'My darling Des's last secret… he was battling PARKINSON'S'

‘My darling Des’s last secret… he was battling PARKINSON’S’: In her first moving interview since his death, Des O’Connor’s widow shares her grief – and reveals the illness her soulmate hid from even his closest friends

  • In her first moving interview Jodie Brooke Wilson, 51, shares her unbearable grief
  • She reveals Des was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago but kept private 
  • Des and Jodie met 31 years ago in Thames Television car park and wed in 2007
  • Only thirty were allowed at the funeral which was full of ‘laughter, sadness, joy’

Jodie Brooke Wilson couldn’t accept what the doctors were saying when they told her two months ago that her brilliant and much-loved husband Des O’Connor had died.

He was 88 and in hospital following a fall but, after 30 wondrous years together, she couldn’t imagine a world without him. She still can’t. ‘Des was getting better and then he was getting worse,’ she says. ‘When they called to say I needed to get to the hospital quickly and asked if I had somebody who could drive me, I knew it wasn’t good. I got into the car and was shaking and shouting, “Please don’t go. Please don’t leave me.”

‘I got to the hospital to be greeted by these people — this doctor — who wanted to tell me [Des was dead]. I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t accept it. I just wanted Des home.’

Des had died peacefully in his sleep on November 14 from sepsis, just hours after spending precious time with his youngest daughter, Kristina. 

Jodie was at the family’s Buckinghamshire home with their 16-year-old son Adam at the time, waiting for the results of a Covid-19 test after an outbreak of the virus at his performing arts school.

Devoted: Comedian Des O’Connor’s wife Jodie Brooke Wilson, 51, couldn’t accept what the doctors were saying when they told her two months ago that her brilliant and much-loved husband had died. Pictured: Jodie with Des in 1993

‘The last time I saw Des I kissed him and told him I’d see him tomorrow. I knew I was going to get Adam tested and thought he’d be fine, so I was going to be back in there the next day. In my mind, Des was coming home. I wanted to look after him — be there for him like he’d been there for everybody else all his life. I wanted to keep him, make sure he could be around for ever. I was on a mission. With age, he was getting frail.

‘He wasn’t eating enough but I was determined he was going to live past 95 like his dad.’

She pauses to wipe her eyes and looks over at Pat Lake-Smith, Des’s agent of many years who is here throughout this hugely emotional interview.

‘Shall we tell?’ Jodie asks. Tell me what? She takes a deep breath. ‘Des actually had Parkinson’s,’ she reveals. It is a secret Jodie has kept from everyone apart from his immediate family — which includes his four grown-up daughters from his three previous marriages — since he was diagnosed three years ago.

‘Des dealt with it very privately,’ says Jodie. ‘He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him and for it to be what they first thought about when they saw him. He was diagnosed in 2017 but he thinks he had had it for a while.

‘He remembers doing The Wizard Of Oz [in 2012] at the London Palladium when he was playing the wizard. In one of the scenes he had to be put in a hot-air balloon and go up into the gods. He had to stay there for a little bit. He remembers sitting in the hot-air balloon and looking down at his hands and seeing a tremor. He remembers thinking it strange, but never thinking it was Parkinson’s-related.’

‘The day he fell, I called the paramedics, who came so quickly and lifted Des up. I think Des had his arm around one of them and said to him, “Do you want to dance?” Everybody laughed.

‘That’s Des.’ She cries and smiles that huge smile simultaneously. ‘He was my best friend. He was my soulmate. He was the kindest, funniest person. I feel very blessed he was in my life for 30 years.

Des and Jodie met 31 years ago in the Thames Television car park when Jodie, a 21-year-old singer songwriter from Australia, was auditioning as an assistant on his ITV game show Take Your Pick. She said: ‘Des drove right up beside me. I hadn’t realised but I’d parked in his spot. He got out of the car and said, “Oh it’s OK, she can park there.” He was so charming and so good looking.’ Pictured: On their wedding day in 2007

‘There was a moment, about four days before he died, I could see he’d got to the point where he was at peace with the thought that this was his time. I was smiling at him telling him what we were doing to get ready for him to come home.

‘He looked at me and said, “Ah, that smile. I want to remember that smile for ever,” and closed his eyes. I was pleading with him, saying, “Come on, you’ve got to get better. You’ve got to do everything the doctors are telling you to do.”

