Watching Des O’Connor celebrating 50 years in show business on the box last night, reminded me of the time I met him. That was 11 years ago, he was promoting his autobiography in Waterstones at the East End of Edinburgh. We chatted in the basement where he was stock signing copies of his book, Bananas Can’t Fly.
As Des O’Connor launches his autobiography, Liam Rudden discovers the bubbly star with the infectious giggle didn’t start out with all that much to laugh about.
For the first five years of his life, Des O’Connor relied on callipers to get about. Then, six months after he’d taken his first steps without them, he was run down by a car that mounted the pavement. The next six months he spent in hospital in an iron lung. No sooner had he been released from there than his house was blown apart in the Blitz, forcing his separation from his family when he was evacuated from war-torn London.
A stormy start in life for the showman who now boasts 39 consecutive years on prime time television. “I think that’s a world record,” he giggles. “But I’m not sure if I want to boast about it in case they say: ‘Has he really? Get him off!’ ”
Listening to him reminisce, it’s difficult to imagine that Des takes life too seriously. The trademark giggle punctuates everything, and his joie de vivre is infectious. Chat show host, comedian and singer, he’s done it all. He’s also worked in a shoe factory, served his time with the RAF, tried to become an amateur jockey and even played football for Northampton’s youth team.
Writing his autobiography, Bananas Can’t Fly – which is published this week and brings him back to the Capital to sign copies at Waterstones tomorrow – has brought the memories flooding back.
He says: “I only did the book because a lot of journalists had asked if they could write my biography. I thought: ‘Well if anyone is going to do one, it has got to be me,’ and I’m glad I did because it helped me realise that I’d pulled a curtain across certain times in my life. “There were certain areas I was hazy about. It was a bit like putting myself on the couch and answering my own questions. It’s been a very worthwhile and rewarding experience.”
The book, dedicated simply to ‘my mum and dad,’ reveals that it was thanks to his father’s encouragement that he started to walk – standing at one side of the room, he would tempt the young Des to take his first steps with a banana. Hence the title. Des admits: “I wasn’t very gifted academically. And when I first went into showbusiness I was just someone singing a few songs and telling a few jokes. But I had nowhere else to go except back to the shoe factory.”
Doing his groundwork as a Butlin’s Redcoat allowed him to gain the experience he needed to become an all-round performer, although it was his mother who was, at least partly, responsible for his debut in the hit parade. The giggle is evident again as he explains: “My mum always said I was a good singer, but the only reason I sang was to get me on and off a stage – a song at the beginning and end of the act meant less time to fill in the middle.”
Modestly, he says that somewhere along the way, and for whatever reason, people started buying his records. With a knowing grin, he admits: “Now I wasn’t really a singer. I just decided one day that I would be one.”
He giggles again, and the temptation is to join in. “Once I had, I realised that my singing wasn’t very good. I didn’t know how to sing so I had some breathing lessons and got tips from some really good singers. Once I started to believe in myself I could say ‘stuff the jokes’.”
That’s still his attitude today as awaits the release of his new album, A Tribute to The Crooners, next month, but there was a time when Des’ singing was legendary for all the wrong reasons, thanks mainly to Morecambe and Wise. “I’m better today than I’ve ever been in a live performance,” Des assures. “But for 20 years, what started off as a private joke between Eric Morecambe and myself became a national sport.”
It all began when Des jokingly predicted to Eric that he would become an international star. Morecambe had asked how, and Des had replied: “By singing”. Des continues: “Suddenly the jokes became more than a joke. They became derision, and the derision became ridicule . . . and everybody joined in. The only saving grace was that it was done with affection, and I only found it upsetting when it upset my mum and daughters.”
Singing aside, committing his memories to paper appears to have given Des a new lease of life and, living by the ethos that opportunity doesn’t knock at your door, he says: “You have to make things happen and now that I’ve done the book, I’ve got a new album coming out, they’re doing a documentary on me, there’s a special with Elton John and I’ve formed a production company. It’s as though a second life is starting now.”
As he looks back, Des, who was nearly banned from the chat show circuit after Oliver Reed showed his tattoo and Stan Boardman did his “Fokker wulf” routine during one live broadcast, is thoughtful. “There have been a few defining moments in my life. Being the first subject on This Is your Life was one. My first series was another, but the icing on the cake came last year when I did An Audience With . . . “That was daunting but I knew I’d manage it . . . after all, I’ve been rehearsing for 40 years,” he chortles.
It’s his undying enthusiasm for what he does that, not only fuels Des’ life but spurs those around him on. When he laughs, you have to laugh with him. “Enthusiasm is as important as oxygen,” he says. “If you get up in the morning with nothing to be enthusiastic about, you might as well stay in bed and that’s the lovely thing about showbusiness – you are never right at the top and there’s always one more step if you can reach for it.”
Despite his success, Des has resisted the temptation to buy into the celebrity lifestyle. He still shops in his local grocers and is fiercely protective of his private life. “The only thing I left out of the book were my marriages and personal relationships. I talked a lot about my daughters, and openly tell the world that I adore them, but then there’s nothing unusual in a dad adoring his daughters. I would hate to think that the lifestyle would change me, or my attitude to my friends.”
One thing he might wish he’d left out of the book is a 70s picture of himself dressed as Tarzan. What was that all about? “That was long time ago, and had something to do with Morecambe and Wise who had dubbed me The Prince of Wails,” he says, as if their involvement explains everything. “I’m a bit embarrassed about it now,” he adds, but it’s a shot that highlights how he has kept his physique. Proudly, he says: “I do a lot of speed walking and have been an athlete all my life. I’ve always felt the need to be doing something physical, and I reckon that over 30 years my weight has never fluctuated more than 4lbs.”
At “39”, he’s still looking good. “When I became 50, I decided to be 39 forever,” he chuckles. “I honestly believe that age is a mental thing. That may sound like a cliche, but if you’re happy within yourself and keep yourself in good nick without killing yourself down the gym, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t, please God, stay healthy and with a young attitude.”
And the real secret of his success is simple. “I look at it this way – when I started I got £1 a show in the working men’s clubs, then suddenly I’m getting unbelievable amounts of money for doing something I love.”
And, as usual, you can actually hear the smile in his voice.
Bananas Can’t Fly! is published by Headline at £18.99 / Des O’Connor – A Tribute To The Crooners is released by Decca/Universal.
How a national institution was made:
Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born on January 12, 1932 in Stepney, London.
His father was a dustman and his mother a cleaner.
He did his National Service in the RAF where he was caught mimicking his Commanding Officer. His punishment was to enter a talent contest.
In the early 1950’s he began his career as an entertainer as a Butlins’ Red Coat.
He became a TV regular in 1957 when he took over as host on Spot the Tune, then made several appearances on Sunday Night at the London Palladium as a comedy/singing act.
His first big break came in 1958 when he joined the now famous Buddy Holly and the Crickets tour.
His “clean cut family image” made him a natural choice for television and he got his own TV show in the 1960s.
His first number one was the ballad I Pretend which hit the charts in 1968.
In the early 1970s he pioneered a successful TV chat show Des O’Connor Tonight, which is still a success today.
The thrice married Mr O’Connor has four daughters, Karen, Tracey, Samantha and 13-year-old Kristina.
In August 2000, the ITV stalwart was brought in to present the BBC’s Lottery draw in an attempt to boost flagging audience figures. He agreed to a run of six shows at a reported £30,000 each.
He has sold 14,000,000 records world-wide.
Ironically he achieved his greatest fame after comic legends Morceambe and Wise began ridiculing his singing.
Originally published in the Edinburgh Evening News 03 Oct 2001