It isn’t until you talk to someone at length that you get a true picture of what they are like, and a better idea of the respect they are due.
This occurred to me as I chatted to Des O’Connor ahead of his one-man show (backed by a 12-piece orchestra) at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre next month.
The fella has been the butt of many jokes over the years, not least from Morecambe and Wise, who used to mercilessly rib him (sample joke ... Ernie: Des O’Connor is a self-made man. Eric: I think it’s very good of him to take the blame).
But O’Connor is a bona fide star in his own right – he’s made 36 albums, had his own long-running TV show and presented many others (Take Your Pick, Countdown, Des and Mel), worked with some of the biggest stars of all time (Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Robert Redford), and starred in musicals (Dreamboys & Petticoats, The Wizard of Oz).
He is also a very nice bloke if our 30 minutes on the phone is anything to go by and, most astonishingly of all, sounds in absolutely fantastic shape given he’s just celebrated his 81st birthday.
“It’s not 81, it’s 18,” he said. “You’ve got the numbers the wrong way round.”
It is a joy to talk to him not least because he knows just about everyone worth knowing.
“I toured with Buddy Holly for six weeks,” he says casually. “He was a lovely guy but he was hopeless at getting out of bed. The bus was setting off one morning and they sent me to get him. He was just lying in bed, so I grabbed his feet and started pulling. He said, in this lovely American accent of his, ‘don’t do that Des, I’m tall enough’. We got on really well – I gave him some one-liners to use – and he gave me his guitar at the end of the tour.”
Born in 1932 in East London to an English Jewish mother and an Irish father, O’Connor jokes that he is probably the only O’Connor ever to have had a Bar Mitzvah.
He went into showbusiness after a couple of years on the books of Northampton Town – which leads him to a good anecdote about Blackpool. “I was on a tour with Lonnie Donegan and he arranged a big game of football at Stanley Park. Stan Mortensen was there, Stanley Matthews wasn’t – I think he’d heard I was a winger and was scared of being shown up!”
O’Connor has hundreds of tales, which probably explains why his basic attitude to live performances is to simply go out and chat with the audience and throw in a few tunes.
“The essence of good fun is spontaneity and I learned that years ago when an agent on a tour I was doing said he’d give me another 15 quid a week if I’d do a second 12 minute spot every evening,” says Des. “I said yes, then totally forgot about it until it came to the night. I had no material so I wandered on stage and said ‘hello, it’s me again’. I asked what the audience wanted to talk about and it was great – and I’ve sort of done it like that ever since.”
Des, who had performed 1,000 times at the London Palladium by 1972 (“goodness knows how many it is now,” he muses), is at The Grand on Sunday July 7.
Tickets priced £20 are available at www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk or from the box office on (01253) 743339.