The magic of Val Doonican: what a wonderful singing star

I was lucky enough to meet Val Doonican five years ago when his autobiography was republished under the title, My Story, My Life. He was as gentlemanly as you might imagine the soft-spoken Irish crooner to be and I left his home feeling richer for having met him. After hearing that his death was announced I re-posted this interview as a tribute to him.

Ever since this interview was arranged I’ve had Val Doonican’s music in my head – a curious combination of O’Rafferty’s Motor Car, Delaney’s Donkey and Walk Tall. Val’s music was a mainstay of BBC radio’s Family Favourites and his must-see television show ran for 24 years – a combination of chat, music and other stars’ guest appearances. So it’s with some trepidation I find myself ringing the doorbell on Mr Doonican’s 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…”

Stylish and shy

Val himself calls down the stairs once I’m 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 slightly 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.

Stars on the sideboard

Now in his early eighties, Val is dressed in smart corduroys and a fine-knit smoky-blue jumper. Most of all, he’s very welcoming and kindly just as you would imagine he might be. It could be the home of any successful retired businessman and grandfather, there’s 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 I’m admiring a picture of a bouncing baby girl, Val becomes very sombre. Before we’ve been acquainted five minutes he’s explaining that the child is the couple’s first-born daughter, Siobhan, a cot-death victim who died just hours after the photo was taken, and it seems as if the interview isn’t going to go so well after 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 Val’s 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 father’s 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. His career started slowly enough, touring Ireland, before touring England.

A turning point

After years touring separately, Val and Lynn, another star of the music scene, had married in the early 60s. Lynn had been persuaded to go back on stage after the birth of Siobhan, so the couple both had careers and earned a living. Val had been working in a live show with an orchestra.
Val’s response to Siobhan’s tragic death was to go to work at the Maida Vale studios the next day – a reaction born out of shock.
“Because of my working life in the business, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go in’.”
At that point, Val was well-enough known in the music business, but he’d never been able to secure a record deal or get a break into the big time. So often he’d felt he might be close, but the life-changing phone call had never come.
“Yet 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,” he says, in spite of the tragedy.

Performing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium

If you’d rather believe in curious twists of fate than a higher power, at exactly that time 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 of Siobhan’s untimely death, 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. You’d 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 at the same time produced some 50 albums. His was the voice of the era, and a plethora of big names joined him on the show.

“I was getting 19 million viewers a week”

Though today’s come-and-go stars seem to make a lot of money in their short careers, Val’s satisfaction lies in having had the most amazing time, and despite the show’s understated charm and its rocking chair finale, it remains one of the BBC’s most enduring productions.
“When I think back to the mid-Sixties, I was getting 19 million viewers a week,” he says modestly.
Val’s 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, such as Perry Como, to whom he was often likened, yet he always appeared to remain down-to-earth. Behind the scenes he finally started to enjoy all the trappings of success. Lynn and Val were able to move 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 fame, and had seven bedrooms, a swimming pool and kitchen garden.

A natural raconteur

“It’s 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, it has been Lynn and Val’s 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. The couple feel they are part of the community, hosting residents’ association meetings in their home and enjoying parties with friends.
“This is where our life is. It’s a lovely place to live, a lovely part of the world – you couldn’t ask for more. I do a lot of painting – I’m a member of Chiltern Painters – and I’ve been a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club since 1977,” says Val, who is a natural raconteur and has a charm that puts guests at their ease.

A certain modesty

Yet for all his past fame and fortune, it’s not until I’m 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. It’s a Who’s Who of show business legends. I linger a little longer than I need to, seeing who I recognise from their glory days, when they wanted to be on Val’s show and part of the Doonican scene. Getting into my silver people-carrier car a few minutes later, I can’t help thinking that it should be at least one of 40 shades of green, just like O’Rafferty’s, and that if today’s television producers could recapture the magic of Val Doonican, a quiet understated modesty and charm, they’d be on to something massive. Val welcomed everyone into what became his big family. Those of us who watched him in his heyday, however young we were, or however old, retain the warm fuzzy feeling and, it seems, those quirky lyrics.

Val Doonican 1927-2015


An interview with Fern Britton

I wrote this article back in 2011 and have been hosting a link to it from my site. However, I noticed it’s lost its punctuation and formatting – so here’s the original, along with links to  Iain Rennie Hospices at Home, now known as Rennie Grove, the charity that prompted Fern to grant the interview in the first place.

