Finlay Macdonald pays personal tribute to Val Doonican, the man who put the gentle rock into rocking chair.
Lately I’ve taken to joking that I’m so old I came to New Zealand on a ship. It’s true, though. It was 1966 and we sailed via the Panama Canal all the way from England, a journey of six weeks across two oceans. By that time, The Val Doonican Show was already one year into a remarkable 21 year run on the BBC. Think about that – it launched the year the Beatles released ‘I Feel Fine’ and ended the year the Pet Shop Boys had a hit with ‘West End Girls’. For a guy dressed in period knitwear who sang from a rocking chair, that’s not a bad innings.
Doonican must have arrived on New Zealand screens around the same time we disembarked. The NZBC’s single television channel was essentially a colonial outpost of the BBC, and he would have fitted right in. I suppose if there had been an alternative we might have chosen not to watch Val crooning his easy listening hits – we had heard of rock n’ roll by then after all. But it was a simpler time, sort of like The Waltons, only with more electricity and less homespun wisdom. Val Doonican became a fixture by default. I now associate him with childhood, like playing bullrush and singing the Seekers’ ‘Morningtown Ride’ at school assembly.
If having Val Doonican on TV in their adopted country pleased my parents, they didn’t show it. My father, who was roughly the same age, was scathing of anything that smacked of family entertainment, and would have despised the contrived folksiness of Doonican’s shtick. But then, my father was a pretty annoying person himself. Given a choice I would undoubtedly have preferred a kindly fellow in a powder blue cardy over the self-absorbed cynic I was lumbered with. The Val Doonican Show was everything the living room we watched it in wasn’t – unthreatening, contented, gentle.
Pretty much a reflection of the man himself, by all accounts. I loved what his daughter Sarah said in The Guardian’s obituary: “I don’t think there’s a person in the world that would have a bad thing to say about him …” Plainly she’d never met my father … “He was every bit as lovely as he appeared on the television. There was no [nasty] side to him at all. He was a delightful, delightful man.”
Like a lot of mainstream celebrities with their own shows, Doonican provided a platform that launched the TV careers of other performers, including the peerless Dave Allen (also Irish), one of the greatest comedians who ever stared down a camera lens. Allen smoked, pretended to drink whiskey (it was ginger ale apparently) and told sometimes quite risqué jokes about Catholicism and God. He was, in a way, the anti-Val Doonican – spikier, more worldly, capable of swearing. My father approved of Dave Allen I think.
And yet, somewhat incredibly, it was Val who had the true rock and roll credentials. In 1970 he lent his voice to the Celtic backing harmonies on Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Battle of Evermore’ (from Led Zeppelin IV), and three years previously his brilliantly titled Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently knocked Sergeant Pepper off the top of the UK album charts.
Never underestimate a man in a V-neck powder blue sweater. Nice one Val. As Dave Allen used to sign off his show every week, “Thank you, good night, and may your God go with you.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.