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Scott Begbie: Des O’Connor was one of the heavyweights of TV variety shows

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The passing of Des O’Connor will have stirred up all manner of memories for many… me included.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, he was just always there, whether it was having the mick ripped mercilessly by Morecambe and Wise or hosting his own show, he was one of the big stars of the decades, as familiar a face as one of your uncles.

Never showy or glitzy, Des and his telly appearances were as comfortable as that pair of slippers your mum bought you for Christmas… which is when he was usually to be found on the airways somewhere.

Morecambe and Wise and Des… the variety star was a butt of many of the double act’s gags.

As he shuffles off this mortal coil, the lights have probably dimmed forever on the format that made his name, TV variety shows.

In these days of Little Mix: The Search and celebrities in a castle/not jungle eating things that belong in the bin, it can be a hard concept to describe to the younger generation.

Bruce Forsyth at the London Palladium… must-watch telly of teh 50s and 60s.

So, basically, you have a host who’s a bit of a song and dance man or has some other shchtick. It could be Des, it could be Bruce Forsyth, it might even be Norman Vaughan (ask your parents).

He comes on and does a few numbers, or in Vaughan’s case tells a few gags, then introduces a range of guest acts. Usually introduced as “my very good friend”, despite having met them for the first time in rehearsals.

Nana Mouskouri was a singing sensation in the 70s.

Some of them are household names… Cliff Richard, never off the blooming box, or Nana Mouskouri (ask your parents). Then the headliners would give way to, well, stuff.

There might be ventriloquists… Ray Allan with Lord Charles seemed to be on Sunday Night At The Palladium every week.

Then there would be contortionists, impressionists (Faith Brown never quite got the hang of Margaret Thatcher) and, of course, magicians.

No, not your Dynamo or David Blaine edgy street types. This was in the days when magicians were all like David Nixon, with bow ties, frock coats, a half-dressed female assistant and more pigeons about their person than a doocot.

Pulling it out of the hat… magician David Nixon was a familiar variety show face and host.

Other “turns” were, frankly, bizarre. People who did shadow shapes with their fingers – that thing we all did with the FA Cup or an eagle involving a torch and wall (no screens back then, I tell you). Except they took it to bizarre levels. I remember one bloke doing the outline of Winston Churchill on a white canvas with his hands, while impersonating his wartime speeches, complete with the sound effects of a battleship’s battle stations siren. What a time to be alive.

Oddities like this were a reflection of the roots of variety shows… the old music hall days when you could make a career out of paper-tearing (it was a thing) by amazing different people in different towns on different nights.

Some of these acts put in the TV spotlight become so popular they even ended up with their own variety shows and perpetuate the circle… How do you think Paul Daniels got started?

Paul Daniels adopting the Marlene Dietrich look for an episode of his magic show

There were some shows that are, thankfully, now consigned to the black hole of TV history, never to be spoken of again. A variety show featuring white men in black face singing Campdown Races? It happened and The Black And White Minstrel Show was one of the Beeb’s most popular programmes for almost 20 years until it was given the axe it so thoroughly deserved. Pause for small shudder.

But then this was also the era of household name comedians, who turned up on variety shows week in week out, whose entire act was built around crude sexism, rampant misogyny, barely-concealed racism and open xenophobia.

Let’s not forget that many big stars of today started their careers as “alternative comedians”. As in an alternative to dinosaurs like Bernard Manning, who essayed comedy gold as mother-in-law jokes and thick Irishmen.

Bernard Manning was the sort of of old school comic who prompted the rise of alternative comedy.

So we can thank the likes of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ade Edmonson, and, yes, even Ben Elton for ending that sorry chapter and ushering in the style of comedy that rules the laughs of today – one where you don’t mock the weak. Not even on Mock The Week.

Of course, it is easy to use 2020 vision to look back and clutch your pearls at the content of some telly programmes from 40 or 50 years ago.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that when they were good, these shows were more than good, they were unforgettable – just like Des O’Connor.

Des O’Connor… many of us will have the fondest memories of the amiable star.

Des O’Connor: ‘He had a fine voice’ insists former Dundee bandmate

 

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