Meeting Des O'Connor is like, well, meeting someone you have known for years, thing is I have never met him before & here I am standing on the stage of the Playhouse theatre in the heart of London... the same stage that as a BBC radio theatre in the 40s & 50s played host to so many big names of variety like The Goon show Steptoe & Son & of course the great Hancock in Hancocks half hour... Having been snooping around while I wait I am stunned to find still some remnants of the time as a BBC studio... when I am jolted out of my day dreaming by the arrival of the star that is Des.
Dressed in character for his role in the hit musical 'Dreamboats & Petticoats' playing the "more seasoned part" he giggled "I am hoping to win 'Most promising newcomer' at the awards shows next year" & cheerily reveals "this is my first time in a musical... I always wanted to do one but the time was right & I spoke with producer Bill Kenwright who allowed me to adjust certain bits that I felt good with, like my song 'Hey Baby' its been such fun doing the show. I am totally devoted now to the idea of more musicals "
Des who reaches a golden era very soon could easily pass for a man in his late 50s & I ask him what is his secret "genes & of course taking good care of myself... I dont deny & I dont overindulge, that is the secret, plus I enjoy life & my career I really do, its been such a ride & such fun."
Ah the career that has seen the singer / compare / chat show host / game show host & simply a rather good egg on all levels of entertainment, this is a guy who has topped the bill at the world famous London Palladium for weeks on end & holds records there... So naturally I was intrigued to find out just how this multi talented man started his career & his thoughts on the last days of variety.
Des was keen to impart the story of his break by becoming a red coat at the Fiely camp for Billy Butlin "I loved it there & yes they were great days because you learned so much... you have to remember I was very young & really, being young & more than a little gauche, I learned how to deal & speak with people from all walks of life... Butlins was a swish operation too & at that time not as easy to get into as one might think... it was seen as a glamorous job but you did everything from helping out with meals through to dancing with the more mature ladies at the famous Hawaiian ballroom... & yes you really did have a sign saying "baby crying in chalet number" at the side of the stage, which was a novelty then if not a tad annoying if you were the act on stage" Des laughed.
His biggest memory was filling in for the regular guy who played a pirate in the camp "he asked me if I could fill in & you have to remember of course this meant being near the water but when I got the job, like all good things in showbiz, I simply said I could swim... Well I could but not that great you know so I lived in fear of being thrown in the pool & all that."
Des recounts "Well it happened, the little angels chased me all around the camp after my presence was announced over the tannoy that the Pirate was now within the camp... the little blighters cornered me & were quite rough, pulling hair & kicking etc & yes you see you could not strike out with them, it was not the done thing, after all they were kids... But really that is where I learned a lot of my craft... I have a lot to thank Butlins for I really do."
I wanted to ask Des his feelings on topping the bill at the Mecca of variety the London Palladium the first time & his story was more than revealing... Like any artiste you want to know what its like when you walk up the famous Argyle Street & finally see your name mega high in letters & then catch your breath, Des recalls "Ah well for me it was a bit different really as I was lucky to have a bit of apprentice at the theatre before going there solo... at the time I was doing a week at Finsbury Park Empire which was great, although its now said that at the time variety was dying, but truthfully we were doing great business I got word that they were looking for someone to help out at the Palladium as someone had been taken ill or something like that, I recall the show starred Harry Secombe, who was just wonderful you know, really good acts, but the show was "Rocking the Town" a huge success as ever for Val Parnell... Anyhow as I was playing at nearby Finsbury I got asked to fill in as it were... stunned yes but thrilled all the same as I knew the breakthrough that this would give me... what you have to remember too is that you got to watch & learn in the wings from all these greats... Alma Cogan the girl with the giggle in her voice... Beryl Reid & of course Harry himself, who was such a kind man really & was so funny on & off stage, he was never off as they say in fact So for a duel period I was doing four shows a day, sometimes 8 on matinees, as I flew back & forth between the theatres... Did I feel exhausted, not at all, this was the Palladium, so yes in a way I was gently coaxed into that world & that stage, so while I was performing, when I went there for the first time there was not as many nerves as there could have been of course."
Keen to know more about his appearances that total over one thousand at the theatre I ask what its like, as he has done, to compare a Royal Variety show "Ah they were good I mean I loved doing them and we had such great stars to introduce, I mean the list was endless, we really had the pick of the crop in those days... Nervous of course but I am a big fan of the royal family & I figured they must have liked the act as I was never sent to the tower ( laughing ) but seriously I think its the biggest honor for everyone to be invited to perform on the show, its the pinnacle of your career, after all there is no higher audience now is there."
Summer seasons played a huge part of the success of Des & he readily admits that he misses the days of twice nightly variety on a blazing hot coast line around the UK "they were days of innocence really, then again they were great seasons, I mean the work offered could be over 16 weeks in one place which was super, looking back, & of course in the bigger resorts you would not be the only shows, say like Blackpool which had 16 live shows nightly from the North Pier through to the Winter Gardens & the same say at Yarmouth, you also got to meet & greet with many other stars so I think looking back that is how the now famous Eric Morecambe gags about my singing started. You know people often think I was offended when he attacked me on stage & on TV but I loved it really, I mean it got me talked about, also people like old ladies would come up to me & offer sympathy & such because "that nasty Eric said some awful stuff about you last night on the TV" little did they know that I would often supply the insult to Eric & Ernie as I knew what they could get away with... Eric though was a card, he was a total joker yet never switched off, really he was always ready to entertain & I miss him dearly, both he & Ernie were so talented & I admired Ernie just as much, as he really did have so much talent that was not always allowed to shine because of the comedy they did, but none the less its heartwarming now to think they are so well loved." Des landed his first big TV series in 1963 & admits that the TV bosses relied heavily on the golden age of variety for guest stars "far from ruining a career it could of course help, after all you were seen by so many people & tended to get panto & summer season out of the appearance After summer seasons doing well I then recorded a hit with "I Pretend". I was doing a show in Great Yarmouth when it hit number one & to land a hit when the Beatles were still around & stuff like the stones was great news... I never really planned a career as a pop star it just happened & 36 albums later I suppose I am doing ok ( laughing ).
Watching Des from the royal box as we film his performance for TV its hard to believe just how long he has been going but its obvious from the moment he enters the stage that the affection from his devoted audience is there in spades & when Des takes to the floor for the finale it really is a master class in how to win an audience over they are up on their feet & totally in the palm of his hand but as ever the last word has to go to Des "I owe it all to variety & its inception, it really did shape the entertainer I am today. In fact I am never happier when in front of an audience in a nice theatre" the audience roars its approval & if needed that is the real testament eh? Neil Sean.
This Article was written by Neil Sean and kindly sent in by him for exclusive publication on www.arthurlloyd.co.uk and may not be copied or otherwise distributed without prior consent.
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