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