As she launches a new Chilterns cycle challenge, Fern Britton talks about padded saddles, Strictly Come Dancing Christmas and THAT gastric band…

First things first. Up close and personal, Fern Britton looks even better in the flesh than she does on the television.
She parks her modest little run-around, steps out into the rain and sashays into the Iain Rennie charity office in Chalfont St Giles, close to her home, the epitome of a yummy mummy in her plain tube dress, waist-clincher belt, flat pixie boots and trendy leather jacket. Her only jewellery is a ruby-winged heart necklace and a discreet watch – no rings, no bracelets, not even earrings.
A different kind of person might have dashed into the loo before facing a camera and interviews – not Fern. Clearly her decision to step down from This Morning, the hugely popular daytime show she hosted for more than 10 years, suits her. What hasn’t changed is the megawatt smile familiar from a thousand TV sofa chat close-ups and not a few paparazzi snaps. She greets the fundraisers in the office like old friends and they, in turn, congratulate her on her appearance, because despite the rained-on hair and today’s gruelling schedule she looks sassy and she’s glowing with vitality.

It’s the make-up from Strictly Come Dancing, she says, without a trace of false modesty. She’s been rehearsing with her secret partner (there’s speculation it might be fellow Buckinghamshire resident Brendan Cole, but she’s tight-lipped because we’re meeting before the Christmas special show line-up has been announced) and has driven straight to this interview from the dance studio. She’s loving the whole experience, from the gorgeous dress (she rummages in her handbag to show me a swatch of the material, but can’t find it, to our mutual disappointment) and the high-heeled dancing shoes, to strutting her stuff with some of entertainment’s finest. She’s never had the time to accept an invitation to join the show before though she did a solo number for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

The extra eyeshadow and foundation, together with her shorter hairstyle, may add a certain glamour, but as Fern walks up the stairs in front of me I can’t help but notice (women tend to) how very slender she is, or rather, has become.
After we’ve talked about her extensive charity work I finally come out with the question I’ve been itching to ask since hearing all those greetings in the office downstairs, ‘Does she mind everyone commenting on her size these days?’.

“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced”

Famously, or rather, notoriously, she had a gastric band fitted some four years ago and kept the operation a secret while crediting a better eating and exercise regime as first the pounds, then the stones, fell off her formerly voluptuous plus-size frame.
She draws herself up in her chair and looks me straight in the eye as she replies: “These things don’t work by themselves. You have to work hard to lose weight! I wish people would acknowledge how hard it is to get fit or get fitter.”

Notably, though, there are mini mince pies and biscuits on offer as we chat, and Fern doesn’t touch them. But far from getting annoyed, she’s flattered by those kind remarks about her looks. She says her age, (she’s 53), has given her an understanding of who she is. She decided to lose weight to improve her health, which was beginning to cause concern, not for anyone else’s benefit.
“I could either continue as I was and take the consequences, or think – hang on a minute, I don’t want my knees to be replaced,” she says.

Gastric band or not, she stresses her sustained weight loss has been achieved over several years. She feels as good as she did in her twenties, but adds:
“I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve got this and that, but since were talking about the Iain Rennie Hospice, we are also in an era where we must look after ourselves and do something to prevent those illnesses we can.”
Not that every illness is preventable, but with the National Health Service under scrutiny, a population that takes more responsibility for its fitness takes pressure off the system, she feels.

Becoming involved with the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home charity wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but as she grew up and still lives nearby she was aware of its work and its shops in the Chilterns.
“I’m all for local. The big national and global charities like Oxfam and Save The Children do amazing things but you mustn’t forget local charities which may be helping the person right next door to you. It’s particularly in this financial climate you have to think neighbourly charity begins at home,” she says.

It’s a phrase that might be used to describe Fern’s new fitness philosophy, which ties in perfectly with the IRHH‘s latest fundraising venture.
The charity is launching its first Chilterns Cycle Challenge, in March, featuring three different routes. The longest of these, at 75 miles, follows the boundary of the current Iain Rennie nursing catchment in the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire Chilterns. The other two routes, at 10 miles and 35 miles, take in the area’s glorious countryside – and who better to launch their new fundraiser than a Buckinghamshire resident with a known penchant for pedal power?
“I’ve always cycled,” she says. “I cycled around the Chalfonts in my youth. Then you reach an age when you’re excited with your car. But when I was about 45 or 46, I picked up a bike again. I’d bought one for my husband (celebrity chef Phil Vickery) for Christmas, but he’s much more of a runner.” Fern borrowed Phil’s bike to ride the roads around their home in Holmer Green and became hooked.
“I started off doing a mile or two and when I got to four miles I thought I was doing very well – then I got to eight, then I did a ride for the British Heart Foundation that was 15 miles and that went well.”

