Wogan once proposed as his epitaph: “He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing”. Has he improved on that? “What about: ‘Out of shot at last’?” he suggests, jesting till the end.
In what may have been his last interview – and, if so, it is appropriate that he was talking to Martin Doyle of the Irish Times – Sir Terry Wogan, whose death was announced today – ruminated about the importance of his Irishness.
As well as being a radio announcer, he was a pioneer in Irish television and, in his autobiographies, he partly attributes his famously (and genuine) laid-back approach to the terror of the early days of TV in the Republic: nearly all ‘live’ and with hardly anyone with any TV experience. Naturally, there were numerous and very obvious on-air cock-ups and the consequent ribbing from viewers, I would guess, was a very important part of his fearlessness in tackling live radio and TV when he came to the UK – taking a very great gamble, by the way, especially given his family responsibilities; ditching his staff position with the Irish state broadcaster for the flimsiest of contracts with the BBC.
But his Irishness was of huge importance in the UK. He began his long stint on the Radio 2 breakfast show – migrating from Radio 1’s afternoon show, ‘fighting the flab’ an’ all’ – in 1972; just at the time that Irish republicans began their bombing and assassinations on the British mainland. In his autobiographies, he discusses the nervousness he sometimes felt about going on air the day of, or after, some atrocity, thinking that the English – much the largest section of the audience – would not want to hear an Irish accent on their radios. In fact, his audience kept on growing and his ‘normalisation’ of Irishness and the biggest daily audience on a domestic service, not only in the UK but anywhere in Europe, probably helped reduce tension towards Irish communities. Of course, this is impossible to measure and prove – but imagine if there were an ‘obvious’ Muslim in a similar position today.
I always try and be honest in my postings in social media and I am not going to pretend that he was my all-time hero in broadcasting or that he was the one that made me want to go into that field – I’d decided that when I was about three years old, in any case, long before I first heard Terry! I remember his afternoon shows on Radio 1, but he was in my view, as an early teen, one of the ‘square brigade’; he clearly wasn’t directing his programme at my age group (he is 20 years older), he hadn’t been a pirate DJ, and he didn’t seem interested in the music – or at least the music I liked. But I do remember listening to one link – I think this would be about 1971, when I would be 13 or 14 – that was so intimate that it was like, perhaps, a kindly (but not creepy!) uncle talking to you, in a very quiet, reassuring voice, right into your ear. It was quite astonishing, and I remember being impressed by this, so probably he was an influence on me, as he was on numerous other broadcasters up and down the land over several generations.
Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine recalled on his Twitter feed today how Terry had once been asked how big was his radio audience. He could have answered “about nine million”. Instead, his response was “just one”. Exactly so. The unique intimacy of radio. Of course, knowing that you should be speaking as if to one person is a different matter from being able to do it.
Later, when I had my first job as a trainee newspaper reporter, my landlady had Radio 2 on every morning, so I heard it when I was tucking into her ‘full English’. But he was a bit too whimsical, just too gentle for me, even then. And, again, the music wasn’t mostly to my taste – this was the time when Radio 2 still had the ‘bedroom slippers and Horlicks’ feel about it.
Later still, when he returned to his Radio 2 breakfast foray after his TV chat show was ditched – about which he remained quite bitter until the end, I think, and he certainly let rip about his feelings towards much of the BBC management in his books and several interviews and speeches – I appreciated him much more. The music and the badinage was sharper (of course, I was older!) and amongst his team was Alan Dedicoat, who I knew when we were both volunteer broadcasters for the Birmingham Hospital Broadcasting Network. For me, this was Terry’s golden period. The humour was quite sharp, even subversive.
As so many have pointed out today in their tributes, Terry (I can’t call him ‘Wogan’!) developed and changed his style in subtle but significant ways. He was a man for all seasons and all audiences and several genres. Andrew Neil has just finished The Sunday Politics with a generous tribute to him, with clips from an interview Terry did with Margaret Thatcher. A true ‘national treasure’, whose audience (according to anecdotal but probably reliable evidence) included the Head of State, over her breakfast at Buck Pal’ and who knighted him; first an honorary one but then, a full one. As Terry pointed out, Irish citizens who, like him, were born before the Second World War, could be bestowed full honours, in recognition of the importance of the contribution Ireland had made to the UK and its allies prior to 1916 (and some still after then) in World War One.
In 2007, when I was researching and carrying out interviews for my book on broadcasting, my academic interest in him was mainly how he had adopted and adapted his style and ‘production techniques’ and relationship with the audience in the age of email. I approached Radio 2 to ‘bid’ for an interview and this was dealt with by their head of publicity, who acted as a go-between with the great man, via one of Terry’s sons, who acted as his manager. “Sir Terry says ‘yes’” was the joyful email I received! I was to interview him in person in the studio after the show. But would I like to ‘sit in’ beforehand, as the show went out? Of course, to me that was like asking a devoted Liverpool FC fan if they’d like to meet the players in the dressing-room at Anfield, and watch the match sitting next to the manager!
I arrived very early (of course!) and was taken up just after the show had started and sat in the control-room, so I was able to see how the small team there fielded the responses from listeners and various other programme elements. During the 0800 news (by the way, then as now, the most listened-to radio news bulletin of the day on British radio!), Terry came into the control-room to introduce himself.
“Is this the man who’s come to tell us how we should be doing it?”, he asked with a gentle smile and, (yes) a twinkle in his eye. I did a sort of ‘we are not worthy’ gesture. But I think that opening gambit was very typical of the man – quietly provocative, didn’t take himself too seriously, but at the same time could be a little bit prickly and was well aware of his value to the BBC. This became apparent when he was quite unapologetic when his BBC fees were revealed (or ‘best guessed’ at). Given the audience he brought to the Corporation they had got him cheap, was the gist of his responses.
None of this is to say that he wasn’t as lovely, as generous, as empathetic and as kind as everyone has been saying today. Quite unprompted – and when Terry was back behind the glass and out of earshot – his producer told me: “He is exactly the same with everyone when they come in here, whether they be the cleaner or the Director-General.”
The atmosphere of a radio show that comes over the airwaves is hard to pin down but you know it when you hear it. And the atmosphere in that studio and control-room was just brilliant: relaxed, good-natured, a lot of ‘joshing’, completely professional, but never for a moment self-indulgent or cynical about its audience. They were the people that mattered.
In the interview, Terry answered all my questions openly, and – of course – fluently and perceptively, and was apologetic that he couldn’t give me more than about 20 minutes, as he had a TV thing to do. But at the end he turned to the aforementioned head of the network’s publicity, who was sitting alongside as some sort of gatekeeper (but who didn’t intervene at any time, or ask for specific questions in advance), looked her straight in the eye and said: “Now, if Richard wants to come back or has further questions you must arrange this and give him every possible help – OK?”. It was said quietly, but forcefully. Of course, I loved him for that!
Well, this has been a terrible month for losses in the broadcasting, music and acting fields. Those who have been part of our lives, who have been influences, who have given us so music pleasure and happiness, have been snatched by the Grim Reaper. But radio personalities in particular, especially perhaps those best known for their morning shows, who were part of our routines, and who (in the word of a great media academic Paddy Scannell) insinuate themselves into our lives, and over so many years, have a special place in our psyche and affections. This was especially so in the days before the great fragmentation of audiences; when most people’s first sensory input of the day was the radio alarm going off, rather than scrolling down a social media feed. In this, the clichés of tributes to the just-departed really do speak the truth. We, truly, shall never see – or hear – the like of Terry Wogan again.