253. Des O’Connor – I Pretend (1968)

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And the 1968 award for ‘Really? He got to number 1?’ Shock and Awe Award goes to… Des O’Connor! Yes, the veteran light entertainment star, now 87, spent an incredible 36 weeks in the charts, and one of those weeks at number 1, with the ballad I Pretend.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born 12 January 1932 in Stepney, East London, to a Jewish mother and Irish father. During World War Two he was evacuated to Northampton. He was briefly a footballer with Northampton Town, and also worked as a shoe salesman after completing National Service with the Royal Air Force.

In the 1950s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlins redcoat, and began performing at theatres up and down the country, with a bit of singing, bit of comedy, and basically just being all-round nice-guy Des. He even toured with Buddy Holly in 1958. Allegedly, Holly wasn’t impressed with his variety act though.

Des got his big break in 1963 with ATV’s The Des O’Connor Show, which ran for ten years. Established as one of TV’s biggest stars, he released his debut single in 1967. Flower power may have been the cool youth movement of the time, but Des was in good company that year, with smooth easy listening singer Engelbert Humperdinck ending up the year’s biggest sensation. Des’s cover of the 1948 hit Careless Hands rocketed to number six, marking the start of a pop career that would be mocked affectionately throughout the 70s by his friends and colleagues Morecambe and Wise.

O’Connor may have been considered very square by the hippies, but the follow-up I Pretend was one of 1968’s biggest sellers. Its writers, Barry Mason and the late Les Reed, had been responsible for Humperdinck’s second number 1, The Last Waltz, and Des’s song treads familiar ground.

And what turgid, tepid ground it is. I Pretend is a weaker song than The Last Waltz, and is the weakest number 1 of 1968 so far – that’s right, it’s even worse than Cinderella Rockefeller, which at least that had some semblance of a tune, horrid though it was. Des has lost his loved one, and he can’t think why. She might have ran off with another man, but he doesn’t know for sure… you’ve lost interest already, haven’t you? The problem is, Des isn’t bothered either. I know his act is to play up the easygoing, smiling everyman schtick, but a bit of conviction might have helped. A more appropriate title might have been I Pretend to Give a Shit. Problem is, he’s not even trying to pretend.

It’s worth mentioning that production came from Norman Newell. No stranger to number 1 singles, he was the man behind Russ Conway’s Side Saddle and Roulette, Shirley Bassey’s Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain, and most famously, Ken Dodd’s Tears. None of these singles are any good, however.

But nevermind. I like Des, and so does everyone else. He’s impossible to get angry about, really, bless him. His chart hits continued until 1970, with intriguing titles including 1-2-3 O’Leary and Dick-A-Dum-Dum. When The Des O’Connor Show ended he presented Des O’Connor Entertains from 1974 to 1976, with the focus purely on him as he took his live show to ITV. In 1977 he began hosting Des O’Connor Tonight, which began on BBC Two but moved to ITV, and lasted until 2002 – an incredible run in which he chatted to some of the biggest stars in entertainment.

Des returned to the charts again in 1986 when he and expert whistler Roger Whittaker went to number ten with their version of The Skye Boat Song. Des would be the butt of many jokes once more, except it was alternative comedians now doing the pisstaking, with a little more menace than Morecambe and Wise, but Des carried on regardless. The ribbing even went mainstream once more, as family comedian Russ Abbott starred in a memorable series of adverts for Castella cigars in which Des’s singing was ridiculed. Here’s the most famous one. I’m sure Des showed he could still take a joke by appearing in one, but the memory is very hazy.

Between 1992 and 1998, Des presented ITV game show Take Your Pick, and following the end of Des O’Connor Tonight he moved into weekday daytime TV, co-presenting Today with Des and Mel alongside Melanie Sykes. Popular with old folk and lazy students, they did have a good rapport, but they were axed in 2006. In 2007 O’Connor took over as presenter on long-running Channel 4 quiz Countdown from Des Lynam, but left only a year later.

By then in his 70s, Des’s TV work understandably tailed off, with the odd guest appearances here and there, including an enjoyable appearance on Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule in 2017. He sparked concerns that year when he was pictured looking frail while fighting a stomach bug, but he’s back to looking surprisingly well for such an old chap, and is currently touring the country with Jimmy Tarbuck. Long may he continue, as long as he stays away from the recording studio.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 July)

Births:

Actress Olivia Williams – 26 July 

237. Engelbert Humperdinck – The Last Waltz (1967)

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September 1967, and the Summer of Love was over. This was certainly reflected by the number 1 single for most of the month. But first, a look at the news at the time…

On 6 September, the UK’s first supertanker Myrina was launched in Belfast. It was the largest ever ship built in the country at that point. Three days later, former Prime Minister Clement Attlee MP was hospitalised with a ‘minor condition’. It turned out to be more serious than that. Attlee died of pneumonia on 8 October, aged 84. Presiding over the most radical government of the 20th century, his legacy is among other things, the welfare state and the NHS. A true legend. 20 September saw the launch of RMS Queen Elizabeth II, better known as the QE2.