Professor Lord Robert Winston, the fertility expert, involved her in Women for Women charity cycle rides and she has continued to clock up some impressive mileage by cycling through Egypt, India, Cuba, Jordan and most recently, China.
“Before you know it, you’re doing 30 miles, or 60 miles,” says Fern, revealing she’s progressed from a padded gel saddle to a sliver of a thing. She’s not competitive, though, and doesn’t tear around at Tour de France speeds. What she does do is train, 10 to 15 miles, three times a week plus up to 40 miles at weekends and it’s this regime that has kept the weight loss continuing.
“I’ve got a very understanding husband,” says Fern, when I ask how she fits all that cycling into her already busy schedule. She has a new series of Fern Britton Meets interview shows coming up soon with the Rev Jesse Jackson, Clarissa Dickson-Wright, June Brown (Eastenders’ Dot Cotton) and Cliff Richard in the hot seat that got Tony Blair talking candidly about the Iraq War in the last series. Then there’s the novel writing and being a mum to four children.

She urges prospective cyclists to take advantage of the training advice being offered by Reactivate Bucks in the lead-up to the IRHH event and she will be there on the day, probably lagging at the back of the pack, chatting, she says.
“If we can get 500 cyclists and they manage to raise £150 each – 500 times £150 – that’s… a lot of money!” she says, as we give up on the maths (it’s £75,000 I work out later).
And if Fern’s experience is anything to go by, taking a cycle challenge could be the start of something truly amazing.

Find out more about the Chilterns Cycle Challenge at

The monuments men (and the people who made them)

Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant &
Dynastic Egypt & Nubia © Richard Bryant &

Summer has drawn to an end and I’m reminded of a trip H & I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, followed by lunch in the splendid Dining Room restaurant and a wander around the neighbouring Museum of the History of Science. Having been a troublesome child, H has turned into an interesting and interested teenager. We haven’t seen the film The Monuments Men, but getting a 16-y-o’s take on the collection of relics makes me realise how differently this generation sees the world (again). Surprisingly, H is not of the ‘We should return them to their original owners’ school (George Clooney on the Elgin Marbles) or in the ‘We should destroy them, they’re not PC’ camp (Prince William on ivory) but ‘I can’t really see the point of viewing such things out of context.’

Imagine, he says, taking a brick from a modern London landmark building and carefully placing it in a case in a city in X number of years, whereupon an endless number of people file past it in wonder evermore.

Is it because in times past that we understood there could be no hope of going to see Egyptian treasures in situ that my generation considered museums an interesting place to visit? Back in 1972 schoolchildren had the Pharaohs drummed into them for what seemed like endless lessons, when the British Museum hosted a Treasures of (I can still spell it) Tutankhamun exhibition. London was as remote to me, as a small child in Norfolk, as Egypt would have been to all the flapper girls excited into Tut fever by Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb in the Twenties. The proximity to a real archaeological site was the reason that 35,000 people queued around the block on the first day to see the ruins of the Temple of Mithras unearthed in London 50 years ago. Unless you were privileged, driven and determined and could overcome the cost, dangers and health hazards associated with pursuing your passion, (let alone had the time to spend on such journeys) a bit of earth and a few low walls in a giant hole in the ground around the corner from your workplace were the best you could hope for back then.

But H’s dismissive comments about why you’d bring a bit of what you’d seen back to your homeland got me thinking. Was that so your fellow countrymen could see something of the fascinating artefacts they would never otherwise see – a bit of education for the masses –or was it a case of showing off? A spot of I’ve got something you’ll never have or was it genuinely to educate the poor and worthy? Or else was it a compulsive acquisitional gene indulging in a spot of one-upmanship?

The collectors, Pitt Rivers and Ashmole, the Rothschilds, The Ephrussis, the Sainsburys and many more – were they thinking how future generations would come, ooh and aah and gaze in awe that anyone could have made so much effort over a tiny statuette? Or would they have looked at the cynical 16-year-old and pitied the poor people?

