Singer who entertained viewers for many years as the easygoing host of his own TV show
Thursday 2 July 2015
The entertainer Val Doonican, who has died aged 88, had a string of middle-of-the-road hits and was at the heart of family weekend television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. With an easygoing, homely charm that enchanted middle England, he sang and played through two decades of his own TV show and more than 60 years in show business.
Behind the scenes a perfectionist who knew his limitations but always aimed to be “the best Val Doonican possible”, he radiated ease and relaxation. His most famous prop, the rocking chair in which he swayed almost sleepily as he accompanied himself on the guitar, was not a calculated gimmick, but came about by accident. On a show in which he was due to sing early in his career was a young singing/guitar-playing nun. The producer suggested that she use the chair from the studio props department, but the experiment failed, and so Doonican tried it instead.
Born Michael Valentine Doonican, but known as Val, to distinguish him from the many other Michaels in his childhood, he was brought up by poor parents, Agnes and John, in Waterford, Ireland. Val was the youngest of eight children, who slept in one partitioned room. His father was a man with a drink problem but also a great deal of wisdom who, on his deathbed, told the 14-year-old Val that he was not the hero his son thought him to be, and that he would prefer to tell the boy so himself.
At six, Val played in the school band, and later his brother John taught him to play the mandolin. Although his education at De La Salle college, Waterford, ended when his father died, and Val had to go to work in an orange box factory, he was sustained by his musical interests, by the determination of his older siblings and by a belief that life would hold more for him.
He started entertaining at fetes with a friend, Bruce Clarke, who played the piano and guitar. In 1947, the two had their first professional engagement, playing in a seaside hotel. The son of a well-off foundry manager, Clarke was to have a significant influence on Doonican’s rise. He put up the money for both of them to make a promotional record and wrote in to Radio Éireann asking for an audition, which led to their first broadcasts and appearances on a Dublin radio show. Clarke also lent Doonican £20 to buy a Gibson guitar.
The pair became regulars on radio, in the theatre and in dance halls, sometimes as a duo, sometimes as solo artists. But by 1951 the apparently laid-back Doonican was tiring of Dublin and Ireland. He became a member of the Four Ramblers, which took him to England for a regular slot on the BBC radio series Riders of the Range. He wrote the music for their first shows and stayed with them for 10 years.
A frequent performer at US air force bases, on one visit he found his appearance was advertised as the Val Doonican Show. Initially alarmed, he grew to enjoy this star billing. At the end of the 1950s, he wanted another change and joined a concert tour with Anthony Newley, opening in Manchester, where he met his future wife, the cabaret artist Lynnette Rae. They married in 1962 and had two daughters. It was on the Newley tour that his solo act emerged. At one cast party, everyone had to do a turn, and Doonican borrowed a Spanish guitar, perched on a stool and sang an Irish song. Newley asked him if he had ever considered something of the sort on radio or TV.
The influential producer Richard Afton auditioned the singing guitarist and presented him as one of the musical interludes in the radio comedy show Variety Bandbox. When Doonican was given a 15-minute spot for anecdotes and songs, he approached the BBC’s head of light music and explained that he needed a regular engagement to make going solo financially secure. He was rewarded with 13 half-hours.
Radio listeners tended to assume he was an older man; surely no young person would sing numbers such as Paddy McGinty’s Goat or Delaney’s Donkey? On television, too, at a time when pop groups were sporting more outlandish outfits, he would favour old-fashioned patterned sweaters and cardigans, and was known for this knitwear even after he switched to tailored jackets.
In 1963 the impresario Val Parnell saw him at the Jack of Clubs in Soho and gave him a spot on the ITV variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Doonican said that initial eight-minute slot changed his life and later observed: “It took me 17 years to be an overnight success.”
He was often invited back on the show, and also offered a choice of recording contracts. During the boom years of the mid-60s, he had five top 10 hits: Walk Tall (1964), The Special Years (1965), Elusive Butterfly (1966), What Would I Be (1966) and If the Whole World Stopped Loving (1967). His TV show, The Val Doonican Show, which began in 1965, was the launchpad for other rising stars, including the comedian Dave Allen.
Doonican made an unsuccessful foray across the Atlantic in the early 70s and complained that US television had tried to “slick him up”. After The Val Doonican Music Show ended in 1986, he would find much British TV too brash. He took to doing afternoon live shows which, he said, “suit me and my ageing fans ... we can all be home well before bedtime”.
He always insisted that he was not a show-biz person and had gone into the profession because of his love of music. “We are not as important to the outside world as we are sometimes led to believe,” he told the Stage in 2010. “It’s best never to assume that the next engagement will be easy, or that at last you’ve arrived. We are simply a little light relief.”
His records sold in the millions – he recorded more than 50 albums, including Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently (1967), with which he was the first Irish artist to enter the UK albums charts – and he released a video, Songs From My Sketch Book (1990).
He made three Royal Variety Show appearances, won awards including BBC television personality of the year in 1966, and wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Special Years (1980) and Walking Tall (1985). In later years he concentrated more on golf, sketching and painting watercolours, although he continued touring until retirement in 2009.
He is survived by Lynn, their daughters, Sarah and Fiona, and two grandchildren.
• Michael Valentine (Val) Doonican, singer and instrumentalist, born 3 February 1927; died 1 July 2015