Of all the showbusiness people I interviewed over the years, Des O’Connor (who died on 14 November 2020) was one of the nicest. If not the nicest.
My late wife once opened a piece she wrote about him with the sentence: “The man is extremely sexy, I have to mention that.” That might explain why he had four wives in his 88 years on this Earth.
It was sometime in the Spring of 1985 I was sent to Des’s flat near London’s Regents Park to interview him. The brief was that Des – who had just moved house and found a collection of old photographs – would guide me through his career in pictures. All I had to take do was to note down what he said with each picture.
An hour’s work, 90 minutes tops. It was dark when I left his home after nearly five hours of chatting and laughing. Des’s third wife Jay Rufer was there making us tea and laughing with us as well. They were still relatively newly-weds when I met them.
What struck me that day was the genuine warmth of the man. Also the amount of time he was prepared to spend talking to a journalist in his home.
He was also genuinely funny man. One-liners flowed out of him at a rate of knots. Few could have been rehearsed as he had no idea what picture I was going to thrust under his nose from the hundreds he had accumulated over his then 30-year career. He made Frank Carson look like a Trappist monk. (Not really, but it’s good line.)
I had gone to his home not expecting to get on with him. This was the guy who had foisted records such as Careless Hands, 1-2-3 O’Leary, I Pretend and the ridiculously named Dick-A-Dum-Dum on the charts between 1967 and 1969. He even reached No 1 with I Pretend. This at a time when most of us (well, me) were listening to The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Beach Boys. (Ah, happy days.)
Perhaps it’s a tribute to Des, in a way, that he managed to top the charts in those days. Not my sort of songs. But I ended up liking him a great deal.
But how did my wife, Martine Delamere, come to call him “extremely sexy”. She was an astrologer and for a time the resident star-gazer on TVTimes. As part of her job with the magazine, we would send her to interview various stars. These were stars who had been interviewed ad infinitum by the magazine so a new approach was need.
As Features Editor, I put forward the idea that Martine analyse their birth charts and use what she found as material to talk about.
In Des’s case, she discovered that he was born under Capricorn with Sagittarius as his rising sign, for those of you who care such things. She said that was “a mixture of ambition and optimism which could hardly fail. (Actually she should have used “that” instead of “which” in that sentence. I point that out because she was a pedant when it came to grammar and suchlike. So she’ll appreciate my comment from whichever galaxy is watching down on me.)
Des’s response: “I’m the most positive happy-go-lucky person that God ever made.
“Whether I’m rich or poor, up or down, I’m enjoying it, and that’s not phoney. I can’t stand moaners. There are only three things that matter: love, laughter and good health/ If you have a share of those you’re winning all the way.”
It was that feeling optimism he gave me that day with his photographic collection. I left his home uplifted.
A few weeks later, we published my piece and that was, I thought, the end of that.
A few days after the magazine hit the newsstands, I received a hand-written note from Des thanking me for the article and my enjoyable company that afternoon. What! It should have been me thanking him.
God bless you, Des.
POSTSCRIPT: Des was famous for his banter with Morecambe and Wise. In 2014, he told the Daily Mail: ‘When Eric had his first heart attack in 1968, I was doing a show in front of 2,000. I went for a sip of water and the stage manager said, “Eric Morecambe’s had a heart attack. He’s dying.”
‘I went back on and, at the end of the show, I said, “If you believe in such things, please remember Eric in your prayers. He’s not well.” ‘Happily he recovered and six weeks later he was in a meeting with some journalists. One of them said, “Are you aware Des O’Connor asked his entire audience to pray for you?” Eric said, “Well, those six or seven people probably made a difference.” ‘