From Bridgnorth to the Black Country: Why Des loved the West Midlands

"I think people, particularly in showbusiness, take themselves much too seriously," said Des O'Connor in an interview with this newspaper 11 years ago.

From: THAMES
DES O'CONNOR TONIGHT on Friday 03 October 2003
Picture shows: DES O'CONNOR and SANJEEV BHASKAR
From: THAMES DES O'CONNOR TONIGHT on Friday 03 October 2003 Picture shows: DES O'CONNOR and SANJEEV BHASKAR

"You're not doing brain surgery, it's about having fun and entertaining people. It's about having a laugh, and if you can't have a laugh against yourself, you really shouldn't be doing it."

And no-one could ever accuse Des O'Connor of was taking himself too seriously or not having fun.

The veteran entertainer, who died at the weekend aged 88, was preparing for his second show at Lichfield Garrick Theatre following his sell-out first date. And two things quickly became clear: he just loved stepping out onto the stage, and also that he had a genuine affection for the West Midlands, having lived in the area as a young man.

With stints as a (not very successful) footballer, comedian, then quizmaster, singer and chat-show host, his jack-of-all-trades approach made him the butt of many jokes.

Then again, he wrote half of them, contributing many of the gags about his singing ability on the Morecambe & Wise show.

Des O'Connor on stage at Dudley Concert Hall in 2006

As a teenager, he enjoyed a short spell playing for Northampton Town reserves, joking: "I played wing and was very fast, unfortunately I often forgot to take the ball with me". But it was National Service that brought him to the region, where he was stationed at RAF Bridgnorth in Stanmore.

It was an incident during his time in the RAF that gave him his first taste of performing to an audience. Caught doing an impression of his commanding officer for his fellow recruits, the officer ordered him to take part in a talent contest.

"I was ordered into the entertainment industry, that is a great story," he joked. He won the contest.

For a while the entertainer lived just outside Dudley, and said he had very fond memories of his time in the area, even the local accent.

"I went out with a girl from Pensnett," he said. "I used to go up the High Oak in Pensnett for a pint. It was bostin'." He was friends with Peter Gittings, a showbiz agent who kept the Rose & Crown pub in Brierley Hill, and sent a wreath to his funeral.

His big break came while working as a red coat at Butlins in Filey. He later admitted falsely telling an entertainment agent he was the principal comedy act at the camp, and bribing his colleagues to ring in sick so he could take star billing in a show. But it helped land him a plum role as the warm-up act for some of the biggest names of the day – including Buddy Holly's legendary appearance at Wolverhampton's Gaumont Cinema. It would prove to be the American singer's only tour of the UK, and Des recalled the moments he spent backstage with the rock 'n' roll legend, suggesting jokes that Buddy could include in his act, while Buddy taught the funnyman how to play the guitar.

"Working with Buddy was a very special moment in my life," he said. "I was the only English comedian who ever had the pleasure of working with him."

Des O'Connor is best known for his chat shows

Of course, O'Connor would soon establish his own singing career: his first hit, Careless Hands, reached No. 6 in 1967, and the following year he topped the charts with I Pretend, and made No. 4 with 1-2-1 O'Leary. His last Top 10 hit came in 1986 when he recorded a duet with Roger Whittaker.

Yet he will be remembered best for his television chat shows, which ran in one form or another from 1963 to 2002.

He said it was always interviewing up-and-coming comedians that gave him his greatest thrill. He said Oldbury-born comedian Frank Skinner, who made his TV debut on the show, as one of his favourite guests.

"He said he was very worried, that it might damage his credibility," Des recalled. "I told him it was not exactly lacking credibility to play to the 12 million viewers who were all watching.

"I think my favourite guests were the comedians, I had Ben Elton, Joe Pasquale on, then there were the masters like Spike Milligan."

His show also launched the career of Cornish funnyman Jethro, but the interviews were not always plain sailing, and there was always an element of danger when the show was screened live. He said the most difficult moment was probably when Stan Boardman turned the air blue in the mid 1980s, during his infamous joke about the German Focke-Wulf fighter plane.

"I just sat back on the sofa and looked at the ceiling," he said. "Then I held my head in my hands. The audience roared with laughter."

The gag marked the end of Boardman's television career, but O'Connor emerged unscathed.

He regularly returned to the West Midlands, with appearances not just at Lichfield Garrick, but also at Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Dudley Concert Hall, and the Dudley Show at Himley Park.

Des's relentless energy and sunny disposition remained with him into old age, and only last year, at the age of 87, he joined fellow veteran Jimmy Tarbuck for a night of mirth and memories at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.

He was the one funnyman who had the last laugh over his detractors.

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