‘He said, “I love you so much and I loved you more than anybody.” ’

Jodie, 51, takes a breath and dabs at her eyes with a tissue. ‘Then I told him he was the most positive person I knew and that he was coming home.’

She shakes her head. Jodie is now a single parent to their 16-year-old son who, she tells me, has spent every waking hour since his father’s death writing songs — sometimes until 4am. She knows she needs to stay strong for him. Right now, though, she is in pieces. So much so you want to give her a big hug — but can’t.

When I talked to Des in his last in-depth interview, three years before his Parkinson’s diagnosis, he said he intended to live until 95 to walk his son Adam, who was the apple of his eye, down the aisle. He was joking about the aisle bit and couldn’t stop chuckling. Neither of us could. Some people just have funny bones. Des did.

He was also one of the most thoroughly nice people in showbusiness I’ve ever met. The overwhelming number of tributes and messages of love Jodie has received since his death show I was not alone in thinking this, but nobody, not even close friends such as Sir Cliff Richard, Jimmy Tarbuck, Sir Elton John and Bradley Walsh, knew about his Parkinson’s.

‘Des wanted people to be uplifted chatting to him, rather than thinking about his illness,’ says Jodie. ‘It was a very gradual thing.

‘When he was told, he was very upbeat about it. He dealt with it, saying, “Yes I’ve got it, but I’ll keep taking the tablets and keep smiling.” That’s what he did: took the tablets and kept smiling.’

Did Des ever feel down? Jodie racks her brain. ‘I think trying to balance family life and work was always a little bit stressful for him. Apart from the world wanting a piece of Des, his daughters wanted to feel they were important in his life too. I’d try to keep everything as peaceful and happy as possible and I think we succeeded.’

‘Des was excited and nervous about having a son. He thought a father of a boy should be around longer than he would be. He had four beautiful daughters but having a boy was different.’ Pictured: Des with 16-year-old son Adam last year

There were professional disappointments along the way too. Who knew that Des was Simon Cowell’s first choice as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent back in the day? ‘Simon took us out for lunch and told us about this new show, and how there was nobody in the business who would be a more perfect judge than Des.

‘He explained about the show and it sounded amazing. Des was excited, and so was I. Then we didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks. Three weeks later we found out someone high up had told Simon that Des was too old. Simon was too embarrassed to tell us. Afterwards, we saw him at Elton John’s house in Nice at a mutual friend’s birthday party. Simon didn’t know how to be with us. We spoke, but we didn’t say anything about Britain’s Got Talent.

‘Des wasn’t too old. His mental strength was so strong. Even Parkinson’s wasn’t going to stop him doing anything.

‘He did his last concert on December 9, 2019. That says a lot about someone who was living with Parkinson’s but was also 87. I was probably more fiercely protective of people knowing about it than he was. I didn’t want it to overshadow Des. Now, I’m sure the falls were a symptom of it.’

This last fall was not his first. Over the past three years he had become increasingly frail. Jodie cared for him selflessly throughout.

‘Winnie [Lady Wilnelia Forsyth] would have had the same thing with Bruce. As you get older, the relationship changes. It’s not so sexual. It’s more of a deeper love and that can sometimes be more important.

‘As they get more fragile, you have to be more understanding and also try not to make them feel bad. You go into a relationship when there’s an age difference like ours — 37 years — and you have to be sensible at the beginning and know this is inevitable.

‘You say those vows when you’re in church. I wanted to honour those vows. Des had been the most amazing husband so it was my turn to be there for him.’ She forces the words out between sobs. ‘I’m so happy I did that. Des would say to me, “I don’t know how I’d do it without you. I love you so much.” I’d say, “I know, I know.” He’d say, “No, you don’t know how much.” It was so beautiful because he’d say it every day — every day.’

Des and Jodie met 31 years ago in the Thames Television car park. Jodie, a 21-year-old singer songwriter from Australia who had co-starred with Cliff Richard in the West End musical Time, was auditioning as an assistant on his ITV game show Take Your Pick.

‘I drove into a parking space right outside the studios. A security guard came out telling me I couldn’t park there. I was begging him when Des drove right up beside me. I hadn’t realised but I’d parked in his spot. He got out of the car and said, “Oh it’s OK, she can park there.” He was so charming and so good looking.’

