Tom O’Connor

Born: October 31, 1939;

Died: July 18, 2021.

LIVERPOOL grows comedians like other cities grow urban sprawls, as evidenced by talent such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Ken Dodd, Freddie Starr and Stan Boardman.

One of those great success stories was Tom O’Connor, a nice, knitted-jumper family comedian, a safe pair of hands who could cross the generations with gentle humour, who could transform the most mundane quiz show into ratings-high television.

O’Connor had warmth, timing, enough confidence to sell a gag, and the intelligence to make sure he chose his jokes carefully; though the man who would go on to be a household name and front seven TV series benefitted from listening to the early advice of Dodd himself to drop the punchlines that the public could have provided themselves.

He also had a great work ethic. O’Connor was a teacher for 14 years, and for six of them he worked the clubs at nights he the developed the skills that would make him a major success and a millionaire. Along the way, he managed to emerge from a potentially career-wrecking scandal.

Few people grow up hoping for, or expecting to land, a career in comedy. Young Thomas O’Connor was no exception, despite being encouraged to be funny at his high school in Bootle: “Never mind the algebra and logarithms – just remember you are saving souls,” said his headmaster.

But this grammar-school son of a docker never believed for a second that soul-saving could pay the mortgage. He took himself off to teacher training college in London, returning to Liverpool to work as a maths and music teacher at the St Joan of Arc school.

In 1962 he married Pat, a former teacher who would go on to write some of his television gags. The classroom became his stage. “The only way I could get through to them was to tell jokes. It worked a treat and that’s how the comedy started”, he once reflected.

His talent was underlined when he won £40 in a pub talent competition. And so he worked the clubs, building an act, at first as a £5-a-night country and western singer, before gradually (Billy Connolly-like) adding comedy to his act.

Then came a key moment. He recalled: “My big break came in 1974 when I landed a spot on Hughie Green’s talent show, Opportunity Knocks. I won three weeks running, missed the top spot on the fourth week and appeared in the all-winners’ show. From that moment… whoosh! I was booked to appear at bigger and better venues and was able to add an extra nought to my fee.”

O’Connor was now a household name and in 1976 he landed his own ITV series, which some critics compared to the observational style of the American comedian Bob Newhart. The London Palladium beckoned, and he featured in the first televised Royal Variety performance,

It didn’t take long before producer recognised O’Connor’s all-round family appeal, and he would go on to host popular game shows such as Name That Tune and a crossword puzzle show, Crosswits.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life the following year and in the early Eighties he switched to the BBC for his own stand-up series and to host the game show I’ve Got a Secret.

But the title proved to be intensely ironic. In 1988, a Sunday tabloid newspaper, followed by several other papers, reported that O’Connor had been having an affair with an 18-year-old. The newspaper said O’Connor had claimed he had been helping to ‘save her from prostitution and cocaine addiction.’ “My secret is now out. I’ve been a fool, and this could all ruin me,” he was alleged to have said.

He issued writs against three newspapers, before ultimately dropping each one. O’Connor’s wife stood by him, but the publicity deeply affected his career. “You certainly find out who your friends are when something like that happens,” he said at the time. Within a year, he’d lost all but one of his shows, Crosswits.

Had hubris played a part in his descent? He admitted he had grown rather fond of the fame, the money, the fancy cars: “I was an arrogant so-and-so, I thought I was invincible”.

He continued to work, but now on the cruise-ship circuit, fronting the same game-shows “but for OAP seafarers”

He took to hosting corporate events. But he didn’t believe it was too much of a comedown. “At £4,500 a night, four, five times a week? Hardly. I’m doing very nicely indeed, thanks.” He added: “There’s respect out there for me, and whatever anybody tells you, there is life after TV. I’m living proof.”

He was right. Gradually, he rebooted his career, going on to appear in television shows such as Channel 4’s Countdown, guesting alongside Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner more than 100 times between 1996 and 2008.

A versatile performer, he even landed a key acting role in a TV soap Doctors, playing a priest. In 2007 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and, six years later, with bowel cancer.

He treated the illness with immense positivity, however: “My disease is one of the best things that has happened to me; it has pulled me out of a quietly desperate life toward one full of love and hope.”

Tom O’Connor, who lived in Berkshire, crammed much into his life until he was taken by pneumonia, aged 81. When not working he played golf. He wrote seven books, including his autobiography, Take A Funny Turn.

However he will be remembered mostly as a very funny man, a great all-rounder with a wonderful television record.

Tom O’Connor is survived by his wife and their four children, Anne, Steve (who is married to the former Olympic champion athlete Denise Lewis), Frances and Helen.