall fans’ anthem “no one likes us, we don’t care” may also have helped O’Connor survive the Morecambe gibes.
Related: Des O’Connor obituary
The last performance of his that I saw was at the London Palladium in 2015, when he and his friend Jimmy Tarbuck, with a combined age at the time of 158, performed together to raise money for theatre charities. (They successfully toured the show over the next two years.)
“When I was starting out in this business, it was towards the final days of music hall,” he told the first Palladium audience, gently wondering at the long reach of his career.
At 83, O’Connor’s tan was impressively intact, as was his modesty: one section of the act consisted of reading out amusingly abusive emails from viewers during his later TV years. He also sang (tunefully and movingly, Mr Morecambe), and still seemed what he always was – pleasant, professional and humbly grateful for his largely smooth endurance in a business built on dispensability.