Katherine MacAlister talks to legendary entertainer Des O'Connor about a lifetime in the industry

GOOD morning. I’m well thank you. It’s the others I’m worried about,” Des O’Connor chuckles, on brilliant form as ever.

Which is exactly what he hopes for when he comes to Oxford’s New Theatre next Sunday with his old friend and mucker Jimmy Tarbuck, making mischief, singing, telling jokes and being generally entertaining, as he always is.

It’s a well-honed format, the idea for the ‘one-night only’ show starting off as a charity night, which sold out immediately and had people giggling to the theatre’s rooftop.

As a result they’ve been doing it on and off ever since, mostly unscripted, bouncing off each other, waiting to see what they throw at each other, and enjoying the process as much as the audience it seems.

“I just call it clowning around. Every night is completely different to the night before, which keeps it fresh for me.

“It’s just a bit of fun really,” he says in those soft comforting tones that sum up British variety and a bygone era of chat shows and comedy.

Because let’s not forget Des’s impressive scoresheet: Since landing his first television series in the UK in 1963 he starred in his own mainstream television show for over 45 years – longer than anyone anywhere in the world. His American series alone was shown in over 40 countries and seen by 200 million people world-wide.

He has also interviewed

Continued on page 25

some of the biggest names in the business, such as Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, Liberace, the Beatles, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Cilla Black, Tony Blair and members of the Royal Family

On stage he has appeared at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, The Sydney Opera House, The O’Keefe Centre, Toronto and over 1200 solo performances at the London Palladium.

And lets not forget his singing career: Des is also a multi-million recording selling singer, releasing 36 albums with sales of over 16 million and he has spent 117 weeks in the top ten charts.

His autobiography Bananas Can’t Fly was also in the top selling charts.

So it is hard to imagine a less confident Des, just starting out and crippled by stage stage fright.

“Well, comedy can be the greatest place in the world, but it can also be the loneliest. And there was a time when I was terrified of going on stage. If I had a show that night I’d worry about it all day and always went to the cinema in the afternoon to try to distract myself.

“But now I just look forward to it.”

So, yes he is now in his 80s, and admits in a comic wavery voice “that I’m a bit slower than I used to be,” but he’s loving every minute of being back on stage.

“Jimmy always enjoys having a go about my age,” he laughs. He is a bit more honest than me. and has a great sense of humour so I just wait and see what he hits me with and then bat it back.

“We have known each other for years, but funnily enough we’ve hardly ever worked together on stage. It’s always been on TV.”

But why go to all the effort? After all with so many accolades under his belt shouldn’t he be taking it easy?

“I’ve taken some time off. I’ve been writing. (His first collection of comic verse ‘Laughter Lines’ went straight to the official number one spot in Poetry.”

Verse? “Oh I don’t think Keats has got anything to worry about,” he laughs, “it’s just silly stuff, you either have a sense of fun or you don’t.”

“But in terms of being on stage, there’s nothing like the sound of laughter coming from an audience,” he admits, “it’s such a lot of fun.”

In short, he’s addicted. “Well it keeps me on my toes. If you’re on stage in front of 1000 people or more you’ve got to make them laugh and you can’t do that by telling them something they’ve heard before.

“And you have to be genuine. People aren’t fools.”

And then he laughs. “One man shouted out the other day ‘ is that your own hair.’ and I said, ‘what idiot would buy a wig with a hole in the back’?

“Do I miss it? I would if I was too far away from an audience.”

“But I am more comfortable on stage than anywhere else. And people like seeing you make the odd mistake. It means you are more real as long as you are honest about it.

“I remember tripping in The Wizard Of Oz up while saying ‘there is no other wizard except me’, before adding ‘although what kind of wizard am I if I can’t even walk properly’ and it brought the house down.”

And then Des is diverted by his 14 year-old son coming home.” He’s a brilliant musician you know. I’ve always had a teenager in my life at some point, or a kid,” he smiles.

Ah yes, Des and his many children and numerous marriages.

So did he mind the press intrusion that accompanied his colourful private life?

“I’ve been down to the shops today, we live in Gerrards Cross so not far away, and if people start cheering and pointing I give them what they want.”

So does he find ageing hard? He laughs. “No I don’t worry about it.

“But the day I don’t get any laughs and people stop enjoying me on stage is the day I’ll pack up and stop.

“So if there’s no laughter in Oxford on the 23rd that’ll be it. I’ll call it a day,” he chuckles.

“Until then no, because I still love making people laugh and let’s face it, I’ve had a lifetime to practice.”

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck are at Oxford's New Theatre on Sunday September 23. atgtickets.com or 0844 8713020