Obituary: Tom O'Connor, comedian who shot to fame after winning Opportunity Knocks
Tom O’Connor’s career as a comic began in the maths and music classes he taught at a working-class school in Merseyside in the 1960s. It was tough going until he discovered that if he interspersed his lessons with jokes he held his pupils’ attention much better.
His professional showbiz career began with a second, part-time job as a country and western singer in working men’s clubs, but again he found that his jokes got the most positive response. He was encouraged to change direction by the audience reaction and also by the fact that clubs generally paid comics more than singers.
It was as a comedian that he went on the ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1974. He won three weeks running and it was his springboard from a Merseyside classroom to the Royal Variety Performance just a few years later.
At the time of his appearances on Opportunity Knocks the producers of a variety show called Wednesday at 8 were looking for a presenter with the right combination of charisma and brains for a new gameshow feature called Name That Tune that was to be part of the show.
With his background in music and comedy, O’Connor seemed perfect. Name That Tune and O’Connor were a great success. Name That Tune eventually became a show in its own right. “They tried me out and I was on it for eight years until I handed over to Lionel Blair,” he said.
Within a year of his debut on Name That Tune he was hosting his own variety show at Thames Television as well. And in 1977, just three years after appearing on Opportunity Knocks, he was a sufficiently major star to feature on This Is Your Life.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s O’Connor seemed ubiquitous on variety shows and game shows. He presented several game shows, including Cross Wits, and appeared on celebrity versions of others. More recently, in 2010, he won Celebrity Come Dine With Me, with a score of 29 out of 30.
O’Connor had an easy-going manner and was considered a safe pair of hands – funny, but inoffensive, at least at the time, though some would argue that his material was very much of its time. “The female winkle mates every 20 minutes,” he revealed on one of his shows, “which is about as often as the barmaid from The Black Bull.”
He was born Thomas Patrick O’Connor in 1939 in Bootle, on the edge of Liverpool. His family were Irish and his father worked in the Liverpool Docks. Despite humble working-class beginnings in a rough area of Merseyside, O’Connor did well enough at school to go on and train as a teacher.
Recalling early struggles with his charges, he said: “The only way I could think of getting through to them was to tell jokes. And that’s really how the comedy all started… I was a maths and music teacher for 14 years, but for six of those years I also had a second career as a comic working the clubs in and around Liverpool.”
He was sufficiently successful in the early 1970s to appear on The Comedians, the ITV show that showcased acts from the northern club circuit, including Frank Carson, Bernard Manning, Charlie Williams and Russ Abbot. And O’Connor had actually given up teaching before his appearances on Opportunity Knocks.
At a time when the UK had only three channels, Opportunity Knocks was a phenomenally popular show, with the public voting for winners by sending in a postcard. It provided a vital launchpad for Russ Abbot, Freddie Starr, Mary Hopkin, Peters and Lee, Little and Large, Paul Daniels and Pam Ayres.
“From that moment… whoosh, I was booked to appear at bigger and better venues and was able to add an extra nought to my fee,” O’Connor said.
As well as enjoying success as a stand-up and variety show host, O’Connor also proved very popular with producers looking for a host for game shows and quizzes. He presented Password, Gambit, The Zodiac Game, took over from Barry Cryer on Cross Wits, A Question of Entertainment and That’s News to Me. “I presented nine game shows in all, as well as my own music and comedy shows,” O’Connor said.
He was a regular word-verifier on Countdown, and appeared on numerous celebrity game shows, including Blankety Blank and Celebrity Squares. He won £500 for charity on Pointless, with his daughter-in-law, the Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Denise Lewis.
His image was that of a family entertainer, but it seemed in danger of being undermined when the News of the World ran a story in 1988, alleging that he had been carrying on an affair with an 18-year-old. He was quoted as saying “My secret is now out,” but then dismissed the story as “nonsense”, initiated legal action and the News of the World retracted the allegations.
Although the peak of his television career was in the 1970s and 1980s O’Connor continued to work regularly in theatres and nightclubs, on cruises and as an after-dinner speaker, charging £4,500 a night.
He wrote several books, including an autobiography entitled Take a Funny Turn and another called One Flew Over the Clubhouse, reflecting his passion for golf.
Way back in 1970, when he was working as a teacher, he had a one-off acting role as a teacher in Colin Welland’s ITV play Roll on Four O’Clock. In 2000 he returned to acting in the recurring role of Father Tom Cochrane on the daytime soap Doctors.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 14 years ago and with bowel cancer in 2013. He is survived by Pat, his wife of almost 60 years, three daughters and a son Steve Finan O’Connor, who was formerly manager of Madness, All Saints and Neneh Cherry.
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