The rocking chair minstrel - Val Doonican
PUBLISHED: 17:05 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:34 20 February 2013
In his hey-day singer Val Doonican's Saturday night show regularly drew 19 million viewers a week. As he publishes his biography, Sandra Kessell met the mellow Irishman in his Beaconsfield home
Ever since this interview was arranged Ive had Val Doonicans music in my head a curious combination of ORaffertys Motor Car, Delaneys Donkey and Walk Tall. Vals music was a mainstay of BBC radios Family Favourites and his must-see television show ran for 24 years, a combination of chat, music and other stars guest appearances. So its with some trepidation I find myself ringing the doorbell on Mr Doonicans Chilterns home, looking at his name on the brass mailbox, and trying not to blurt out: Oh what a wonderful motor car, the greatest ever seen...Val himself calls down the stairs once Im in the hallway and suddenly, there he is, easily recognisable as the star of my youth. A little older, true, but still with that lovely Irish lilt to his voice, the same shy ready smile and crooked teeth. He looks in fine fettle I tell him, and he laughs, pleased, and ushers me into the stylish duplex apartment he shares with his wife Lynn on the outskirts of Beaconsfield.
Now in his early 80s, Val is dressed in smart corduroys and a fine-knit smoky-blue jumper. Most of all, hes very welcoming and kindly just as you would imagine he might be. It could be the home of any successful retired businessman and grandfather, theres so little to hint at his professional life. Only close inspection reveals that former Prime Minister John Major is in one of the photos and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck is in another. The rest are family snaps albeit Val and Lynn make a very glamorous couple a collection of weddings, parties and smiling babies. But while Im admiring a picture of a bouncing baby girl, Val becomes very sombre. Before weve been acquainted five minutes hes explaining that the child is the couples first-born daughter, Siobhan, a cot-death victim who died just hours after the photo was taken, and it seems as if the interview isnt going to go well at all. Pre-war Ireland, where Michael Valentine Doonican was born and grew up, was a tough enough experience. Val was one of eight children and when a sister
contracted tuberculosis Vals father moved into a garden shed to allow his mother to nurse her. Shortly afterwards, his father died of cancer of the mouth and throat. With his fathers admonishment to always be yourself ringing in his ears, Val left school and started work making boxes, never guessing music would become his full-time occupation.
After years touring separately, Val and Lynn, a star of the music scene, married in the early 60s. She was persuaded back on stage after the birth of Siobhan, but Vals response to her tragic death go to work at the Maida Vale studios the next day was born out of shock.
When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week
I used to do a live show with an orchestra, he says. Because of my working life in the business I thought, Ive got to go in. At that point, Val was well-enough known in the music business, but hed never been able to secure a record deal or get a break into the big time. So often hed felt he might be close, but the life-changing phone call had never come. From that day on, everything went right for me, says Val, wondering if God had a greater plan for the couple. It was like a miracle. If youd rather believe in curious twists of fate, the legendary impresario and star-maker Val Parnell heard of him from three different people, including superstar Dickie Henderson, and looked him up. Within weeks Val had performed on Sunday Night at the London Palladium after which, his agent, Evelyn Taylor, started getting calls from the BBC, ITV and record companies trying to secure deals. Youd have forgiven Val for leaping at the first opportunity. But having been around for so long I was not fascinated by being famous, he says. Eve, the shrewdest person in showbusiness, as Val calls her, suggested he chose his next move carefully. As a result, Val plotted a slow-burn, long-term career. For nearly 25 years he hosted his own television show and produced some 50 albums. Though todays come-and-go stars seem to make a lot of money in their short careers Vals satisfaction lies in having had the most amazing time. When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week, he says modestly.
Vals star quality was undeniable, The Beatles were blasting their way through the charts yet Val managed to knock them off the number one slot. He met and performed with singers who had been his boyhood idols, like Perry Como, to whom he was often likened. With all that success came the trappings of fame. Lynn and Val had moved to Rickmansworth because of its good road links and proximity to airports and London. Once their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, started school, the family jumped the Buckinghamshire border to a house in Seer Green that completed the show-biz lifestyle. It was bought from Jon Anderson of rock supergroup Yes and had seven bedrooms, a swimming pool and kitchen garden. Its all explained in my biography, how it all gradually happened, says Val, talking like a favourite uncle or grandfather rather than a former household name. Tellingly though, its Lynn and Vals friends and neighbours who have kept them living in the Beaconsfield area for decades, rather than its proximity to London, neighbouring show-biz stars or the beautiful countryside that surrounds them. They are part of the community, hosting residents association meetings in their home and enjoying parties with friends. This is where our life is. Its a lovely place to live, a lovely part of the world you couldnt ask for more. I do a lot of painting Im a member of Chiltern Painters and Ive been a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club since 1977, says Val, who is a natural raconteur.
Its not until Im leaving and ask to visit the cloakroom that I discover walls lined with photos and old posters Lynn performing with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; Val being presented to the Queen Mother; Val at a charity golf match with a myriad of stars its a Whos Who of show business legends. I linger a little longer than I need to, seeing who I recognise from the glory days. Getting into my silver people-carrier car, I cant help thinking it should be at least one of 40 shades of green, just like ORaffertys, and that if todays television producers could recapture the magic of Val Doonican theyd be on to something. Val welcomed everyone into what became a big family. Those of us who watched him in his heyday still retain the warm fuzzy feeling and, it seems, those quirky lyrics.