In the worlds of television and radio, surreal cult TV series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan was broadcast on ITV for the first time on 29 September. The following day, in the wake of the banning of pirate radio stations, the BBC overhauled its radio programming. The Light Programme was split between Radio 1 and Radio 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service was now Radio 4. Radio 1 was modelled on the pirate station Radio London, and wisely deciding it needed to be hip, picked Flowers in the Rain by the Move as the first ever track to play. Had it used the number 1 at the time, it might not have been seen as rather square.

Engelbert Humperdinck was back, pop pickers. The mighty Release Me had been the year’s biggest seller and held even the Beatles at bay, but his follow-up There Goes My Everything couldn’t topple Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. And so Humperdinck, songwriters Barry Mason and Les Reed, and all the straights who wanted revenge on these drug-taking hippies teamed up to end this run of psychedelic anthems at number 1. Or something like that.

And what dastardly results they conjured up. The Last Waltz was number 1 for five long weeks, and suddenly we’re back in the world of light entertainment ballads that could have been written years previous.

But the problem with The Last Waltz is the singer, not the song. It’s got a nice, Bacharach & David-style piano led tune to begin with. It’s Humperdinck that ruins it, and its made me realise I perhaps went a little easy on him when I reviewed Release Me. Humperdinck is right to bristle at the idea of being called a crooner – he certainly has a hell of a set of lungs on him – but what use are they if you’re going to ignore the emotion of the material and sing every song the same way?

The Last Waltz is a man recalling the day he met an ex-lover, who he danced with at the end of the night. Then it jumps (such a big jump it doesn’t create much of a dramatic effect) to their final waltz together. He sounds exactly the same throughout. And then, to top it all off, he starts a jolly little ‘la la la la la…’ over the melody. Doesn’t exactly create the impression Humperdinck gives a toss about her, to my ears. I’m not saying he needs to be wailing in sheer agony, but it takes more than a great voice to impress me.

Clearly though, in a world that was rapidly changing,  the majority of record buyers were ready for the safety net of some easy listening once more. Humperdinck was the pop star of 1967, ratcheting up 11 weeks as top of the pops. 1968 was another great year, with A Man Without Love and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize in the top ten, as did Winter World of Love in 1969.

As the 1970s progressed the singles slowly began to chart lower and lower. However his albums still did well, and in 1972 he presented the BBC One variety show Engelbert with The Young Generation, featuring the Goodies as regular guests. With the advent of disco, Humperdinck proved very popular in the US by adopting the ‘Philadelphia Sound’ and would perform his stage show on Broadway.

The 80s saw Humperdinck spend most of his time in the US, either performing in Las Vegas or making cameos on cheesy TV shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Album releases continued and he became involved with lots of charities including the Leukemia Research Fund, the American Red Cross and various AIDS relief charities. So say what you like about his music, but at least he has a heart.

He also proved he had a sense of humour in the 90s. During the lounge revival he sang Lesbian Seagull on the excellent Beavis & Butt-head Do America in 1996. His career has continued into the 21st century, with a greatest hits compilation, Engelbert at His Very Best reaching the top five in 2000. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for his gospel album Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions. To mark 40 years since Release Me and The Last Waltz he released an album of songs by British composers called The Winding Road in 2007. He missed out on appearing on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, released in 2010 when his management declined on his behalf without him ever hearing what Damon Albarn had in mind. He was said to be gutted by this and would like to work with them one day. Would make for an interesting listen.

In 2012 Humperdinck found himself representing the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan. Unfortunately the appeal of a big-name star held no sway and Love Will Set You Free was voted second to last. But Humperdinck carried on regardless and released a double CD of big-name duets in 2014. Engelbert Calling featured Cliff Richard, Smokey Robinson, Elton John and Il Divo. His 50th anniversary of becoming a star was marked with another best of, and a new album. 2017’s The Man I Want to Be featured covers of tracks by contemporary stars Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.

Now aged 82, Gerry Dorsey, aka Engelbert Humperdinck, shows no signs of slowing down. Back in the mid-90s, a friend and I wrote a sitcom. Called Life’s a Drag, it was our attempt at an ever weirder version of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The main character, played by Rodney Bewes, was to be a tired, daydreaming middle-aged man working for a cigarette company (get it?). His boss was to be played by Tom Baker, and Bill Oddie would be a wise old tramp living in his back garden. His son was to be called Engelbert, as his wife would have been a Humperdinck obsessive. One day Bewes was starring in a play in our town, so once it was over we marched into the theatre to present Bewes with our script. He stared at us, totally baffled, and needless to say, we never heard back.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 5 (6 September-10 October)

Births:

Actor Toby Jones – 7 September
Actress Tara FitzGerald – 18 September
Lexicographer Susie Dent – 21 September
Businesswoman Denise Coates – 26 September
Actor Guy Pearce – 5 October

Deaths:

Physicist John Cockroft – 18 September 
Conductor Malcolm Sargent – 3 October
Politician Norman Angell – 7 October
Prime Minister Clement Attlee – 8 October
Chemist Cyril Norman Hinshelwood – 9 October