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The Day That Val Doonican Nearly Gassed Me and My Brother

Don’t worry, no violence was done by Doonican to me, or I suspect anyone else. Nevertheless, this is life-and-death tale.

It’s particularly poignant for me as this day, as I write this, is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death and this little anecdote brings to mind the relationship that I had with him as a young child. One of Life’s greatest and saddest mysteries is the apparency that certain things can never be recovered. I hope with all my heart that it is just an apparency, somehow.

Val Doonican was a celebrity of my childhood. He was an Irish singer, noted for his warm and relaxed style, and had five successive Top 10 albums in the 1960s as well as several hits on the UK Singles Chart, but was more known to me for 'The Val Doonican Show', which featured his singing and a variety of guests, and which ran on BBC Television from 1965 to 1986, winning Doonican the Variety Club of Great Britain's BBC-TV Personality of the Year award three times. His appeal at that time spanned the generations.

Doonican had a fan club, which TV watchers of any age were invited to join, and my brother and I were very excited when we received an envelope from it containing badges and photographs with Doonican’s signature, addressed to us. Eagerly, we pinned the badges to our shirts and the autographed, postcard-sized pictures went up on the walls near our beds.

And then we promptly forgot about the whole thing, as children do.

Childhood, as my father kept reminding us, was the best time of our lives. We played hard, and slept hard and work hadn’t yet entered into the picture. I remember sleeping particularly well in that detached house up on a steep Yorkshire hillside.

But when I awoke the next morning, the first thing I noticed on the edge of consciousness was a faint hissing.

I sat up and looked around. Nothing seemed amiss. But there, right on the edge of hearing, was a slight hissing noise. I inspected the area closely: the window was closed; the rest of the house was quiet. The sound seemed to me emanating from the blank wall next to my bed.

Not quite blank - there was Doonican’s smiling face. And yes, as I listened more closely, the hissing came indeed from behind that smile. Carefully, I unpinned the drawing pin from the wall and heard clearly that the gas - for gas it seemed to be - was issuing from the tiny hole that the drawing pin had left. I could feel it with my finger.

Cautiously replacing the pin exactly as I had found it, I went and found my parents. My father was a little incredulous at first, but soon saw for himself that what I was telling him was true: Doonican’s picture hid a tiny hole from which gas was spraying.

In brief, it turned out that the drawing pin had pierced not only the wallpaper and plaster, but the rusted gas pipes behind them. Had I not alerted the household to the problem, we might have been gassed in our beds or one of my parents might have lit up a cigarette (people smoked much more in those days) and the hillside would have been illuminated by a house-sized explosion.

What impressed my father was not only the fact that I had observed odd something and acted so quickly - I was only six years old - but that I had had the presence of mind to replace the pin so as to reduce the flow of gas. My father, a Yorkshireman, had a heart of gold, larger than most - but was not known for highly praising anyone. So it was a good day for me.

We had to have the whole gas system replaced - floorboards were ripped up and wallpaper torn down. The ancient pipes turned out to be weak in several places. All at vast expense, probably, though that never impinged upon me.

But thereafter that incident was transformed into the family legend of The Day That Val Doonican Nearly Gassed Me and My Brother.

I lost interest in the fan club after that. Unfairly, I think I blamed Doonican for the gas attack. But the tale evokes even now that golden time when we were at peace with each other and Life was good.

(I live now only a few hundred yards from that spot, having spent about half my life on the other side of the planet. And today I miss my father more than ever.)

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