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Des O'Connor: 'Half the things you worry about aren't going to happen'

He's been the butt of many jokes over the years, but that's ok - Des O'Connor likes a laugh. And, in fact, we could all do with lightening up, he tells Hannah Stephenson.

Veteran entertainer Des O'Connor can see the funny side of most things, even those known to induce irritation - satnavs, recycling bins, children's birthday parties, the New Year sales.

But then the ever-youthful octogenarian has a lot to smile about. Figures just released from Nielsen BookScan confirm that his new book of comic verse, Laughter Lines, which highlights the funny side of all these potentially stressful subjects and many others, has secured the number one spot in poetry sales.

The light-hearted book will, he hopes, act as an antidote to many of today's worries.

"People are worrying too much about too many things today," he says. "We should learn to worry when something happens, rather than if something happens, because half the things that you worry about in your life are never going to happen anyway."

At 82, the legendary chat show host, singer and all-round entertainer is still performing one-man shows all over the country. He also has a busy family life with his wife, Jodie, who is 37 years his junior, and their 10-year-old son Adam, on whom he dotes.

He looks incredibly youthful and puts it down to good genes and good eating. He only has one meal a day, exercises regularly and has never had cosmetic surgery.

He has an infectious giggle and an easy manner about him, which no doubt helped him become the country's longest-running chatshow host with his show Des O'Connor Tonight, which ran for 25 years until 2002, so far outdoing the likes of Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and even Michael Parkinson.

So, what's the secret of his success? "You have to learn to listen," Des says. "If you ask someone something, then answer it yourself, it's not very clever. It's about making the guest feel like a guest. Don't make jokes of them. It's about being polite and friendly.

"Some very intelligent people are doing talkshows, but there are others who seem to forget that they are there every week, whereas their guests are there just that one time."

For more than 45 years, the TV host, comedian and crooner has been fronting popular shows. He had a successful singing career, but his profile was further raised when he became the butt of jokes from comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, who ribbed him mercilessly about his singing, referring to him as "Des - short for desperate", and "Death O'Connor".

While others might have felt humiliated, O'Connor laughs at the memory. "We were already friends from 1954, when I had my early weeks in variety," he says.

"The boys [Morecambe and Wise] were so wonderful to me. They helped me, gave me good advice and we became good mates.

"But my mother didn't like Eric [Morecambe]. She'd say, 'That man with the glasses doesn't sound like a mate'. The put-downs only rankled when my kids got sweets thrown at them at school and other kids shouted, 'Your dad's rubbish'.

"But how can you say to two people who were the nation's favourites, 'You mustn't make jokes about me'? What kind of an idiot would you be? We all take ourselves much too seriously."

Nowadays, Des uses the jokes made at his expense to amuse his own audiences.

"I don't have to worry about jokes," he says. "I just talk about my life. My shows are loose. They evolve and it becomes funny."

Des, who was born in Stepney, east London, has been married four times, divorced three times and has five children from his marriages, four of whom are grown-up.

His youngest, Adam, is the only child he has had with his fourth wife, Australian singer-songwriter Jodie Brooke Wilson. They had been together for 17 years before tying the knot in 2007, when he was 75 and she was 38.

The broadcaster has previously said that his first three marriages were the victims of his ambition, and that now he is careful to devote more time to his family.

"My only concern about being an older dad is that one day Adam might be concerned about it," Des says. "But my father lived to be nearly 95, and every time he made me laugh, I loved him just a little bit more."

As well as his UK career, O'Connor had a successful American series and has appeared on stage everywhere, from the palatial MGM Grand in Las Vegas to the London Palladium.

Today, he takes live gigs in his stride - he still regularly performs two-hour live shows and is one of the few comedians who doesn't swear and instead keeps his material clean.

"It's important because I started my career at a time when many theatres were closing," Des says.

"The old comics would come on and you'd think they were going to be crude or rude, but they never were. It was seaside postcard humour - honest vulgarity - but it was funny. I don't think comedy needs swearing.

"We were fortunate with Des O'Connor Tonight to give a platform on mainstream TV to comedians. About 25 people have gone on to become big stars. Occasionally, I see a few of them swearing all the time and I think, 'Why do they need to do it?'

"I like to think I can do a family show which will make people laugh. The golden era of TV seems to have gone, budgets have shrunk and you're not getting as much family humour as you used to."

Despite that, O'Connor will sit down with Adam and watch Harry Hill's TV Burp and You've Been Framed, as well as some reality shows. Indeed, he says he's been asked to appear in every reality show going, but has turned them all down.

"I'm an entertainer," Des adds. "I will only do concerts where people pay to see me. I love some of it - I watch Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor with my family and we love it - but I don't want to be in it. It gets a little deeper at times than just the entertainment."

In recent years, he's hosted nearly 500 episodes of Countdown, been awarded a CBE for his services to entertainment, appeared in the West End musical The Wizard Of Oz and made numerous Des O'Connor specials. And there are no thoughts of retirement.

"If it ever became work, I'd pack it up," O'Connor says. "I've never done a day's work in my life."

  • Laughter Lines: Comic Verse To Celebrate Life's Little Moments by Des O'Connor is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, priced £12.99

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