Terry Wogan to many was just as much part of breakfast as marmalade on toast. He was the cheery voice in the car among all that early morning traffic. BBC Radio2 ‘Wake up to Wogan’ (1972–84 & 1993–2009) broadcast to over eight million regular listeners. Terry made everyone feel he was their friend, he was chatting to them personally. As a university student my landlady had the show on, and would talk to him while hoovering the front room. ‘That’s right Terry … it is like that’ or ‘I know Terry’ prompting me to respect the power of a gifted broadcaster and to find somewhere else to live.
Born in Limerick, Ireland he started broadcasting on Irish radio and also on television before coming over to the mainland to work for the BBC Radio eventually making his mark in 1969 covering for Jimmy Young (Radio2). Soon after he was given his own regular slot in the afternoon, before taking over the breakfast show in 1972. His self-deprecating humour and ability for every day chat captured a nation. He was liked by the public and respected by those who worked with him. DJ Chris Evans said ‘To help seduce us .. Terry was given the wit, the smile, the voice and a twinkle in the eye’.
Terry Wogan became a media personality fronting many TV shows and specials from the late sixties up until his death in January 2016 aged 77, but he always continued with his most favourite chair in front of the mike – radio. It was the 1980’s when he really became known to an even wider public by hosting successful peak time BBC TV shows such as ‘Blankety Blank’ (1979-83) and ‘Come Dancing’ (1973-79) a forerunner to ‘Strictly come Dancing’. Terry became the voice of the’ Eurovision Song Contest’ (1973, 1980 – 2008), with his dry humour at times politely sending up this occasionally cheesy and outdated show. He also fronted ‘Children in Need’ (1980 – 2014) from the beginning rising millions for many children’s’ charities and good causes, with such a long CV he became known to what is called a ‘National Treasure’.
The 1980’s Wogan’s career was at its peak, he was in our ears and on our screens regularly, many will remember him from his famous early evening chat show on BBC one ‘Wogan’ (1982 – 1992), which went out three times a week mostly live from BBC’s Shepherds Bush Theatre just down the road from BBC TV centre, where the programme ended up being broadcast. The many international guests he welcomed ranged from Hollywood stars to sporting icons. In such a long period there were some famous incidents such as actress Anne Bancroft in complete fear, only answering ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to Wogan’s questions as she had not realised until just before going on the programme was live. In 1988 comedian Ronnie Barker announced his retirement on the show. David Bowie refused to co-operate after his band played on the show leaving a rather annoyed Terry. Cilla Black successful appearance in 1983, helped relaunch her own TV career but the one Wogan was asked about the most was the George Best incident in 1990 when the former footballer appeared completely drunk, using at times some colourful language.
Comedian Jeff Stevenson who worked regularly on the Wogan show, described Terry ‘as a giant in the business’. He remembers him as always having time for a chat when he was warming up his show. Jeff said ‘Later, when I got a lucky break, hosting my own show he called me in to his room, gave me some advice and congratulated me’. He could also be very witty. On one occasion, Jeff bumped into Terry at an airport. In typical comic fashion Jeff said ‘This is a long way to come to get away from your producer’ Terry replied ‘ Nowhere is far enough’.
There were only two occasions where Wogan was not on top form, the first when interviewing David Icke who had some rather strange ideas including being a ‘son of the God’ (which Icke now regrets), which caused the audience to laugh prompting Terry to say ‘They’re not laughing with you; they’re laughing at you’. Wogan had taken a stance that other less gifted interviewers did with Icke which was to ridicule the man who was such an easy target. One expected more from this talented man. Years later in the 2000’s Terry, interviewed Icke again on television brilliantly, he said he regretted his stance at the time and offered Icke an apology. When interviewing Patti Davis (daughter of Ronald Reagan) who had written a book condemning her upbringing with her father, it was obvious what Wogan’s own opinion was, he seemed livid that Reagan’s daughter should write such a book about a distinguished man. The two got into exchange when he kept interrupting her, not allowing her to make the point. Later in the interview she said she was angry at his behaviour, which was unusual for this master broadcasting craftsman, but we all have bad days at the office. Referring to awkward guests on the show, Wogan said ‘I seethed inwardly a lot … I felt like giving some people a slap but I never actually did’. However, such negatives should not darken the many excellent and now historical moments of chat, these shows provided, with over four thousand guests. Terry did not so much interview, he had a chat with them, hence he never liked to rehearse, and was happy to ‘run by the seat of my pants’ which made things look real and spontaneous. In 2015 BBC2 launched a compilation series ‘Wogan the best of’ selecting the best interviews from the programmes. In 2006 UK Gold produced ‘Wogan Now and Then’ where he interviewed guests from his past shows along with new ones.
He won several showbusiness awards, was given the O.B.E (1997), knighted (2005) and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire (2007) along with the freedom of the city in his home town of Limerick. He was the subject of ‘This is your life’ (1978) and inducted in the Radio Academy’s hall of fame (2009).
Throughout all his TV work, it was radio he most loved. He felt radio ‘could get into people’s heads’ where television can’t. But most of all his family who he protected, cherished and nurtured above all else saying ‘I never took chances with my family, but I do with my career’.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.