“I suppose you could call me a Fringe veteran,” says Desmond O’Connor, smiling as he recalls his first appearances in Edinburgh 21 years ago.
“Or maybe an antique,” says Julie-ann, his co-producer on last year’s hit cabaret shows Desmorphia and High Tease.
Whether veteran or antique, Desmond does however scrub up well: with a bit of spit and polish and some vigourous rubbing, this star of the new cabaret scene’s compering and comedy songs shine – providing perfect foils for the varied and colourful acts which make up the rest of the shows.
Though it wasn’t always this easy. As a sixteen-year-old fresh-faced Fringe virgin, Desmond had a baptism of fire.
“I naively took my performance poetry act to the infamous Late ‘n’ Live show,” he says, eyes gazing off into the distance as he brings back the painful memories. “Or ‘stand-up hell’ as it’s affectionately known…”
“Within five minutes, someone had shouted for me none too politely to ‘get’ off; 20 minutes in and the glasses started to fly.”
“But tough gigs like that are important,” he says. “They teach you lessons and prepare you for every eventuality as a performer…and how important it is to properly research where it is you’re going to be playing!”
Today, Desmond’s songs are a highlight of any show he graces with his louche, twinkling-eyed presence. Though not really appropriate for the under 12s, his lyrics are hilariously clever; and he never plays to backing tracks, accompanying himself on that Great British cabaret stalwart, the ukulele.
“I’ve always been involved in music and musical theatre,” he says. “I used to play clarinet in the National Children’s Orchestra; and whilst at Cambridge, I was musical director of Footlights. We used to bring musicals to the Fringe, and I’ve made lots of great contacts here as a result.”
Prior to becoming a full-time performer, Desmond was involved in education for special needs children (something he remains passionate about); and also served a stint as a Latin teacher at a private school in London. Though the night-time lure of the capital’s burlesque and cabaret scene was too hard for him to resist.
“That gave rise to some interesting situations,” he says, grinning. “There was one time in particular when I played a rather risque show and thought I’d got away with it – only to discover the next day my pupils had managed to find clips of it on YouTube!”
Now, ‘loosely’ based in London, Desmond has been performing full-time for just over a year and regularly plays in the cabaret capitals of London, Amsterdam and Berlin. But he is – as always – looking forward to returning to Edinburgh.
So what changes has he seen at the Fringe over the years?
“The size and number of shows are the obvious thing,” he says. “Together with the appearance of the big venues like the Assembly and Pleasance. ”
“And of course, it’s great to see so many cabaret acts now featuring in the programme.”
Desmond and Julie-ann enjoyed great success last year – attracting stars like Amanda Palmer to perform at their shows – and have taken huge encouragement from that. Indeed, he likes to think they have been in part responsible for this year’s ‘cabaret explosion’.
“There are some fantastic acts at this year’s Fringe,” he says. “Meow Meow, Pete Firman, Piff the Magic Dragon, Frisky & Mannish – a lot of our friends and collaborators, and it’s great to see them become more and more popular.”
“I’m proud of the British cabaret heritage,” he says, “and like to think I’m continuing that tradition. Some of the UK’s biggest ever stars were born from that scene: though sadly it went out of fashion some years ago.”
“Now, there seems to be a real appetite for it again. People want to see and be part of live entertainment; and enjoy the fun and variety of our shows.”
And fun and variety are indeed guaranteed factors of any show Desmond appears in. In the grand tradition of end of the pier entertainment and Carry On style comedy, his act has that seaside postcard cheekiness and appeal that is hard to resist.
So, although he may be an antique veteran of the Fringe with the scars and the medals to prove it, Desmond O’Connor is still one of its brightest and most sparkling of stars. So we encourage you to catch one of his appearances at either Me! Me! Me! or Vive Le Cabaret, and let some of the Desmond magic rub off on you.
Tickets can be ordered online here: