Tuesday 20 February 2018

Strictly Wee Daniel

He's long been a figure of fun among the sneerati, but as Daniel O'Donnell makes his Strictly Come Dancing debut tonight our reporter looks at the shrewd artist behind the 'mammy's boy' exterior

Twinkle toes: Daniel O'Donnell will compete on this year's Strictly Come Dancing
Twinkle toes: Daniel O'Donnell will compete on this year's Strictly Come Dancing
Daniel O'Donnell
Donegal fans Daniel and Majella o'Donnell pictured before the All Ireland Football Final, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Ed Power

Ed Power

Daniel O'Donnell has been a figure of fun practically his entire professional life. The Donegal singer, making his debut on UK reality juggernaut Strictly Come Dancing tonight, seemed to emerge fully-formed in the late 80s as an entertainer only a granny could love. There was that "wee" soft accent, the lilting singing voice, a stage presence so unthreatening, those outside his target demographic of sexagenarian easy-listening devotees might be forgiven for finding it virtually incomprehensible.

But 30 years into his multi-platinum career, there's a case that O'Donnell (53) is the Irish Elvis. Or, at least, the Irish Elvis if Ireland was one, never-ending Father Ted episode. He's sold 10 million albums, has an estimated net worth of $20 million and has now been invited to showcase his hoofing skills alongside Peter Andre, Jamelia and Jeremy Vine on the ratings-gobbling Strictly. With the exception of U2, it is hard to think of another Irish entertainer with such uncanny longevity.

What is the secret sauce that has kept him at the top? One of the crucial elements in O'Donnell's success, it might be argued, is his close relationship with fans - a connection that speaks to his straightforward decency and also to his shrewdness and intelligence. In an age when stars like to pretend they inhabit a different dimension from the rest of us - let's call it the Taylor-verse - canny Daniel is at pains to remain down to earth and approachable. Those who work with him say there is no superstar arrogance, no ego demanding constant nourishing.

The image of O'Donnell welcoming fans to the annual tea parties he threw for many years at his home in Kincasslagh, Donegal, sums up his appeal. At these regular shindigs - discontinued since he downsized to a more modest property - O'Donnell was happy to mix for hours with aficionados, many of whom had travelled across the globe to break biscuit with the singer.

"There are no airs and graces. When you consider the man has released albums for the last 25 years and outsold some of the biggest stars in the UK charts, it is admirable that he has stayed so grounded," says Sean Feeny of the Letterkenny-based Donegal News.

"He is held in very high regard up here by young and old," Feeny continues. "Even younger musicians you think might not have a lot of time for him, hold him in great regard. He's a fantastic ambassador for the county. People are well aware of the jokes. We see the other side - the charitable side, the generosity. He is very forthcoming with fans and supportive of the local community. He will just turn up randomly at events in order to give his support."

"If you look at the statistics, I'm sure people aren't aware how many albums he has sold - in the UK alone," he says. "He has outcharted some of the biggest stars of the past 15 years… people like Robbie Williams and Travis. And, from a tourism perspective, he has been a huge draw for Donegal. Fans come here from all over the world to see his concerts."

"After a show, he meets his fans - every last one of them. A lot of performers don't give that time. At any charitable event, he gives his time to everyone," says Harold Doherty of the Daniel O'Donnell Visitor Centre, at Dungloe, which has attracted some 40,000 sightseers since opening three years ago.

"It's been a big success," says Doherty. "We have tour buses on a regular basis - a few every week, sometimes one every day."

Moreover, O'Donnell has always appeared cheerfully unruffled by other people's perceptions of him. Does he care that, among the wider populace, he is regarded as the embodiment of a certain kind of Irish rural naff? The answer is by no means clear.

People may laugh and jeer, but he floats above it, indifferent - possibly oblivious. With his registered entertainment company posting annual profits of $3 million in 2014, he can afford to be sanguine.

Privately, O'Donnell is said to be more complicated, and considerably cleverer, than his "Eoin McLove" image (McLove being the thinly veiled caricature featured on Father Ted). Recalling their first meeting in a Tenerife bar, his wife Majella told the Irish Independent that she was struck at how easy he was to get along with. She had expected a wet-blanket with the disposition of an altar boy. What she got was more complex.

"When I met him, I suppose I would have had a perception of him as being boring and no craic, that he'd have nothing to say and that he'd be a bit of a mammy's boy," she said. "But I discovered immediately how easy he was to talk to."

"When I finished my shift, I went over and sat down with Daniel. We hit it off. The following night, we went down to a nightclub and danced away until two or three in the morning."

Above all, O'Donnell, who has worked with manager Sean Reilly through his career, seems to understand that the key to surviving in the entertainment business is preserving an aura of mystery. What would it be like to sit down with him for a pint? (or, more plausibly, endless cups of tea). You have no idea. For someone in the public eye, to one degree or another, for three decades, O'Donnell retains the aspect of an enigma.

How will he fare on Strictly? Really, it could go either way. Among mainstream UK audiences, he is practically unheard of. He has his fans - beyond them, however, he is essentially unknown, says Lisa McGarry of the Unreality TV blog.

"We were doing quite a bit about it the day of the announcement on Facebook and Twitter - most of our followers didn't know who he was," says McGarry, who, hailing from Northern Ireland, is versed in O'Donnell's achievements. "The ones who recognised him tended to be older. We posted some funny videos so that people would have a sense who he was. And they weren't really amused - they didn't get it."

This is why his appearance on Strictly is so intriguing. We really have no idea how it is all going to play out. Will he cope with the pressure? Is he a natural-born hoofer? Why did he agree to participate in the first place? There are no obvious answers. A puzzle concealed in plain sight, as Strictly looms there is a sense that we may at last be about to catch a glimpse of the real Daniel.

"Daniel has no qualms about laughing at himself," says Sean Feeny. "He is, I'm sure, going in with the attitude that he may not be the greatest dancer in the world but he'll give it his best. People make jokes about he speaks and so forth- he has no problem with that. Any time he has been on television, he has displayed a great sense of humour, this super-dry wit.

"I'm sure he will come across very well."

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