I owe a great deal to Des O’Connor who died last week, as anyone who has read Eclipsed can attest. It might even be that Des had a greater impact on my life and my career than anyone else.
He was a rare thing in show-biz. Like the late, great Bob Monkhouse he was happy and excited about younger comics on their way up. Greasing the poll is the norm, to keep young talent at bay but Bob and Des were the opposite. They would extend a hand. Always happy to give a leg up.
A cynic might say that Des had much to gain from the fledgling comics who would appear on his TV show, filling the laugh quotient before the US star guest. But Des told me that he loved nothing more than giving a kid a shot.
So many of my contemporaries got their early TV breaks on the Des O’Connor Tonight Show. It was a definite route off the circuit and in to the theatres. Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee, Frank Skinner, Lee Evans… all great comics still. And many other lesser known comedians also and me included.
I can remember being stricken with nerves standing back stage and waiting to be introduced. So many firsts for me…
Primetime telly. Doing stand-up sitting down and on a blinking sofa. But quickly I settled in, assured by Des’s reliably supportive hysteria.
As a performer, Des was much like a decathlete. He did lots of things well but not as well as the people who specialise. He sang. He danced, he did comedy and he acted. And across all these areas, it was his warmth, his enthusiasm and his affection that carried him so far and for so long. People loved him and rightly so.
I appeared twice on his show and no doubt, this helped me on my way and secured me an invite to the BBC Stars Party where I met Ronnie Barker and remains one of the happiest moments of my career.
And then I was invited to join Des’s writing team for a series. This was less successful for me but arguably had a far greater impact on me because it was during my stint as a writer that I got to encounter Janet Jackson and her song, Together Again. This song would become the unlikely catalyst for my eldest son’s advent in to show business. Tom was hardly walking at the time and so Nikki’s vision (maternal delusions) deserve great credit here also. But if it hadn’t been for Janet, it might well be that Tom Holland the actor never happened.
No blog of mine is really complete without an anecdote and usually one which compromises me and fortunately I have one that Des O’Connor is directly responsible for.
One year, Des’s autobiography was being published. Ever kind and generous, Des had included me in his book and I was fortunate to be invited to its launch. Held at the salubrious Ivy Club, the place was stiff with the great and the good – and the odd wannabe.
My agent at the time (I’ve had too many to count) was Jan Kennedy. A regal older stateswoman of show-business, darling. Jan knew everyone and was happy to have her new charge on her arm. She was keen to introduce me to various luminaries, including a very small, older lady who I didn’t recognise.
A little context here.
I am not good with names. On being introduced to someone, I am capable of forgetting their name the very instant it is uttered and from hereon in, I have tendency to panic.
I am ushered over to her and Jan introduces me in a hushed and reverent tone. I also pick up on Jan’s deferring body language to this lady which makes me a little anxious also. I recognise the lady and so I crane my ear to hear Jan’s introduction.
“Dominic. This is Mrs Ernie Wise.”
No doubt Jan would have said her Christian name also (Doreen) but I didn’t catch it and I only heard, Mrs Ernie Wise.
Some context again for readers not from the UK.
Morecombe and Wise were the biggest comedy act in British TV history and still are. Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise. They were revered and this explains my agents deference.
But what Jan had not accounted for is that her client (me) gets nervous in certain situations. He can panic and say the wrong thing.
At the time of this encounter, Eric Morecombe was long dead. But panicking a little already, I wasn’t sure at this point, whether Ernie Wise had died also. I thought he had but I wasn’t sure. And this is a big thing to get right when meeting his wife (widow).
He had died btw. Over two years ago.
An opening gambit is never easy but especially so with the occasion, the venue, the ambient noise and me deliberating on whether or not the lady’s famous husband is dead or alive. With all of this, my small brain quickly became overwhelmed and what I said, did not help at all.
And then I stopped. Pulling back from the brink as I decided that Mr Wise was in fact dead. I suspect that this confirmation was helped by the look of confusion on his widows face.
But my problems have only just begun because you will have noted, “Is Ernie…” is the present tense and so where do I go from here?
Is Ernie here this evening?
Is Ernie still dead?
My mind is a flurry. The pause is agonising for us all. And finally ended by me going with…
“Is Ernie… er, here in spirit?”
Mrs Wise looked even more confused now and was about to ask me to explain but there was no time as Jan hastily eschewed me away.
My agent would later cull me from her list and who can blame her. It was not my finest moment but at least I can explain myself now and that I meant no disrespect.
Des O’Connor was affectionately maligned by Morecombe and Wise and many others. Des laughed along with everyone else and it almost became his thing. Unusually, he was unburdened by an ego that blights so many others.
Many people take a shot at fame but very few will make it. Des did. He was on our screens for five decades which is a remarkable feat.
I have met a great many luminaries over the years. And even more so these days through my son, Tom. Des O’Connor was not the most celebrated of these and yet he still ranks very highly and because he was such a nice man.
Other anecdotes and personal disasters like this are available in Dom’s new book, Takes on Life. Published on 23rd Nov. Available as a paperback on amazon and as a hardback via his site from Monday.