Des O’Connor, comedian, singer and broadcaster

Born: February 12, 1932;

Died: November 14, 2020

DES O’Connor, who has died aged 88, was a jack-of-all-trades in the entertainment world who, having started out as a Redcoat at Butlin’s holiday camp, variously employed the skills he honed there as a singer, stand-up comedian, chat-show host, game-show compere and cabaret and musical theatre performer. Not for nothing was he often described as the “ultimate entertainer”.

Because his supposed deficiencies as a performer became the basis for a long-standing joke on Morecambe and Wise’s television programmes, and O’Connor himself was always happy to send himself up (he had contributed to quite a few of the insults to the pair’s repertoire), it was easy to underestimate quite how successful a career he enjoyed. By any standard, O’Connor was enormously popular, and operated at the pinnacle of the light entertainment world; his nearest rivals for longevity at the top of the forms in which he worked were probably Bruce Forsyth and Cliff Richard.

He became an entertainer in 1951, and was still working until not long before his death; he was the star of a major television programme in almost every year from the 1960s through to the mid-teens of this century; he recorded three dozen albums, with global sales of more than 16 million; and he headed the bill at venues such as the MGM Grand Las Vegas and Sydney Opera House, as well as making more than 1,000 solo appearances at the London Palladium.

The scepticism about his appeal pretended at by Morecambe and Wise, who were old friends of his, had a real basis, however. O’Connor said that his mother told him he could never be a comedian because “people will laugh at you” – a line suspiciously similar to Bob Monkhouse’s famous gag, but one of his earliest stage appearances, at the Glasgow Empire, went down in showbusiness legend. Having delivered his first joke to stony silence, O’Connor repeated the line and then fainted (or pretended to) and was dragged off the stage by his heels. After being checked out at the hospital, his agent sent him back to do the second show.

O’Connor’s subsequent career as one of the country’s best-loved entertainers had lot to do with his ability to tell such stories against himself; while he took his craft seriously, he never made the mistake of doing the same with his public image. It made him, amongst other things, an assured host of game shows and light entertainment, and an easy and often effective interviewer on chat shows.

His revue background and industry in the early days formed the background to this success. His first television appearance was with Vera Lynn and Max Miller in a 1954 edition of the Music Hall variety show, and his big break came when, four years later, he was hired as the MC for Buddy Holly’s 31-date tour of the UK.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born at Stepney in east London on February 12 1932, the son of Harry, an Irish dustman, and Maude, a Jewish cleaner. As a child he had rickets and wore callipers until he was six; he was also injured in a car crash. During the war, he was evacuated to Northampton, where he signed up as a schoolboy player with Northampton Town, for whom he had a brief professional career in the reserves. He also had a stint in a shoe factory, the town’s chief industry.

He did his national service in the RAF, then worked as a salesman for the shoe manufacturers Church’s and for the United Counties bus company before, in 1951, getting a stint as a Redcoat at Butlin’s camp at Filey in north Yorkshire. He wrote to dozens of agents, telling them he was the main act, but on the evening they were due to attend, found that he wasn’t even listed on the bill. Improvising, he bribed several of his colleagues to pretend they had food poisoning and went on in their stead.

The gambit paid off and, professionally represented, he began his stage career at the Palace Theatre in Newcastle. Stints in variety around the country, including the ill-fated Glasgow outing and a more successful run in Leeds followed; by the end of the decade, along with his role as MC for Holly, he had become something of a regular on TV panel shows, including Spot the Tune, precursor of Name That Tune.

He got his own programme, The Des O’Connor Show, in 1963; it ran for eight series until 1971 and was latterly syndicated to more than 40 countries, including the NBC network in America. It was succeeded, in 1977, by Des O’Connor Tonight, which ran for seven series on the BBC and then a further 17 on ITV; it last aired in 2002.

His first single was Careless Hands (1967), which reached No 6 in the charts; the follow-up, I Pretend (also the title of his first album) was a No 1 hit. Thereafter the records followed at roughly 18-month intervals, and though not huge hits, they sold respectably enough; he had four Top Ten singles in all.

Other television dates included panel shows, the Royal Variety Performance, and the regular appearances being pilloried on Morecambe and Wise. He presented the game shows Take Your Pick from 1992-98 and Countdown from 2007-2009; from 2002-2006, he and Melanie Sykes presented an afternoon magazine programme, Today with Des and Mel.

He continued recording music well into this century and was making television guest appearances until a couple of years ago. In 2012, he appeared on the West End stage in The Wizard of Oz and then spent several years touring with Jimmy Tarbuck and, in 2017, with a one-man show. He was appointed CBE in 2008.

Des O’Connor married four times. By his first wife, Phyllis Gill, a fellow Redcoat whom he married in 1953, he had a daughter. After their divorce, in 1960 he married Gillian Vaughan, a dancer with whom he had two daughters. That marriage was dissolved in 1982 and in 1985 he married Jay Rufer, by whom he had a fourth daughter. They divorced in 1990.

In 2007, he married Jodie Wilson, who had been his partner since they met when both worked on Take Your Pick. They had a son, born when O’Connor was 72. She survives him, with his five children.