Des: The best stage of my career

RACHEL BULLER Famous the world over and regarded as a national treasure, Des O’Connor brings his one man show to Norwich Theatre Royal next weekend. He spoke to RACHEL BULLER about why his life is busier, and happier than ever, and why he is hoping to prove that he really can sing – no matter what his old friend Eric Morecambe might have saidfriend Eric Morecambe might have said

RACHEL BULLER

Talking to Des O'connor is a bit like pulling on your favourite pair of shoes, comfortable and familiar and inexplicably able to lift your mood.

Conversation is relaxed, punctuated with jokes and showbiz gossip, and after 35 minutes of chat, it is easy to think you have known Des your entire life.

He is bounding with enthusiasm apparently untouched by cynicism, and has an air of self-deprecation that even manages to overcome those singing jibes - but more of that later.


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The loveable entertainer will be one of the first people to take to the newly refurbished Norwich Theatre Royal stage when he performs his ever popular one man show there next weekend, and it is somewhere which has a very special place in his heart. “Norwich was the very first place I ever performed my one-man show, which I have since taken all around the world. It is a really lovely theatre. People ask me what they can expect, but it is very impromptu. Having done so much daily television and live television you get to the point where you wonder why you used to have all that fear before you performed, if you make a mistake now and again and your performance is totally honest it works a treat,” he said.

“There is a bit of everything in there and a lot of spontaneity. One night we had a pretend fight between me and the musical director and he pretended to walk off so I asked the audience did anyone play piano and someone immediately came up on to the stage and accompanied me. The problem was he only knew one song and that was God Save the Queen, so I had to sing that.

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“Now I include it in my act and I've had people come up and play worse than Les Dawson,” he laughed. “I never embarrass the audience but I find they just want to talk to me and interact. I don't think they see me as that man on the television, they see me as granddad Des, Uncle Des, brother Des or whatever.”

He said he had never been one for the pomp and ceremony of theatre and preferred the honest approach of one-man shows.

“Even now when the lights go down and there's a drum roll and the orchestra starts up and the compere comes on, I think you don't need all that. If you walk on unannounced you get a really nice reception - they have come to see you.”

You would think that having been in show business for more than 40 years, he would be considering slowing down, but no. Not only is he back on tour, he has cemented his place as a national treasure by filling some very big shoes as presenter of Countdown. Filming the show is gruelling, but Des is obviously enjoying his demanding schedule.

And it's not just work that is keeping him on his toes, with a three-year-old son to keep up with, and, having recently wed his long-term partner Jodie Brooke Wilson, his personal life is just as hectic.

This is a man who cannot keep the joy from his voice when he talks about his fifth child Adam, born when Des was 72.

“I have four daughters and have always had a child in my life. This little guy has come along and he is an absolute joy. He's made such a difference to our lives, we already had a wonderful life together, but it is even better now. He has been in the office here with me this morning playing.”

Adam's arrival might even bring about an unexpected career development.

“When I tell him stories at night he always asks for one I have told before but I can't always remember what I've made up, so I have been thinking I should tape myself telling them so I don't forget,” he said. “So from that I might do a collection of kids'stories.”

He said Countdown was proving a real challenge and he loved performing to such a diverse and devoted audience.

And how does he find his almost iconic co-star Carol Vorderman? “She's a mother hen, she clucks around the studio, but she would hate me to say that,” he laughed. “Melanie Sykes (his former co-host on daytime show Today with Des and Mel) said to me the other day 'I bet your little feet must be going one hundred to the dozen under that desk wanting to crack jokes', but there is a lot to think about during the show, it's not as simple as it looks.

There is still room for a lot of fun and I always laugh that it is the only show you can appear on every afternoon without putting on your trousers.”

Des has been the star of a mainstream television show every year since 1963, but there are no showbiz airs and graces about him.

For now he is focusing on music again, working on an album which he has co-written with Alan Hawkshaw, who also wrote the Countdown theme tune.

“All these jokes about my singing over the years, I have really been trying hard.

“Once and for all I want to prove that I can sing. My voice has never sounded as good as it does now and I am very proud of the musical arrangements and songs on this album. I want people not to even realise it is me. Ironically, when I first starting singing it was to break America and I was simply doing an imitation of another singer. I have been trying to improve ever since.”

He still laughs about his relationship with comedy legends Morecambe and Wise, who would make weekly jibes on their show about his singing.

“Eric and I were actually friends but most people thought we weren't because of his jokes about my singing. I heard it all from him,” he laughed, breaking into an impromptu impression. “It used to really make me laugh.

“However, the bad side of that for me was that my daughter used to get teased at school, with kids saying stuff like 'your dad's rubbish' but I tried to explain it was all part of a joke.”

Des has also set up his own production company to develop light entertainment shows, something he believes is sorely missing from our schedules.

“I am not having a go at reality TV. I think shows like X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing have their moments as they contain the element of entertainment and talent but I'm not a fan of things like Big Brother. I don't want to hear people shouting and swearing at each other, I want to see winners not losers on the television.”

So who makes Des O'Connor laugh these days? “Well the three comics that really make me laugh are Bradley Walsh, Bobby Davro and Joe Pasquale.” Incidentally, it was that trio who joined Des on stage to perform at his wedding.

He is also proud of the small part he played in helping some of our best known comics get established following regular appearances on his primetime shows. “I don't see a programme now out there that a young comic can go on now,” he says wistfully.

His popularity with the ladies evidently amuses him, but he confesses he once had a stalker. “She was 72 years old and she was following me around the supermarket. I went down one aisle and she would nip down another. Then I pulled out a loaf of bread and she was staring at me through the other side. I said 'boo'. I told her I was already taken. She said she wanted to say hello.”

Back on the stage is where Des feels most at home and he is a firm believer in keeping the magic of theatre alive.

“People must support their local theatre because there is nothing like a live performance. For me it is the true test for performers. You stand there for two hours and try to make them happy and that is a real challenge.”

t An Evening with Des O'Connor is at Norwich Theatre Royal at 7.30pm on November 18. Call the box office on 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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