Des heads back to the start

In a career spanning nearly 50 years he has scribbled his name across countless pieces of paper brandished by adoring fans. But when Des O’Connor comes to Lowestoft he will be returning to the town where he signed his first autograph.

“I had been part of a Hollywood movie - even if it had been shot in Lowestoft,” that was how Des O'Connor fondly remembers his time on the East Coast.

His appearance at the Marina Theatre on May 14, one of four this year, will be highly emotional as he recalls his days on the East Coast.

While the entertainer's first summer season in 1956 - for which he earned £25 a week - may have helped launch his career, it was far from easy, and he had to win the hearts of locals by spearheading a campaign to save the 22-man show at the Arcadia Theatre.

As the former Red Coat - perhaps best known to TV audiences for his daytime talk show Today With Des and Mel - wrote in his 2002 autobiography: “The opening night went well enough. We were all pleased to see a full house. We would have been less excited if we had known at least half the tickets had been given away to local civic dignitaries, restaurant owners and landladies.

“The second night was a shaker. Only about 100 people turned up. On Wednesday we were down to 33 and on Thursday I remember thinking, 'if it comes to a fight, at least we will outnumber them'.”

After five days a notice was pinned to the theatre message board reading: 'Owing to the lack of public support we have no option but to close the show and terminate all current contracts.'

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But Des, who had digs on Denmark Road, took the bull by the horns and asked if members of the cast would take a chance on taking over the show.

He believed there was enough talent - cast member Lynda Barron went on to have a career on TV and West End musicals - but he felt the format needed to be more down to earth or, as he later put it, 'more Butlins.'

The drive to get the new show off the ground included appealing for anyone in town who owned a sewing machine to help with costumes, the cast riding round Lowestoft on the back of a hired lorry carrying a large poster and a Save Our Show campaign conducted through the local media.

Des and the other cast members manned the box office between 10am and 10pm, selling tickets for two shows of different material. Volunteers were called upon to operate spotlights and pull the curtains.

Most pleasing of all, the show performed to a full house every night and many of the audience would come back for a second helping.

When the showbiz veteran returns to Lowestoft, a full house is guaranteed. But his early days in the town have stayed with him, providing a foundation for his blossoming career during which he has managed more than 1000 appearances at the London Palladium.

“Performing in two different shows a week, I found myself having to experiment with new ideas, gags and songs,” he said. “I had to be brave and take chances. And, on the whole, it paid off. Indeed, some of the material I introduced in that show I later polished and used at the Palladium.”

When he is at the 750-seater Marina presenting his brand of comedy and music, Des will be receive a warm welcome - and this time round it will not be such hard work.

Tickets from the Marina box office on 01502 533200.

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