Val Doonican: An Irishman of Note

Mark Reynolds

Singer and entertainer Val Doonican, who died aged 88 on 1 July, was known for his avuncular charm and easy manner, a characteristic wardrobe of cosy sweaters and pastel sports jackets, and the whimsical delivery of songs and anecdotes whilst perched on a bar stool or rocking chair.

A capable crooner in the mould of Perry Como, Doonican was as comfortable with contemporary easy-listening standards made famous by the likes of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee, as with popularising comic Irish folk songs such as Paddy McGinty’s Goat, O’Rafferty’s Motor Car and Delaney’s Donkey.

A perfectionist on and off stage, but modest to the point of self-deprecation, he once remarked that his career’s ambition was merely to be “the best Val Doonican possible”, adding in an interview for The Stage in 2010, “We are not as important to the outside world as we are sometimes led to believe... We are simply a little light relief.”

Here are some of the staging posts of his life and career.

 

1927 – Birth

Val Doonican

Michael Valentine Doonican was born in Waterford, the youngest of eight children to Agnes (née Kavanagh) and John.

 

1933 – A Musical Debut

Doonican

An avid radio listener, Val made his broadcasting debut at the age of six playing musical jamjars in a school concert.

 

1940s – First Jobs

Val Doonican

When his father succumbed to throat cancer when Val was 15, he left school and went to work at the local fish-box factory, “knock[ing] boxes together with one-inch nails.” Some months in, he his friend Bruce Clarke made a record at a mobile recording unit, auditioned for and won a spot on the Radio Éireann variety show Beginners Please.

This led to professional bookings, including three-times-a-day performances between film screenings at the Courtown Harbour cinema in County Wexford. Doonican and Clarke were subsequently offered positions as drummer and pianist respectively with a dance band, for which Doonican was occasionally allowed to play solo guitar.

 

1950s – Move to England

Val

In 1951 Doonican moved to London and made his professional radio debut as a member of the Four Ramblers on the BBC cowboy serial Riders of the Range. The group toured Britain, broadcasting shows from factories, and entertaining the troops at US Army bases.

 

1959 – Refining the Act

Val and Pal

In 1959 Doonican was offered a place in a touring concert party staged by Anthony Newley, who invited performers to give a solo performance beyond the boundaries of their usual acts. Singers danced, musicians performed magic tricks, and Doonican stepped from the shadows to play guitar and mingle stories from Ireland with folk songs. At the start of the tour in Manchester he met his future wife, singer and dancer Lynnette (Lynne) Rae, with whom he subsequently had two daughters. Encouraged by Newley, he auditioned his new act with BBC radio and was offered his own show, Your Date with Val.

By the following year he was touring the country with a solo show, though just occasionally it fell flat. For one concert at a blacks-only US base – imagine that – he was introduced as “Ireland’s greatest soul singer”, and later recalled “I died a death when I started in on Paddy McGinty’s Goat.”

 

1960s – Life at the Top

Val D in grey

In 1963 the impresario Val Parnell saw Doonican perform at the Jack of Clubs in Soho and offered him a spot on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The eight-minute performance was a life-changer, with Doonican quickly snapped up by the BBC for primetime Saturday night with The Val Doonican Music Show. “It took me 17 years to be an overnight success,” he wryly remarked.

With the profile that came with his TV appearances, five of Doonican’s albums entered the British Top 10 during the 1960s. The wonderfully titled Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently became his first and only No. 1 LP, replacing The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in top spot at the beginning of 1968. His hit singles in this period included Walk Tall (1964), The Special Years (1965), What Would I Be? (1966) and If the Whole World Stopped Loving (1967).

 

1970s and ’80s – Still Crooning

Val's knitwear

Doonican’s winning formula of light-hearted chat, celebrity guests and songs saw his show peak at some 19 million viewers, and attracted Hollywood luminaries such as Howard Keel and Bing Crosby to co-star along with the likes of Des O’Connor, Nana Mouskouri, Elaine Paige and comedians Bernard Cribbins, Bob Todd and Dave Allen.

A staple of the TV schedules for over 20 years, by the mid-1980s musical variety was judged outmoded and expensive to produce when compared to all-pervasive game shows. His show ended in 1986, but he continued to appear as a regular guest on chat shows.

 

1990s – Late Blooming

Older Val

Although TV appearances were now quite rare, at the beginning of the 1990s Doonican was performing live more frequently than ever before. In 1990 he toured for three months in Australia and Ireland and performed almost 50 concerts in England. The same year he released the CD, vinyl and video album Songs from my Sketchbook. The record and CD barely charted, but the video overtook the likes of Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue to reach the No. 2.

Doonican officially retired soon after, but continued to perform at selected venues until 2009. In retirement he was a keen painter and golfer, dividing his time between Buckinghamshire and Spain. When he passed away at a nursing home in Buckinghamshire he had not been unwell. His daughter Sarah told the Guardian: "Until 87, he was as fit as a flea. It was just old age, I'm afraid – the batteries ran out."

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