In his defence, my son doesn’t have many foreign holidays, but a few summers ago he visited Pompeii with his father and stepmother, and last year came to Venice with his stepfather and me. What surprised us was the honest pleasure he took from seeing the churches, palazzos and piazzas and even the art in situ. I’ve recommended that his next trip is to Turkey for sheer mind-blowing quantity and quality of treasures. My first visit to the Topkapi Palace 30 or more years ago was like stepping into a fairytale world. Not only could you see the caskets and collections of the Ottoman sultans, you could stand alongside them, since so few were behind glass and so many were packed into the displays. My aunt said the vaults were packed to the gunnels, and for that reason the less famous of the exhibits were rotated. During that holiday I watched horrified in the Blue Mosque as visitors made souvenirs of the miniature mosaic tiles that formed the Christ and Mary images on the walls. One week later, by contrast, at the Jorvik Museum in York, I sedately and reverently shuffled past the Coppergate Helmet, hermetically sealed in a glass case complete with a hygrometer. My Turkish uncle laughed when I complained about the Turks’ casual approach to their treasures and said that Turkish civilisation was so old, people could dig up antiquities in their gardens while trying to plant their vegetables. Which went some way to explaining their casual approach to anything less than the Spoonmaker’s Diamond. Times had changed when I took a return visit to the Topkapi more recently. Far from being ignored as we reached out to touch ancient clocks, let alone picked tiles off the walls, we were corralled and shuffled along past display cabinets in a manner befitting of treasures of such rarity and worth. Part of my thought it was a shame that the Western approach had crossed the Golden Horn.

Which brings me back how worthwhile H’s generation will consider the behind-glass viewing encounter. Virtual experience in glorious colour is nearly as good as being able to dig it up for oneself. It’s just unfortunate the technology wasn’t available when the treasure seekers were despoiling other people’s countries in their quests to bring home a bit of loot or rescue a nation’s unique heritage from ruin (their thoughts, not mine). But then again, so many poor people have despoiled – and sold on – their own country’s artefacts and heritage to the collectors, it does make you wonder who is in the wrong. Or maybe the lack of reverence for such items had more to do with the fact that they considered old pots and cracked helmets a bit of a hindrance when they had mouths to feed and veggies to grow.

Why should e-readers be treated as second class?

I’m rarely moved to write reviews these days but having loved Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale for its setting, characters and evocative writing, the experience was marred by the poorly proofread copy. It jars when you have to stop midflow to check whether you should be reading ‘filing’ or ‘filling’ or when wordsareruntogether so you have to do a double take. It takes you out of the world you and the author have created together, that intimate setting or quiet haven. It’s even more annoying when you’re reading, not a cheap imprint or self published novel, (when typos and literals are understandable and more forgivable, if no less noticeable) but one promoted through a large publishing house, written by a well-respected author, that was downloaded at the cost of £4.99. I buy e-books because I just don’t have any more shelf space but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to sacrifice quality for slapdash. Come on HarperCollins, honour your readers, honour your authors, honour your good name and fine publishing traditions – proofread your e-imprints to the same standards as your hard copy prints.

An afternoon at Windmill Hill

SP_A0140James finally found a free Friday afternoon this month to visit the artworks and architecture at Windmill Hill, so I’ve retrieved this blogpost from the archive, written on a windswept and wet opening day.

Sandra Kessell

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a sneaky preview of the latest attraction at Waddesdon Manor. Not, as you might think, a new piece of art bought by the renowned collector Jacob Rothschild, whose family built the manor – but instead a glorious new building. Designed by Stephen Marshall Architects, the cynical might suggest that such a breathtaking location and, presumably, budget, ought to bring out the best in any architect worth his salt, but whatever your viewpoint – inside, outside, aesthetic, architectural, structural – it is a triumph of the kind only a love of the English landscape, combined with skill and vision, can create.

Add to its already charmed pedigree items from Lord Rothschild’s modern art collection and the fact it will be open to the public and available for hire and you can see why the art world, architectural…

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The Mummies Return

In celebration of Rick Mather’s architecture and his visionary work on The Ashmolean, I’m reblogging this: The Mummies Return

Sandra Kessell

A well-known broadcaster let slip to the Ashmolean’s dynamic director Dr Christopher Brown recently that his Oxford school used trips to the museum as punishments for misbehaviour. That kind of threat wouldn’t work with modern kids – not because they’re too nonchalant – but because these days the Ashmolean is precisely the kind of place youngsters – even super-cool teenagers – find fascinating – I know, I’ve taken mine.
The dull, dark cabinets and dimly lit corridors are, for the most part, a thing of the past and in their place light, bright, inviting exhibits entice you to get closer, look longer and discover more. Phase Two of this £61 million-plus refurbishment opens on Saturday (November 26th 2011) and gives completely new perspective on the museum’s Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

This section cost £5.2 million and, funded in the main by Lord Sainsbury and his wife Anya, has opened up…

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