Needless to say, Jodie’s audition was successful. That winter, she joined Des — then 58, and recently separated from his third wife, Jay — in a pantomime as Cinderella. By the end of the season they were in love.

‘It was a very powerful thing,’ she says. ‘You couldn’t stop it. It was very difficult and scary at the time. I wasn’t looking for that situation — that age difference — but it really felt like somebody had said, “Right, you are now meant to be with that person.” It felt like a fate thing.’

Des was living alone in the house that was to become their family home. Within nine months, Jodie had moved in. It isn’t a particularly grand house — more of a cottage really — but Des wasn’t, as Jodie says, a materialistic person.

‘During the war, their house in the East End of London was bombed. His dad said to his family, “OK we’ve lost our house but we haven’t lost the most important thing: us.” Des’s family was everything to him. He prayed for every single one of his family every single day of his life.’ Again, she takes a deep, ragged breath and you understand the huge hole Des leaves in his family’s life.

‘He was a homebody. I understood the pressures he was having to go through as the biggest star on TV, so I knew on the weekends he needed to chill.

‘When we did go out, he’d wear what we called “the funny hat” as a disguise because people would be wanting his photograph.

‘Des loved to spend Saturday watching his sport. He loved his sport — everything: cricket, racing, football. Arsenal was his team.

He was also one of the most thoroughly nice people in showbusiness I’ve ever met. The overwhelming number of tributes and messages of love Jodie has received since his death show I was not alone in thinking this, but nobody, not even close friends such as Sir Cliff Richard, Jimmy Tarbuck, Sir Elton John and Bradley Walsh, knew about his Parkinson’s. (Pictured: Des O’Connor in 2002)

‘That killed me, actually, because when I had to change over the Sky package because I wasn’t watching sport, I started crying down the phone to the Sky man. It’s the little things like that that are hard.

‘I can only do one phone call a day to thank people for their kindness because it’s so emotional going through everything. There’s been such a beautiful outpouring of love and I feel bad not getting back to people. I will. The kindness gives Adam and me such strength. To see how much his father meant to so many people is wonderful.’

Jodie dotes on her son. She had pretty much given up any thought of having children when Des suggested they try for a baby at the age of 72.

‘We’d been talking a lot about having a baby. I’m a very maternal person but Des was older and had four beautiful daughters. I could understand where he was coming from.

‘One day we were on a beach in Barbados with Des’s daughters TJ and Sam and their partners. Cilla [Black] was above us because she owned the penthouse. We used to hang out with her. It was just so beautiful and right on the beach.

‘Des just turned to me and said, “It’s time for us to have our own baby.” That day, Adam was conceived.’ She grins broadly.

‘When I told Des I was pregnant I think that freaked him out. For us to be so fertile and for it to happen straight away — that doesn’t happen for someone Des’s age. It was as if Adam was waiting to be born. Des was excited and nervous about having a son. He thought a father of a boy should be around longer than he would be. He had four beautiful daughters but having a boy was different. It was, “Gosh, how is Adam going to be when I’m not able to kick a ball and do the sort of thing a father and son can normally do?” ’

As it turns out, Adam is not much of a sportsman. Instead, he’s a chip off the old block with a talent for performing. Daily he’d put on a show for his parents, so this warm family home was full of music and laughter. Shortly before his father’s death, Adam was cast as Jesus in his school’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. ‘Until Mary got Covid,’ sighs Jodie.

‘Two days before Des’s funeral I found a cassette of him reading his autobiography. It killed me but I decided it would be more comforting if I actually heard Des in the church.’ 

She was only able to invite 30 people to the funeral because of the Covid rules. ‘It was an intimate service filled with love and respect. Laughter and sadness and joy,’ she says. ‘Do you want to hear?’ She plays a recording on her laptop. It’s Des’s familiar voice.

‘I consider enthusiasm almost as important as oxygen. If you wake up in the morning and have nothing to be enthusiastic about, you’re wasting the most precious gift of all and that’s life itself.’

The opening bars of the song he always ended his concerts with, One For My Baby, strike up.

‘At the end of it he toasts his audience,’ says Jodie.

That was Des. Now it’s our turn to toast his memory.  

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