From childhood punk to Cambridge drama luvvie to potty-mouthed Latin teacher, Desmond O’Connor is the new cabaret king of UK burlesque. If you’ve frequented club nights in London, New York or Amsterdam in recent years – or checked out some of the small stages at music festivals – there’s a good chance you’ve come across Des O’Connor, who describes himself as a “rare male in a girl’s world”.
As MC and ringmaster of many a cabaret night, he’s the man who holds it all together; as a politely spoken, ukulele-wielding, corpse paint-wearing songwriter he’s responsible for one of the darkest and most hilarious songs currently gracing the world’s stages. He’s in demand, is utterly Bizarre, and we love him. Naturally we had to find out who the hell he is, where he’s come from, and what it is about necrophilia that he finds so jolly entertaining…
TREADING THE BOARDS
Imagine someone with the same cut-glass grasp of the English language and tempered demeanour as comedians Jimmy Carr and David Mitchell – with the delivery of Nöel Coward or performance poets such as Ivor Cutler or John Hegley – but with the subject matter of an extreme metal band, and you begin to approach what Des O’Connor is about.
Born in Northampton, Des (not to be confused with him off the telly, of course) first moved to Leicestershire, then, at the age of 12, to Romford in Essex – “which was quite a fucking shock, actually”. Escape at that point came through performance.
“My earliest memories are of performing,” Des explains. “I was basically a show-off. I gave my first performance at four years old, which I imagine was a bit gruesome for all concerned. I got into musical theatre shortly after that.”
The young Des also found solace in punk and new wave music, especially the escapism offered by dandy-ish pop star Adam Ant.
“I’ve always been quite bipolar in my tastes,” he remembers. “The first single I bought was Adam & The Ants’ ‘Stand And Deliver’, when I was about eight years old. I was a member of his fan club and used to get sent lots of deeply unsuitable material through the post. Being a punk got me in trouble at school, yet at the same I was also playing classical piano from the age of six and discovering Stephen Sondheim – and Andrew Lloyd Webber, before I realised how rubbish he was! So music and lyrics have been a passion of mine, right from the beginning.”
Des’s first attempts at songwriting came while staging musicals as a child, but it wasn’t until he won a place at the University Of Cambridge, where he joined famous student entertainment troupe the Footlights, that he found his theatrical footing.
He happened to arrive during a particularly creative era that has since spawned many of today’s comedy successes. They include Ali G and Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, Peep Show’s David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Matthew Holness of cult TV show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and Richard Ayoade of The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh.
In fact, after Desmond “had a year off university for good behaviour” David Mitchell asked him to be musical director of the famed theatrical group.
“You’re never sure whether your generation is going to be a high achieving one,” remembers Des. “It turns out mine was. In fact, I think Sacha did his first live sketches on the same night I did mine – I’m still playing catch-up with him. Footlights was full of very confident comics, and adept writers and performers, so it was daunting, but I worked hard to keep up and be a part of it.”
It was only after Cambridge that he began to carve his own niche in cabaret. “I always think, ‘Perhaps this is going to be my year and they’ll all end up unemployed,’” he laughs.
THE DANDY HIGHWAYMAN
Des is certainly a star in waiting, and he’s a genuine one-off: an ultra-polite and classically educated individual who you’re almost shocked to hear swearing. In fact, he sounds like an old Latin schoolmaster. Wait a minute – he is a Latin schoolmaster!
“Yes, I currently teach at a well-known central London school,” Des sheepishly reveals. “And that’s why you won’t find a lot of clips of my more risqué songs on the internet – because I could get in quite a bit of trouble. But I’m just in the process of finishing my final teaching stint. After this last summer term, I shall be doing cabaret and burlesque full-time.”
While his performance is polished, heartfelt and utterly endearing, the artist we see today only began performing his current act three years ago as compere to London band The Shortwave Set, who were hosting a night called The Pawn Shop in Soho.
“At that point I had no sense of visual style whatsoever,” he explains. “The burlesque and cabaret scene was enjoying a resurgence and – this is a desperately shallow thing to say – I realised that I’d never get my picture in magazines while dressed like a tramp. So I remembered my love of Adam Ant and dressing up, and I decided to make more of an effort with my clothes and make-up.”
Was this sudden fondness for painting his face perhaps a way of adopting a mask as a barrier between the gregarious host we see onstage and the sensitive soul offstage? “Yes, completely,” explains Des. “In fact, my new show is all to do with masks and identity. I’m known for singing rude and silly songs, but the majority of my work is serious, or certainly from the heart. I sing thinly-veiled songs about my own neuroses, concerns and worries. But as soon as I began to dress all that up in extreme make-up and present a flamboyant character on stage it allowed me to be honest about myself.
I think it was (Bizarre’s own) Alix Fox who first said to me, ‘Your songs aren’t really comedy songs. They’re really sad and serious’. And I took that as a compliment – the fact that I’m using subversive means to address issues which you wouldn’t normally discuss in a comedy club.”
INCEST AND NECROPHILIA
So what exactly are these issues and neuroses that Des sings about? Well, anything, it seems. Incest, animals and a crowd-pleasing song about necrophilia that contains lines such as: ‘Love is great, romance is fab / When you’re humping and pumping on a coroner’s slab’.
“I tackle anything that you shouldn’t really be able to sing about in a cheeky and frivolous manner,” he laughs. “For a long time I thought that necrophilia was the most extreme subject to sing about, but then I branched out. For a Mother’s Day gig in Amsterdam I wrote a beautiful, touching song entitled, ‘If You Were My Mum I’d Fuck You’. In fact, it was such a triumph I performed it at the Bizarre Ball in 2008.”
Such subjects may be hard to digest, but Des’s ability to sugar such bitter lyrical pills sets him apart from many of today’s shockmeisters. And Latin’s loss is the entertainment world’s gain: Des’s current schedule stretches around the world and well into 2010. It’s all down to a combination of dogged determination – and good timing.
“Burlesque was a god-send to me,” he says. “Before its revival I didn’t feel there was the right outlet for what I was doing. Had it not been for burlesque I doubt I would’ve broken out of being an MC on the music scene. I’m very impulsive, so when I saw an advert for a new burlesque night at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club I decided there and then that I wanted to be a part of it all.
By that Friday, I was performing there and was spotted by Dusty Limits, who’s a big name in cabaret, and who got me many more shows and has been a huge help to me. There aren’t many men in burlesque – it’s great to be a limited commodity – and hopefully I’m quite central to this new alternative cabaret scene.”
He’s certainly well-connected. In recent months Des has hosted and starred in some of the biggest and best shows around Europe and the US, including the night New York’s Finest at London venue Last Days Of Decadence, which nearly landed him in trouble.
“I know a lot of the girls from the New York burlesque scene, so they came over for the show,” he recalls. “Over there they’re very experienced at side-stepping all the laws concerning nudity – you never see anything face-to-face. Instead, you might see a flash of something in a mirror, or they might do things like reverse strip-tease, where they come onstage and put clothes on.
It’s only the taking off of the clothes that causes problems. We did several nights in London. It started off quietly but by the final night it was rammed – all the firemen from the station next door were crammed in too. And people fucking loved it.”
AN IMPOTENT PANDA
Clearly a man in love with all aspects of the murky hinterlands of the new wave of vaudevillian performance, but he’s also quick to point out that he leads a far from glamourous existence – most nights are spent “getting changed in dingy cupboards alongside mops and buckets”.
Des’s most recent show was called And The Devil May Drag You Under, a variety performance that he describes as “in your face, crazy, crude and a very fucked-up cabaret show”, and which included circus performances, musical interludes, striptease and Des playing The Devil.
It had the overall feel of the best illicit speakeasy you’d hope to find yourself in, with Des’s customary dark humour defining the tone.
“People see me with my ukulele and hear the charming Englishman accent so have certain expectations, but end up being quite shocked by the content,” he says. “It’s all about working an audience – it’s about taking people out of their comfort zone, but still putting them at ease.”
As Des prepares to give up teaching, his thoughts turn towards a return summer stint at the Edinburgh festival, where he will be performing his new show Desmorphia.
“I’m taking it to far darker places,” he concludes. “I have a new song about an anorexic couple who fall in love and feed off their passion for each other, but nothing else. It’s sweet, funny and very bleak. I also have a song about an impotent panda, which, as usual, contains many thinly-veiled references to myself.
“What else? Oh yes, I have a song about a haemo-phobic vampire. It’s a song based upon duality that lies in all my songs. It’s one to herald the end of my teaching life and welcome in the next stage of my career.”
Going on past performances, it looks like this Super Freak is going to be a huge success. Des also hosts late night burlesque show High Tease, produced by Blond Ambition Events, at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe 12-16 and 19-23 August